Summary Matthew Chapter 18
The bulk of the material in this chapter was also found in Mark, with the exception of the parable of the Wicked Slave at the end. But there are some siginificant developments. The first concerns Jesus’ answer to the question of who is the greatest in heaven. In response, he uses the example of the child, stating that we must be like the child; unless we do this, we will not enter the kingdom of the heavens. So far, that’s pretty much a reflection of Mark. Matthew then takes this in a new direction.
The new direction is based on the change of direction from being a child to being one of the least of the believers. These two categories could certainly overlap, but they are not synonymous. And I must confess here that I misunderstood or misinterpreted the term “least of those believing in me”. I was taking this as similar to Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians, where he was talking about those who were not strong in their faith. Rather, this should be taken as a class ranking; those who are the lowest ranking in society. Children would certainly fit this description, but it does not have to apply, nor should it only apply, to children. It would include people like resident aliens, those living in a community who would not have citizen rights, day labourers–whose status was actually lower than slaves–and the poor, destitute, those with disabilities, lepers, and prisoners. Since this is a class, or social ranking issue, the message takes on a somewhat different meaning. It’s not about the weak of faith, but about those who are overlooked and under-represented in the considerations of any community.
As such, I’m not sure the message conveyed is fully consistent. At the very least, it’s not fully consistent with the message as related by Mark. That was about children; this is about a larger group of people. Now, what I am about to suggest here is an excellent example of building a large edifice on a slender reed. Recall James’ one condition to Paul when the two of them came to their agreement in Jerusalem was the admonition to “remember the poor”. And tradition has long associated James, brother of Jesus, with the sect known as the Ebionites, a group that appears to have practiced voluntary poverty, who considered Jesus the Messiah, but did not consider him divine. Given that Matthew was writing well after the period of James, when the tenets of his leadership had been fully absorbed and incorporated into the doctrines of the Jesus followers, it’s not a stretch to see the change in emphasis in this story as the result of the teachings of James regarding the lower strata of society. Note that I am suddenly willing to credit tradition, when usually I don’t. In this case I’m willing to consider tradition because there’s no real benefit to anyone in creating this tradition. It’s not like the situation where later bishops of Rome had a real vested interest in claiming Petrine primacy, and that they were the successors of Peter. The most reasonable motive for ascribing the association of James with the Ebionites is that the latter movement came to be considered borderline heretical, so attaching James to this movement would have discredited him as a potential rival to the bishop of Rome.
So, is this suggestion realistic? There is nothing that makes this internally inconsistent. Nor is there anything that flagrantly contradicts anything close to an actual known fact. Rather, it incorporates at least one known fact that is generally ignored–that James was the leader of the group for almost thirty years. From this we infer that it’s impossible that, in thirty years, James did not have an enormous impact on what subsequent Christians subsequently believed. And part of this impossibility is that James faithfully and dutifully repeated everything his brother had said without addition, alternation, or omission. James was later written out of the picture, probably at the behest of the bishops of Rome. One of the Protestant commentaries I read was very emphatic that we have no proof that Peter ever went to Rome. This, of course, undercuts Petrine primacy and the primacy of the bishops of Rome; to get to their position of primacy it was necessary to remove the fingerprints of James. One of the aspects of James’ teaching that was treated especially roughly was the insistence on poverty.
In all, the most likely explanation for the change of emphasis in this story between Mark and Matthew is the incorporation of the teachings of James into mainstream of proto-Christian beliefs.
The parable of the hundred sheep, I believe, is fully consistent with this. The story of forgiveness is very Jewish; this, in a nutshell, is the story of the entire HS: apostasy followed by forgiveness when the apostate returns to the fold. If James’ held more closely to the Jewish mainstream than Jesus had (which is by no means a given), this tale of forgiveness fits into that tradition very nicely. It feels like the idea of forgiveness has progressed somewhat from the older tales in the HS, but that could easily be simple prejudice on my part. Or perhaps just my Christian filter and my relative ignorance of the full range of Jewish teaching. This is also Q material; allegedly. It’s in Matthew and Luke but not Mark. It’s also possible that it entered the mainstream of proto-Christianity by way of James. In my opinion, it is more likely that it entered this stream by way of the teaching of James and his followers that by way of an hypothetical document for which we have zero evidence. We have evidence of James and his leading role. It’s scant, but it’s much greater than any evidence for the hypothetical Q.
The last bit of this chapter is the story of the Wicked Slave. (Note: the proper translation of “doulos” is “slave”, not “servant”.) This was not in Mark; it’s not in Luke. It’s unique to Matthew. And more, there is a qualitative difference about this parable. It is the one story told in which the main character is used as an example of what not to be. Yes, Mark has the tale (which Matthew repeats) of the Wicked Tenants, but they are the direct object that will receive the wrath of the owner. And Matthew will give us the tale of the talents, in which different slaves will receive different amounts, and the one who got the least is held up as a bad example. But in that case, you have a culling process; here, it’s the one and only. Now, as such, it’s tempting to relate this more to, say, one of Aesop’s fables, in which various animals come to bad ends by virtue of their own wicked behaviour. And once we’ve gone down that path, the kinship to a Greek story opens the door to my pet hobbyhorse of Matthew-as-pagan.
What do we make of that?
Let’s start by pointing out that this is the sort of argument I would find less than convincing were I on the other side of it. This is true largely because there really is no “argument”; at best, what is presented is an opinion based on not much more than the fact that it agrees with what I want to believe. So why believe it? Once again, it’s the sort of thing that, on its own, amounts to nothing. Its value comes in the accumulation of these little clues. If you get enough individual bones, you can re-assemble the dinosaur. Mind, you don’t need all of them, but enough. So the real question is whether these clues that I’ve been pointing out comprise “enough” to reconstruct the skeleton of the dinosaur.
It should also be pointed out that this parable may not really be qualitatively different from other parables. While it doesn’t feel like the Sower, is it that far from The Wicked Tenants? Or even the Wheat and the Weeds/Tares? Those are judgement calls, and ones better left to those with more of a literary background. There may be some way to dissect the various stories and compare them using some sort of literary formula. This is, after all, not all that much different from what historians do: ask if the equation truly is equal–or can be made equal–on both sides of the equal sign.
The time has probably come to start counting up all these “clues” to see what they look like presented in a single place.
Posted on December 24, 2015, in Chapter 18, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged Bible, Bible commentary, Bible scholarship, biblical scholarship, commenting, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, mark's gospel, Matthew's gospel, New Testament, NT Greek, religion, St Mark, St Matthew, St Paul, theology. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.