Category Archives: Chapter 18

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.


Matthew Chapter 18:11-20

Chapter 18 continues. Note that most versions of the NT show Verse 11 as blank. In cases like this, the Greek text I use moves the first word of the next verse back into the “empty” verse. This would matter only if one is quoting, so I will follow the convention and leave Verse 11 as empty, and I will adopt this convention going forward. My apologies for any confusion caused by not doing this earlier.

11/12 Τί ὑμῖν δοκεῖ; ἐὰν γένηταί τινι ἀνθρώπῳ ἑκατὸν πρόβατα καὶ πλανηθῇ ἓν ἐξαὐτῶν, οὐχὶ ἀφήσει τὰ ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα ἐπὶ τὰ ὄρη καὶ πορευθεὶς ζητεῖ τὸ πλανώμενον;

13 καὶ ἐὰν γένηται εὑρεῖν αὐτό, ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι χαίρει ἐπ’ αὐτῷ μᾶλλον ἢ ἐπὶ τοῖς ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα τοῖς μὴ πεπλανημένοις.

14 οὕτως οὐκ ἔστιν θέλημα ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μικρῶν τούτων.

“How does it seem to you? If it happens to a man (having) a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders off, does he not leave the ninety-nine upon the mountain and go out to seek the one having wandered? (13) And he happens to find it, amen I say to you that he will be pleased about it more than upon the ninety-nine that did not wander off. (14) Is it thus the will before our father in the heavens, in order that should perish one of these little ones?”

There seems to be a little bit of what is now charmingly called a mash-up here. In the last section we were discussing the little ones. Then we jump to the lost sheep, and we’re back to the little ones. First, this seems to support my contention that the “little ones” are not, in fact, children. The way they are equated with the lost sheep, I think, demonstrates that these are not children pretty conclusively because the idea of a child as a wandering sinner is not entirely consistent within itself. That Luke separates this from the story of the little ones is the final and conclusive evidence for this, I think.

The lost sheep is part of what would be called Q; it’s not Mark, but it’s in Matthew and Luke. And, to be honest, the fact that this is a bit of a mash-up probably supports the argument for Q; Matthew took separate aphorisms and tried to fit them together into a single narrative, and he failed about as badly as he did in the so-called “masterful” handling of the Sermon on the Mount material. So once again, I’m undermining my argument that Q existed. Or not necessarily. I do not doubt that Matthew had sources that Mark did not have. What I don’t believe is that any of these sources dated back to Jesus, except in a few isolated instances. For the most part, material in the sources that Matthew had and Mark didn’t was material that came about in the period between the two writers. Or, more likely, that the material hadn’t fully diffused when Mark wrote; for the most part, I would suggest this material came about probably sometime after Paul wrote. Or, even further, I would date this material to the period after James, brother of the lord, died. The second thing about the Q hypothesis I don’t believe is that Luke had Q, but hadn’t read Matthew. There were probably things that Luke got that Matthew got and Mark didn’t, but I don’t believe for a moment that Luke wasn’t aware of Matthew when Luke wrote. I suspect Luke was fully aware of Matthew. There are too many passages where the language is verbatim, and it contains things that should not have been in Q if Q was based on sayings of Jesus. The prime example is the story of Jesus’ baptism. 

But to return to the task at hand, what does this passage say? This is a doctrine of forgiveness. And, the thing is, having been brought up in the Christian part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, this passage had always seemed to be a summary of Christian teaching. The problem is, having been spending some time reading about Torah and the HS in general, forgiveness is intrinsic to the Judeo-part as well. In fact, that is the theme of the HS: Israel sins, God forgives. I suppose what is different is the emphasis on the individual, but even this was intrinsic to the HS. In fact, in a book I’m reading called Religion in Human Evolution, the author, Robert Bellah, cites a scholar of the HS named Stephen A Gellar. Professor Gellar’s point is that the revolution in Judaic thought came when the covenant between God and Israel came to be seen as a covenant between God and each Israelite–or Judean, given the timing of this. The upshot of all this is that the thought expressed is not so different from Judaic thinking; the break between Judaism and Christianity in this passage is not nearly so sharp as I had been led to believe. Now, perhaps I’m a bit slow on the uptake on some of this, but that was the lesson the good Dominican nuns of Maple Grove St Michaels imposed upon me.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Judaism and Christianity expressed here is the way the shepherd actively goes out to seek the lost sheep. That is not an analogy that I have encountered in the HS, although I suppose one could argue that all the prophets were just that: shepherds trying to gather in the lost sheep. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on the individual here that may take us further into Christianity; the prophets, after all, were seeking the nation as a whole. But that is a difference in emphasis rather than in meaning or intent. Now here’s the kicker: recall the debate between Paul and James as described in Galatians. The core of the disagreement was the degree to which new converts had to become Jews. James took the Jewish line, Paul took a novel one. My suspicion is that the analogy of the lost sheep may belong to James, not his more famous, (presumably) older brother. My suspicion is that a lot of the more “Jewish” elements of Jesus’ teaching should actually be traced to James.

But that leads to the question of what did Jesus teach? Of course, if he were a wonder-worker, he may not have taught all that much. Except that certain demons can only be exorcised through prayer. That, I believe, does trace to Jesus. Puts sort of a different spin on things, doesn’t it?

Finally, there is the last verse. And this is a very deep, and very difficult problem. Does God intend for any of the little ones–those of small faith–to perish? At first glance, I thought that we were crossing into what is called theodicy: the explanation of the role of God in overtly “evil” things. Except that’s not the intent of this passage at all. Because the little ones are not perishing in the flesh, as it were, but spiritually. They perish by not entering the life, which was discussed a few verses back, when Jesus was advising self-mutilation. So the topic here is spiritual death, the death of what we would call the soul. Now, it bears remembering that Josephus told us that the Pharisees believed that the righteous would experience resurrection of the body. The implication is that not everyone would. So, by failing to enter the life, the little ones would not be experiencing that resurrection into a new life. Again, this seems very Christian, and it is, and maybe the emphasis on this teaching by those who became Christians caused this line of teaching to lose favor among those who remained Jews. Or, Josephus explains that Pharisees believed in this Resurrection, but Sadducees didn’t. Since Paul was a Pharisee, he introduced this teaching into the Jesus movement, and those who did not follow Jesus and remained Jews chose to follow other lines of teaching that did not emphasize the life.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure what the orthodox Jewish teaching is on the afterlife. I have a sense it’s different from what Christians believe, but what that difference is, I cannot say. So I did a quick Google search and found one site that said while an afterlife is a fundamental aspect of Jewish teaching, it’s not really discussed per se in the the Torah does indicate an afterlife. This was inferred by the Pharisees, who were the intellectual forebears of rabbinical Judaism. Essentially, I’m not far off; it’s part of the teaching, but it’s not very explicit. But then, what do we know from what we’ve read so far? Of the books covered to date, 1 Thessalonians 4 is the only text that provides any kind of real description of what will happen. And that is what is to happen when the Lord returns, coming down from the clouds. Truly, much of the geography and iconography of “Heaven” will not be made explicit until the writing of Revelations. That is perhaps another 30 years in the future from the time Matthew wrote. So, while the NT teachings are becoming slightly more explicit in speaking openly of “the life”, it’s all still a very vague concept. I don’t think the details had truly been worked out.

One very important question is whether “the life” and the “kingdom of the heavens/God are actually the same thing. These have been synonymous concepts at least since the Third Century, if not before. But were they the same when put into the mouth of Jesus by the evangelists? Interestingly, there are maybe a dozen or fifteen uses of the word in the Synoptics; it’s not until John that the idea of the life really takes hold, apparently, because he talks about it more than the other three combined, and by a wide margin. But the idea of “eternal life” is already present in Paul, who also uses the phrase “kingdom of God”. Given this, it’s probably safe to conclude that this topic requires investigation beyond what can be done in the context of a comment. More on that at some point.

The other question to ask then, is what hints this might provide on the composition of Jesus’ followers. Does it provide any? Probably not. We know that Paul was preaching to pagans for the most part. He tells us that. And since he uses both “the life/life eternal” and the “kingdom of God fairly frequently, I think we have to conclude that this was a foundation tenet of the earliest teaching about Jesus. Whether it was a teaching of Jesus, however, is entirely another matter.

11) 12 Quid vobis videtur? Si fuerint alicui centum oves, et erraverit una ex eis, nonne relinquet nonaginta novem in montibus et vadit quaerere eam, quae erravit?

13 Et si contigerit ut inveniat eam, amen dico vobis quia gaudebit super eam magis quam super nonaginta novem, quae non erraverunt.

14 Sic non est voluntas ante Patrem vestrum, qui in caelis est, ut pereat unus de pusillis istis.

15 Ἐὰν δὲ ἁμαρτήσῃ [εἰς σὲ] ὁ ἀδελφός σου, ὕπαγε ἔλεγξον αὐτὸν μεταξὺ σοῦ καὶ αὐτοῦ μόνου. ἐάν σου ἀκούσῃ, ἐκέρδησας τὸν ἀδελφόν σου:

16 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀκούσῃ, παράλαβε μετὰ σοῦ ἔτι ἕνα ἢ δύο, ἵνα ἐπὶ στόματος δύο μαρτύρων ἢ τριῶν σταθῇ πᾶν ῥῆμα:

17 ἐὰν δὲ παρακούσῃ αὐτῶν, εἰπὲ τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ: ἐὰν δὲ καὶ τῆς ἐκκλησίας παρακούσῃ, ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ ὁ ἐθνικὸς καὶ ὁ τελώνης.

18 Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅσα ἐὰν δήσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ὅσα ἐὰν λύσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ.

19 Πάλιν [ἀμὴν] λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν δύο συμφωνήσωσιν ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς περὶ παντὸς πράγματος οὗ ἐὰν αἰτήσωνται, γενήσεται αὐτοῖς παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς.

20 οὗ γάρ εἰσιν δύο ἢ τρεῖς συνηγμένοι εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα, ἐκεῖ εἰμι ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν.

“But if your brother should sin [against you], go, question him between you and him alone. If he hears (i.e. listens to) you, you have won your brother. (16) If he doesn’t listen to you, take along with you yet one or two, so that upon the mouths of two of witnesses, or three the whole story will be stood. (17) If he should disobey them, tell the assembly. If indeed he should disobey the assembly, let to you be as among the peoples, and the publicans. (18) Amen I say to you, whatever so if you give upon earth shall be given you in heaven, and whatever so you loose upon the earth will be loosed in heaven. (19) Again, [amen] I say to you that if two of you sound together (transliterated = “symphony“;  so >> “speak together”, or “agree”) upon the earth about all matters about which they might inquire, it will be for them by my father in the heavens. (20) For where two or three gather together in my name, there I am in the middle of them”.

The translation of Verse 19 is, to put it mildly, a bit rough; it is, however, pretty much how the Greek works. The idea is that if two agree about something on earth, the father will do what they ask, because where two or three are gathered…

This is very interesting. The last verse, “where two or three are gathered” is one of the most comforting lines in Christianity. The use of it in The Wedding Song by Paul Stukey, of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame, was borderline brilliant. He follows it by “…there is love.” I’ve always found this a beautiful and reassuring sentiment. But that is not what the sentiment is here. This is about the disciples being in control, being the gatekeepers of the kingdom to some extent; to a large extent, in fact. We are all so familiar with the scene in which Peter is the rock, and how he can bind and loose, but I for one am not at all familiar with this passage, in which the disciples as a group are given–or or being told they have the authority, or the power to make arrangements on earth that will come about through the efficacy of the father. But notice that, while the father brings about what the disciples ask, it is “I”, the speaker, who is between the two or three. The implications of this are very impressive.

To begin, assuming we can trust that Matthew put this together deliberately, this would be the first time we’ve come across an identity of the father with Jesus. This is a cornerstone of Trinitarian theology, but the Trinity was not fully developed for two or three hundred years. There is nothing like this in Paul, and perhaps a few oblique allusions in Mark, butt this is easily the most explicit equation so far, which makes it a major step forward theologically.

But to get back to the point about the disciples vs Peter. At first glance, it is very tempting to see this as something of a contradiction of the more famous passage about Peter and the rock.  There (16:17-18), Peter is told he has power to bind and loose on earth and that it shalle be so in heaven. This power is not given to the other disciples, but specifically and solely to Peter. Here, Jesus seems to be speaking to the whole group, no one has been singled out, and he grants the power to bind and loose to all. Indeed, this goes a step further. Here he says that whatever they agree to will be granted by the father in the heavens, and this is the context of the two or three gathered in his name. What to make of this?

First let it be said that there is no inherent contradiction, per se. There absolutely no reason the power to bind and loose that was granted to Peter previously could not now be granted to the group severally. That’s not the problem. The problem is the idea of Petrine primacy. Interestingly, over at Bible Hub all the comment seems to revolve around tying this to what has come immediately before, which is the treatment of those who have transgressed against the disciples. And of course, the connexion back to this is certainly valid. But it seems to be a very narrow reading of this. Part of the issue, of course, is that no Protestant commentator will agree that the Peter = rock passage in any way grants or concedes that Peter–and certainly not his successors, if Peter was ever in Rome, which Matthew Henry doubts–had any claim to primacy based on Jesus’ words. My problem is that I was raised in the Roman Rite made this claim, and in which it was simply taken for granted that this was the intent of the rock passage. As such, it is nearly impossible for me to read 16:18 and not see it as a grant of primacy. It’s a bias that is buried too deep; I don’t believe that primacy was granted intellectually, but I can’t push that meaning from my mind. 

Now, if the Protestant opinion is correct, then there is no real conflict with this passage. But that feels wrong. It feels wrong that the power to bind and loose was given first to Peter alone and then here to the disciples as a group. And that the power to bind and loose was given first to Peter alone seems to be the plain-sense reading of 16:17-18. And even disregarding the intent of Peter = rock, it seems very odd that Jesus would make this grant of power in two different circumstances. Why would he do this? We could come up with a theory that Peter was the first to see Jesus’ true identity, so it was given to him first; then, later, when the other disciples understood the Truth about Jesus, they were given the power here. But there is a lot of supposition and inference in that theory. Or, we could be seeing the merger of two separate traditions regarding the granting of the power to bind and loose.

But given the latter, the  simplest explanation is that the rock passage was inserted later, by the bishops of Rome, to establish their claim to primacy at some point after the tradition came into being that Peter had been the first bishop of Rome. And it would be perfectly credible to believe that the bishops of Rome had started that tradition as well. The passage here has to be considered in the context of the rock passage; the words are too similar to do otherwise. If the words were lifted from here and placed there with the confession of Jesus’ identity, that would make a lot of sense.

I say this bearing in mind the story of the Donation of Constantine. For those unfamiliar with the term, in the 8th (?) Century, the Roman pontiffs caused a document to be forged that stated that the Emperor Constantine had granted temporal power in the West to the bishop of Rome whe the Emperor moved the capital of the empire from Rome to his refounded city of Constantinople. The forgery wasn’t exposed until 15th Century. The point is that the bishops of Rome–and many others, were not above the creation of documentation that would support their claims. It must be said, however, that they would not have seen this as deceit; they would have understood this as revealing something they truly believed to be true. It’s the idea behind all the apocryphal gospels and revelations that continued to be written well into the third and even fourth centuries. The authors did not understand their work as a forgery, but as a new revelation. The Gospel of Judas is perhaps the most recent example.

That would be how I would understand Matthew 16:17-18. I believe that theory is supported by the existence of the power to bind and loose given here. More, the emphasis on the assembly throughout this passage, I believe, supports this contention. Based on the overall context of the material here, it seems that the idea  was to create a corporate structure of authority.

That, in turn, leads to a single, enormous question: Did Jesus ever say this, or anything like this?

It will come as no surprise that I have my doubts. This constitution of authority does not fit into to movement of Jesus’ day. Like the sending out of “those being sent out” (i.e., apostles), this fits with a period of development when the movement was congealing into the proto-church. As time passed, problems occurred, and so the leaders of the movement “discovered” words of Jesus that solved the problems faced by these later followers. Jesus here is clearly anticipating the time when he would not be among them any longer.

Now, looked at that way, the commission to Peter actually gains more plausibility. If Jesus did not say this, then the rock passage could be the earlier occurrence of the bind and loose authority. But the idea that Jesus told Peter he would be the rock on which the ekklesia was built is still specious. So the Roman claim to primacy is almost very certainly based on a later interpolation; Jesus almost certainly did not say those words, just as he did not say the words here granting the power to bind and loose. However, the “where two or three are gathered” could be authentic. It could be something that came down, and Matthew chose to set it into this context. More likely, though, that also was a later addition, because it seems to anticipate the divinity of Jesus much to clearly. 


15 Si autem peccaverit in te frater tuus, vade, corripe eum inter te et ipsum solum. Si te audierit, lucratus es fratrem tuum;

16 si autem non audierit, adhibe tecum adhuc unum vel duos, ut in ore duorum testium vel trium stet omne verbum;

17 quod si noluerit audire eos, dic ecclesiae; si autem et ecclesiam noluerit audire, sit tibi sicut ethnicus et publicanus.

18 Amen dico vobis: Quaecumque alligaveritis super terram, erunt ligata in caelo; et, quaecumque solveritis super terram, erunt soluta in caelo.

19 Iterum dico vobis: Si duo ex vobis consenserint super terram de omni re, quamcumque petierint, fiet illis a Patre meo, qui in caelis est.

20 Ubi enim sunt duo vel tres congregati in nomine meo, ibi sum in medio eorum ”.

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.