Matthew Chapter 18:1-10

Ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ προσῆλθον οἱ μαθηταὶ τῷ Ἰησοῦ λέγοντες, Τίς ἄρα μείζων ἐστὶν ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν;

2 καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος παιδίον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν

And at that time (lit = “hour’), the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens?” (2) And calling a child he stood him in the midst of them.

Let’s think about this for a moment. First, where are they? We are told that the disciples came to him. Did they come to his house? That would not be an unreasonable way to understand this. It’s reasonable, but it’s not the only way we could read it. Perhaps Jesus is sitting in the market square, or some such public place in Caphernaum. That would help the next part make more sense. Because the way the child is described, it rather sounds like he sort of grabs some random passerby. I ask this because, if they are at Jesus’ home, are we to assume that this is his child? We do not have to read the passage in that way, but that’s not unreasonable. Who else’s child would be in Jesus’ home? Maybe a niece/nephew? That’s possible. 

These are questions we have to consider if we’re to take this seriously as a description of something that actually happened. I would suggest that the vagueness of the scenario argues against historical accuracy. This feels like a stand-alone story, gracelessly shoe-horned into the narrative by “at that hour/time”. And what would that tell us? It would suggest that the stories of Jesus grew up independently of each other. Different people or groups told different stories. Some of them got aggregated, some were forgotten. We will never know about them, barring the discovery of a new manuscript with new material. This, in turn, would tell us that there was not necessarily a central unity to the text as a whole. We’ve seen that with Mark; I’ve suggested the two separate traditions that Mark wove or welded together. But there were probably more than two traditions. There may have been a dozen. More, it could tell us that people were still making up stories for decades after Jesus died, or even decades after Mark wrote. In fact, we know this is true. There are a dozen or more Gospels of “xxx”, or Apocalypses of “yyy”. These are the mss that were later determined to be non-canonical, written too late to be traced to a genuine apostalic origin. 

Now, as it turns out, this story is also in Mark. So we know this wasn’t created in the interim the way the story of the coin in the fish’s mouth was created in the interim But it provides, I think, a useful reminder that Mark and Matthew were not working from unitary sources.

Because let’s be honest, this is another of those circumstances where the set-up by the discuiples is just too perfect. It may not be unrealistic to accept that the disciples were concerned about order of precedence; we are, after all, talking about a kingdom. Still, there are several layers of artificiality about the whole situation that strongly, IMO, suggests fabrication.

1 In illa hora accesserunt di scipuli ad Iesum dicentes: “ Quis putas maior est in regno caelorum? ”.

2 Et advocans parvulum, statuit eum in medio eorum

3 καὶ εἶπεν, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ στραφῆτε καὶ γένησθε ὡς τὰ παιδία, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.

4 ὅστις οὖν τα πεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὡς τὸ παιδίον τοῦτο, οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ μείζων ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν.

5 καὶ ὃς ἐὰν δέξηται ἓν παιδίον τοιοῦτο ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου, ἐμὲ δέχεται.

6 Ὃς δ’ ἂν σκανδαλίσῃ ἕνα τῶν μικρῶν τούτων τῶν πιστευόντων εἰς ἐμέ, συμφέρει αὐτῷ ἵνα κρεμασθῇ μύλος ὀνικὸς περὶ τὸν τράχηλον αὐτοῦ καὶ καταποντισθῇ ἐν τῷ πελάγει τῆς θαλάσσης.

And he said, “Amen I say to you, unless you turn (about) and become like the child, you will not come into the kingdom of the heavens.  (4) Whoever thus lessens himself as this child here, he is the best in the kingdom of the heavens.  (5) And if someone receives such a child in my name, he receives me. (6) But he who makes stumble one of the smallest of those believing in me, let him be carried in order that a large millstone be hung around his neck and he be cast down into the depth of the sea.”

I have heard more than one sermon regarding the children exalted by Jesus. A common theme is that, in those days, children were not even to be seen, let alone heard, that they were the lowest of the low. I’ve also read that this was because, in olden times, when children may not live to maturity, parents were not as invested in their kids as parents are today. Whatever. The point of those sermons was that Jesus was talking about humilty, in something like a more original sense of humble, as a class distinction rather than a personal trait. And that would account for the “lessen himself”.

But from there we veer off into one of the few truly moral lectures that Jesus himself actually gives. And I say “moral” in contrast with something like the Sermon on the Mount, in which we’re told how to act toward others, but that is not entirely the same as telling us not to cause others–children–to sin. If we couple that with the idea of being humble, we’ve got something like a mixed metaphor here. I almost have the sense that Jesus is speaking about something very specific, such as the sexual abuse of children. While I know this was an issue in the culture of Rome especially–read Tacitus’ description of the “sprinters” in Tiberius’ alleged pleasure grotto on Capri–this strikes me as odd for the Jewish world. The kind of sexual abuse I’m referring to is the vice of people with money, not of people who are just trying to make a living. Yes, it happens in all socio-economic strata, so maybe my lack of clarity on this stems from a too-fine definition of “abuse”. Perhaps understanding some of the practices of the Classical world, I’m misinterpreting the words here.  

The exhortation to be like a child remains. Does this mean that we are to be humble? Or innocent? Or both? Does it matter. Back in 10:16 Matthew has Jesus enjoining his apostles to be “pure as doves”. The problem with that, and with this passage, is that neither is something that Jesus likely said. It seems historically improbable that Jesus ever dispatched apostles. As such, the exhortation Jesus reportedly spoke lacks its context. This story is much more plausible; at least, it’s plausible that Jesus did use the example of a child. And it does tie in with some of the things that Paul said about the wisdom of God sounding foolish to uninitiated ears. So perhaps that is how we should understand what Jesus saying here: be child-like in the sense of not being a pagan sophisticate, one who is too easily distracted by the wisdom of the world.

Actually, it just struck me that Jesus does not say “who causes a child to stumble”; what he says is “one of the little ones believing in me”. That is a very different reading, and it fits much more nicely with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians that I’ve referenced. “One small in faith” would be someone who is still in the early stages of belief. So I would take this as akin to Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. There is no harm per se, perhaps, because the idols are just dead matter, but it may cause confusion to those who are not so far along in their faith journey.

If this is how to understand the passage, we do indeed have rather a mixed metaphor. Mixed, but not at all contradictory. One just has to step back a bit and let the implications coalesce from the fog of the words themselves.

3 et dixit: “ Amen dico vobis: Nisi conversi fueritis et efiiciamini sicut parvuli, non intrabitis in regnum caelorum.

4 Quicumque ergo humiliaverit se sicut parvulus iste, hic est maior in regno caelorum.

5 Et, qui susceperit unum parvulum talem in nomine meo, me suscipit.

6 Qui autem scandalizaverit unum de pusillis istis, qui in me credunt, expedit ei, ut suspendatur mola asinaria in collo eius et demergatur in profundum maris.

7 οὐαὶ τῷ κόσμῳ ἀπὸ τῶν σκανδάλων: ἀνάγκη γὰρ ἐλθεῖν τὰ σκάνδαλα, πλὴν οὐαὶ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ δι’ οὗ τὸ σκάνδαλον ἔρχεται.

8 Εἰ δὲ ἡ χείρ σου ἢ ὁ πούς σου σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: καλόν σοί ἐστιν εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν ζωὴν κυλλὸν ἢ χωλόν, ἢ δύο χεῖρας ἢ δύο πόδας ἔχοντα βληθῆναι εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον.

9 καὶ εἰ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελεαὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: καλόν σοί ἐστιν μονόφθαλμον εἰς τὴν ζωὴν εἰσελθεῖν, ἢ δύο ὀφθαλμοὺς ἔχοντα βληθῆναι εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός.

10 Ὁρᾶτε μὴ καταφρονήσητε ἑνὸς τῶν μικρῶν τούτων: λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτῶν ἐν οὐρανοῖς διὰ παντὸς βλέπουσι τὸ πρόσωπον τοῦ πατρός μου τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς.

“Woe to  the world from those stumbling. For it is necessary to come the stumbling, except woe to the man through whom the stumbling comes. (8) But if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and through it from you. Better for you to come into the life deformed or lame, having two hands or two feet than to be thrown into the eternal fire. (9) And if your eye makes you stumble, gouge it out and throw it from you. It is better for you one-eyed into the life to go, than having two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna of fire. (10) Beware, do not despise the least of these. For I say to you that the angels of them in the heavens through all see the face of my father in heaven”.

Like Jesus using the example of the child, this last section is also more or less in Mark. But Mark does not have a corresponding verse to Verse 7, which concedes the necessity of stumbling, even though it does condemn the man who causes the stumbling. In this way, it’s less about making the children sin, which was how this read in Mark; here, it’s more generalized. We get back to the little ones in Verse 10, but are these physically little? Or little in their faith, as from Verse 6? It is tempting to see it in those terms, since that is the immediate antecedent for the smallest “of them”. Why the confusion? Did Matthew not quite understand the point? Or did he understand the point Mark made, but not agree with it completely, causing him to change the emphasis? It seems unlikely that Matthew didn’t get it; this isn’t exactly difficult to grasp in Mark’s version.

So I go back to Paul, and the admonition not to confuse those not strong in the faith. This is kind of an odd point; the similarity consequently seems hard to ascribe to coincidence. Has Matthew read, or heard, or heard of 1 Corinthians? I personally doubt it, but then the similarity has to be accounted for as coincidence? Coincidence is a significant part of everyday life; it happens all the time. It’s only when something seems to come of it that we even notice it. Then it suddenly doesn’t seem like coincidence any more.

In between, we have Matthew’s abridged version of the admonition to self-mutilation. Aside from a slight condensing of the presentation of the offending body parts, Matthew copies Mark almost verbatim about “entering life”, even using the term Gehenna whereas before he used Hades. To this point, this is only the second time Matthew has used the term “the life”. He does not call it “eternal life”, but he does say the fire of Gehenna is eternal. Perhaps that life was eternal was taken for granted, and didn’t need to be stated directly.

Now here is the interesting part, and it’s something I missed when reading this section in Mark. To a modern Christian, the idea of heaven is non-corporeal. As such, the idea of a non-corporeal existence occurring minus various body parts seems a bit odd. And it is a bit odd. Here is where the idea of the resurrection of the body truly comes into its own. The idea that Matthew and Mark are expressing is that the body that we have will, literally, be raised. If we have but one hand, that is how the body will be raised. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but this is alien to the way I was taught about the resurrection of the body. The teaching I received was that, since the body necessarily decayed, it would be reconstituted upon being raised at the Last Judgement. However, we were also told that cremation wasn’t an option because it meant the body would be destroyed. Well, burying a body will destroy it, too, given enough time. The point is that the concept of the resurrection of the body was meant very literally, and here we should take it very literally as we realize it doesn’t necessarily–if at all–coincide with how this concept is now understood.

It would be interesting to have a better understanding of how the Pharisees thought about this. Surely they understood the idea of the decay of the flesh; so how did they account for this while simultaneously believing the body would be resurrected? At least in the Pauline gospel, the return of Jesus and the resurrection of those who had “fallen asleep in Christ” were expected daily. That obviates this problem, at least to some degree.

7 Vae mundo ab scandalis! Necesse est enim ut veniant scandala; verumtamen vae homini, per quem scandalum venit!

8 Si autem manus tua vel pes tuus scandalizat te, abscide eum et proice abs te: bonum tibi est ad vitam ingredi debilem vel claudum, quam duas manus vel duos pedes habentem mitti in ignem aeternum.

9 Et si oculus tuus scandalizat te, erue eum et proice abs te: bonum tibi est unoculum in vitam intrare, quam duos oculos habentem mitti in gehennam ignis.

10 Videte, ne contemnatis unum ex his pusillis; dico enim vobis quia angeli eorum in caelis semper vident faciem Patris mei, qui in caelis est.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on December 2, 2015, in Chapter 18, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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