Matthew Chapter 18:21-34

21 Τότε προσελθὼν ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Κύριε, ποσάκις ἁμαρτήσει εἰς ἐμὲ ὁἀδελφός μου καὶ ἀφήσω αὐτῷ; ἕως ἑπτάκις;

22 λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οὐ λέγω σοι ἕως ἑπτάκις ἀλλὰ ἕως ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά.

Then approaching, Peter said to him, “Lord, how many times shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Until seven?” (22) Jesus said to him, “Not, I say to you, seven times, but seventy-seven times”.

Note that this does not say “seventy times seven”. Apparently that was a convention of the KJV, and it stuck for several hundred years. It appears some more recent translations are rendering this as “seventy-seven” now. That’s a whole lot less than 490 times. But of course the point is not to affix a specific number to the forgiveness, but to indicate that, well, you should be forgiving a lot.

Did Jesus say this? I see, prima facie, no reason why he didn’t. Nihil obstat, as it were. This was printed in books that had the Vatican seal of approval; it means something like “nothing stands in the way”. And so here. There is really nothing that overtly precludes Jesus saying this. The exact set-up may be fictional, but the words themselves–or at least the sense behind them–could easily be authentic. Whether they are or not is a different matter, but I don’t think the possibility can simply be dismissed.

As for the thought behind the words, once again the sensibility is easily derived from Judaism. Stephen A Gellar, in the quotes found in Religion in Human Evolution, argues that the transformation of Judaism occurred when the covenant was seen to be between God and the individual Jews, rather than between God and Israel. And God was endlessly forgiving towards Israel; as such, it’s but a step to forgiveness extended by God to individual Jews. From there, it’s only another short step to forgiveness extended between Jews, or between people in general. Between siblings, whether of blood, culture, or religion. So once again, the thought expressed may have a novel twist, but it’s not especially revolutionary. As such, it could easily be something that Jesus actually did say. Nihil obstat.

21 Tunc accedens Petrus dixit ei: “ Domine, quotiens peccabit in me frater meus, et dimittam ei? Usque septies? ”.

22 Dicit illi Iesus: “ Non dico tibi usque septies sed usque septuagies septies.

23 Διὰ τοῦτο ὡμοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ ὃς ἠθέλησεν συνᾶραι λόγον μετὰ τῶν δούλων αὐτοῦ.

“In this way the kingdom of the heavens resembles to a man who comes before a king to give an account with his  slaves.

This is the opening to a parable, which will take up the rest of the chapter. Comment is deferred until the end. Unless something that demands immediate attention should appear.

23 Ideo assimilatum est regnum caelorum homini regi, qui voluit rationem ponere cum servis suis.

24 ἀρξαμένου δὲ αὐτοῦ συναίρειν προσηνέχθη αὐτῷ εἷς ὀφειλέτης μυρίων ταλάντων.

“And he having begun to take up (the matter),  (a slave) was brought to him regarding owing ten thousand talents. 

The word is “myriad”, which literally means 10,000. The Latin agrees, and all of my crib translations render it as ten thousand. This is an incredibly enormous amount of money; on the order of millions of dollars. It’s such a large sum one wonders if it shouldn’t just be translated as “an enormous amount of money”, or something such.

24 Et cum coepisset rationem ponere, oblatus est ei unus, qui debebat decem milia talenta.

25 μὴ ἔχοντος δὲ αὐτοῦ ἀποδοῦναι ἐκέλευσεν αὐτὸν ὁ κύριος πραθῆναι καὶ τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ τὰ τέκνα καὶ πάντα ὅσα ἔχει, καὶ ἀποδοθῆναι.

“But he not having it, the lord ordered him to be handed over to be sold, and his wife and all his children however many he had, and he was given over.

As I said, this was a huge amount of money; I’m not sure that selling the whole family would recoup the debt, so this was to a large degree punitive. 

25 Cum autem non haberet, unde redderet, iussit eum dominus venumdari et uxorem et filios et omnia, quae habebat, et reddi.

26 πεσὼν οὖν ὁ δοῦλος προσεκύνει αὐτῷ λέγων,Μακροθύμησον ἐπ’ ἐμοί, καὶ πάντα ἀποδώσω σοι.

“Falling therefore the slave groveled before him (the lord) saying, ‘Have mercy upon me, and I will give everything over to you (will repay the debt)’.

As stated, selling the whole family would not recoup the full monetary loss, so this is a tempting offer.

26 Procidens igitur servus ille adorabat eum dicens: “Patientiam habe in me, et omnia reddam tibi”.

27 σπλαγχνισθεὶς δὲ ὁ κύριος τοῦ δούλου ἐκείνου ἀπέλυσεν αὐτόν, καὶ τὸ δάνειον ἀφῆκεν αὐτῷ.

“Taking pity upon this slave he released him, and the debt was removed from him.

A tad curious, since the slave bought his freedom by promising to pay the debt. But, this is Truth, not realism. Oddly, the NT Greek dictionary I use does not have << δάνειον >> in it. Liddell & Scott provide this as an Hellenistic form.

27 Misertus autem dominus servi illius dimisit eum et debitum dimisit ei.

28 ἐξελθὼν δὲ ὁ δοῦλος ἐκεῖνος εὗρεν ἕνα τῶν συνδούλων αὐτοῦ ὃς ὤφειλεν αὐτῷ ἑκατὸν δηνάρια, καὶ κρατήσας αὐτὸν ἔπνιγεν λέγων, Ἀπόδος εἴ τι ὀφείλεις.

“Exiting, the slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed to him a hundred denarii, and he seizing him, he choked him saying, ‘Give me what you owe’.   

“Denarii”, plural for “denarius” is the root of the English word “penny”. Which is why you purchase 10 d (ten penny) nails. The point is, this is not a large sum overall, and it’s a trifle compared to 10,000 talents.

28 Egressus autem servus ille invenit unum de conservis suis, qui debebat ei centum denarios, et tenens suffocabat eum dicens: “Redde, quod debes!”.

29 πεσὼν οὖν ὁ σύνδουλος αὐτοῦ παρεκάλει αὐτὸν λέγων, Μακροθύμησον ἐπ’ ἐμοί, καὶ ἀποδώσω σοι.

“Falling, the fellow-slave beseeched him saying, “Have pity on me, and I will give to you”.

29 Procidens igitur conservus eius rogabat eum dicens: “Patientiam habe in me, et reddam tibi”.

30 ὁ δὲ οὐκ ἤθελεν, ἀλλὰ ἀπελθὼν ἔβαλεν αὐτὸν εἰς φυλακὴν ἕως ἀποδῷ τὸ ὀφειλόμενον.

“But he did not wish this, but going out he threw him into gaol until he might give over the debt.

There is no modern equivalent for the word I translated as “gaol”, which is a Briticism and an anachronism. “Under guard” would probably be the best, simply because “jail” is just too misleading. “Into the dungeon” might capture the sense. And this is an extreme course of action considering the paltriness of the debt.  

30 Ille autem noluit, sed abiit et misit eum in carcerem, donec redderet debitum.

31 ἰδόντες οὖν οἱ σύνδουλοι αὐτοῦ τὰ γενόμενα ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα, καὶ ἐλθόντες διεσάφησαν τῷ κυρίῳ ἑαυτῶν πάντα τὰ γενόμενα.

“Seeing these events, the (other) fellow slaves were exceedingly sorry, and coming they told their lord all the events.

31 Videntes autem conservi eius, quae fiebant, contristati sunt valde et venerunt et narraverunt domino suo omnia, quae facta erant.

32 τότε προσκαλεσάμενος αὐτὸν ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ λέγει αὐτῷ, Δοῦλε πονηρέ, πᾶσαν τὴν ὀφειλὴν ἐκείνην ἀφῆκά σοι, ἐπεὶ παρεκάλεσάς με:

33 οὐκ ἔδει καὶ σὲ ἐλεῆσαι τὸν σύνδουλόν σου, ὡς κἀγὼ σὲ ἠλέησα;

34 καὶ ὀργισθεὶς ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ παρέδωκεν αὐτὸν τοῖς βασανισταῖς ἕως οὗ ἀποδῷ πᾶν τὸ ὀφειλόμενον.

35 Οὕτως καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ οὐράνιος ποιήσει ὑμῖν ἐὰν μὴ ἀφῆτε ἕκαστος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν καρδιῶν ὑμῶν.

“Then calling him his lord said to him, ‘Wicked slave, all this debt I removed from you when you beseeched me. (33) It was necessary for you be compassionate to your fellow slave, as I compassioned you’. (34) And the lord having waxed wroth, gave him to the torturers until he should pay the entire debt. (35) Thus my father heavenly will do for you unless you don’t take away each to your brother (dative of possession: of your brother’s) from your heart.”  

The irony here is too plain to require any comment. What about the theology? If you think about this the right way, this could be a proof text for Purgatory: the sinner is held until the debt is paid. That’s pretty much the definition of Purgatory. Of course, no one believes in that any more except the Roman Rite, but tell me I’m wrong. Against the Purgatory reading, one could argue that the slave will never pay off the debt because he’s in the dungeon; how can he work to make the money back to repay the debt? In which case, we’re talking about eternal damnation rather than Purgatory.

 The point is, God will forgive us anything, no matter how enormous, but we have the obligation to do the same for our fellows. That is how this ties into the 77 iterations of forgiveness to our brother. And this certainly doesn’t seem to sit well with sola fides, but that’s an entirely different conversation. Depending on your definitions, the faith creates the works (by their fruits…). Of course, that’s not the only way to understand sola fides, but this isn’t the time nor place for that debate. Offhand, I don’t know how this fits with Jewish morality; I suspect it does, because social consciousness is a big part of Jewish belief, and there is a lot of it in the HS. So this doesn’t have to be seen as revolutionary.

Then there is the question of provenance. This was not in Mark, and it’s not in Luke, so we can’t ascribe it to the hypothetical Q. My sense is that Matthew composed this. It’s not the most eloquent story; it certainly does not have the elegance of Luke’s solo material. It feels a little forced. I’m not sure that lyrical storytelling is a strong point for Matthew, so I’m going to come down on the side that Matthew did compose this. Most of the Matthew-solo material has this unpolished feel, or this bit about not quite being literary quality. Could it trace to Jesus? It could. The content of the story contains no internal inconsistencies or anachronistic attitudes. The only real problem is that most of these kinds of stories aren’t found in Mark, and Luke will have a whole passel more of these: think Divus and Lazarus, for example, or Zacchaeus.  Think back to the stories in Mark; the Gerasene demonaic; the bleeding woman; Jairus and his daughter; there is nothing even remotely like this. The parables that Mark gives to Jesus are short: the sower, the mustard seed; the possible exception being the parable of the vineyard owner who sends his son against the wicked tenants, only to have the tenants kill him. If we stop to consider the arc from Mark through Matthew into Luke, what we have is a steady increase in the sheer number, the length, and the complexity of the parables told by Jesus. In Mark, we get the Sower and the Wicked Tenants; in Matthew we get those, plus this one and the Lost Sheep; in Luke, we get the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the Good Shepherd.

As we progress through the Synoptic Gospels, the parables have a different feel, different symbolism. These may be very subjective observations, but that doesn’t mean they lack validity. But think about that observations: more parables in the latest of the Synoptics; and not only more, but perhaps the most memorable, the “titles” of which are aphorisms in English language and culture. We can talk about a prodigal son and expect that the allusion will be understood. If these parables actually trace to Jesus, where were they for the 70 years between Jesus’ execution and the point Luke wrote? The answer, of course, is that they hadn’t been written until Luke came along. This is a classic example of how legends grow over time.

In the meantime, a comparison of the content, the style, and the message of the parables told by Mark and then by Matthew would, I think, be, fruitful. 

32 Tunc vocavit illum dominus suus et ait illi: “Serve nequam, omne debitum illud dimisi tibi, quoniam rogasti me;

33 non oportuit et te misereri conservi tui, sicut et ego tui misertus sum?”.

34 Et iratus dominus eius tradidit eum tortoribus, quoadusque redderet universum debitum.

35 Sic et Pater meus caelestis faciet vobis, si non remiseritis unusquisque fratri suo de cordibus vestris ”.

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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 19, 2015, in Chapter 17, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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