Matthew Week 7

Instructing the Church: Matthew 17:14–20:34

By David Nienhuis

Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies

Read this week’s Scripture: Matthew 17:14–20:34


Week 7
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This week’s reading finds Jesus continuing the task of forming his new community by instruction and example as he makes his way to the cross. After glancing at the final narrative scenes from Chapter 17, we’ll spend most of our time studying the fourth sermon in Matthew, the sermon on community (Chapter 18). Chapters 19 and 20 then provide a few more scenes of instruction prior to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem (Chapter 21) for the final confrontation against the religious and secular powers that oppose the emerging Kingdom of God.

After the transfiguration (17:1–8) and subsequent teaching about Elijah (17:9–13), we find the story of Jesus healing a demon-possessed boy (17:14–21). What are we to make of Jesus’ angry, impatient outburst against the disciples in 17:17? The key to the passage is found in the repetition of words involving “faith” (17:17, and twice in 17:20) and “ability” (17:16, 19, 20).

Jesus had already given his disciples the ability to cast out demons (10:1), so their inability here can be attributed only to their lack of faith — and, as we’ve seen, faith is not a power possessed by believers, but the humble capacity to trust in God’s power to act on our behalf. Their failure to operate out of this trust associates them with others condemned as belonging to a faithless “generation” (11:16; 12:39, 45). When Jesus follows this rebuke with another assertion of the dark goal of his earthly mission (17:22–23), the disciples are left in a state of overwhelming grief.

Chapter 17 ends with a strange story found only in Matthew’s gospel. Peter is asked whether Jesus pays the temple tax, a toll demanded of all Jewish males over the age of 20 (Exodus 30:11–16). Peter responds in the affirmative (Matthew 17:25), and Jesus takes the opportunity to instruct Peter further on the matter.

What’s the point? First, the scene underscores Matthew’s concern to promote connection with the Old Testament story by revealing Jesus to be law observant (recall 5:17–20). But Jesus’ teaching asserts a corresponding disconnection: children of the king are exempt from paying taxes, so Messiah Jesus and his followers (who are “brothers and sisters” of Jesus (12:49), and “children of the Father in heaven” (5:45)), are not obligated to pay.

Nevertheless, since in the Kingdom of God the king is the one who serves, this freedom results not in self-indulgence but in self-giving service (compare Galatians 5:13). The tax should be paid. Strikingly, God commanded the tax “to make atonement for your lives” (Exodus 30:15). Since Jesus is about to pour out his life in a new atoning act (Matthew 26:28), it is only appropriate that he provide Peter’s share of the tax (17:27). He does so miraculously, demonstrating once again his possession of the Creator’s mastery over the sea (8:23–27; 14:22–33).

The Sermon on Community: Chapter 18

As is often the case in Matthew’s gospel, faithful disciples are depicted as ones who seek to understand the word of the Lord (e.g., 13:19, 23, 51; 16:5–12). So also now, after the last few chapters of community formation, Jesus’ disciples come forward seeking a definitive statement on the character of this community, asking “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” (18:1). Thus begins the fourth teaching block in Matthew, the sermon on community.

The discourse itself is made up of five main paragraphs, each of which carefully contributes to a whole teaching on the norms that are to govern the church’s life as it seeks to live as an earthly signpost to the Kingdom of God.

The first paragraph (18:1–5) repeats the words “child(ren)” (18:2, 3, 4, 5) and “kingdom” (18:1, 3, 4) to answer the disciples’ initial question. Much to their surprise, Jesus informs them that the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are powerless, humble people who trust in Jesus, and also those who become humble by “welcoming” such people.

We should be careful here: when Jesus exhorts disciples to “change and become like children,” he’s not calling them to regress into a simplistic childish state, but to be converted to a humble way of life that is uninterested in status-seeking efforts “to gain the whole world” (16:26). The church is to practice humility, not arrogant striving after power and domination.

The second paragraph (18:6–9) turns that exhortation into a warning by way of a six-fold repetition of the word “stumble” (a common Jewish way of describing spiritual failure, a “falling down” in the walk of faith). Reasons to “stumble” on the journey to the Kingdom will always be around (18:7), but whoever causes one of the “little ones who believe” to stumble will be severely punished by God (18:6), and whatever causes a believer to stumble needs to be removed immediately in order to ensure entrance into eternal life (18:8–9). The church is to support believers, not place obstacles in their path.

The third paragraph communicates the extent of God’s concern for the “little ones” of faith (18:10–14). As before, the logic of the section is highlighted by the careful association of repeated terms, this time “little ones” and “Father in heaven” in 18:10 and 14. God’s concern for humble disciples is so intense that angels are assigned to watch over them constantly (18:10; compare Luke 1:19 and Hebrews 1:14).

God’s particular focus is apparently on those who have “gone astray” like a sheep wandering away from its shepherd (18:12–13; compare Isaiah 53:6). Since “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost,” the church must never “look down on” them (Matthew 18:10). The church is to treat those who wander away from the faith as loved ones who are lost, not heretics to be despised [see Author’s Note 1].

All this sets the stage for the rhetorical center of the sermon, the teaching on church discipline (18:15–20). If Jesus’ family is defined as those who do the will of God (12:50), what is to be done with someone who calls himself “brother” but refuses to do God’s will? The teaching that follows is a careful attempt to form a community of humble, merciful care that is simultaneously a community of strident, disciplined obedience to God in Christ.

The process for dealing with an errant sibling unfolds as follows. First, if one Christian sins against another, the one who was sinned against is to go to the offender, in private, and point out the fault. Disciples should neither wait for the offender to come and apologize, nor publicly shame the individual before others.

Instead, the wounded party is called to initiate reconciliation by going to the offender and starting a process of truth-telling designed to result in forgiveness and restoration. In this act they are simply imitating God, the Shepherd who seeks after those who have gone astray.

But what if pride won’t allow the offender to repent, or worse, what if the offended party is in fact mistaken in their charge against the supposed offender? In such cases the offended party is to bring others along for a second confrontation “so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (18:16; compare Deuteronomy 19:15). If the witnesses agree that the offender is indeed at fault and refuses to make amends, only then should the situation be brought before the community in order to provide yet another opportunity for repentance and reconciliation (Matthew 18:17). If that doesn’t work, Jesus instructs the church to “let that one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” common terms for “outsiders” to the faith of Israel.

Yes, Jesus is calling the church to remove the individual from fellowship, an act that sounds offensively exclusivist to those of us who are used to honoring individual liberty above communal authority. Yet the particular words used here require careful attention.

First, to remove the person from fellowship is simply to live honestly into the truth of what already exists: in refusing to humbly participate in the communal process of reconciliation, the individual has self-identified as someone who is not actually following Jesus. In this the church is to be distinguished from the world as a community committed to speaking the truth in love and living accordingly.

Second, given Jesus’ treatment of Gentiles and tax collectors throughout Matthew’s Gospel (esp. 9:9–13), and particularly in light of the three previous paragraphs’ call to humble, supportive, loving care — especially for the “lost” (16:1–14) — the call is not to arrogantly “banish” the person by cutting off relationship, but to treat that one mercifully as a sick person in need of a physician (9:12), one who is to be diligently sought after until lovingly restored (18:12–14).

In this it becomes clear that church discipline isn’t supposed to be opposed to loving, merciful care, but should itself be thought of as one of the ways in which loving, merciful care is expressed. As parents discipline children and coaches train athletes, so also in the church one member is to sharpen another by means of honest critique and loving forgiveness. There is no room here for discipline focused on revenge, punishment, or exclusion, for the goal is always reconciliation, restoration, and inclusion.

As noted last week, the authority to “bind and loose” (reiterated in 18:18) describes the community’s authority to know what constitutes sin and what is required for restoration. It knows this not because of any natural ability it possesses, but because “wherever two or three are gathered” in the name of the Lord, Jesus is there among them to guide their decision-making.

The church has the authority to act as it does, not simply because it possesses Scripture or appeals to tradition, but only because Jesus is present and working through these irreplaceable tools of the Holy Spirit. The church that is gathered in the name of something else — a captivating pastor, a social group, an historic tradition, or an ideological concern — will always be tempted to use these tools as weapons of self-serving power instead of self-giving love.

Peter has heard Jesus’ words clearly, for his question (18:21) drives right to the difficult heart of the matter: “Okay,” he seems to say, “we’re supposed to balance mercy and discipline in our communal life. Fine. But how many times ought we to allow the process just outlined to cycle through before we’re permitted to give up on the person?”

Peter suggests “seven times,” since seven is the biblical number for perfection, but Jesus’ response reverses Genesis 4:24, where Lamech boasts of his ability to exercise vengeance upon his enemies “seventy-sevenfold”. In the Kingdom of Heaven, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Where the world is caught perpetually in cycles of judgment and retaliation, the church is perpetually to practice confession and forgiveness without limit.

Week 7
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To drive the point home, Jesus concludes the sermon with another parable describing the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:23–35). The story doesn’t illustrate the call to unlimited forgiveness (18:21–22), but looks back to the section on discipline to highlight the nature of God’s forgiveness and to offer a stern warning against failure to forgive. The story is drawn out in absurd proportions in order to make a point. A slave owes a king “ten thousand talents”: the word for “ten thousand” is the highest conceivable number in ancient Greek (in fact it could be translated “beyond number”), and a talent was the highest monetary denomination, so in effect, Jesus is saying, “He owed the king a bajillion dollars.”

Of course the man cannot pay, so the king pronounces judgment. But when the man falls to his knees and begs for the king’s patience, the king is moved to such compassion that he goes beyond the slave’s request and forgives the entire, incalculable debt. It is an unimaginable act of grace on the part of the king. But upon leaving the palace that same slave finds a comrade who owes him “a hundred denarii.”

This is no little sum, to be sure — it was equivalent to the wage for around 100 days’ labor — but of course it is nothing compared to what the slave owed the king. Still, the forgiven slave is not willing to live sacrificially in imitation of his master; he will not show compassion or patience, and he will not forgive his comrade’s debt.

When the fellow slaves of his community see this they are “deeply grieved” and report the action to the king, who angrily insists, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had mercy on you?” The king revokes his offer of forgiveness by throwing the slave into a horrific imprisonment, and Jesus ends the sermon by saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (5:7). “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors (6:12).” “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get (7:2).” “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” (7:12). The sermon on community confronts us with a challenging depiction of the nature of the church.

Christian community is not a social club or a center for “worshiptainment,” but a training ground for the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a place people go in order to submit to the training of a loving Coach who embraces us as we are and then uses our fellow community members to reshape us into the kind of people he calls us to be.

The workout routine involves the practices of humble truth-telling, mutual confession, and merciful forgiveness. The sermon on discipleship left us with the challenge to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). The sermon on community informs us that God has provided the church as one of the central means by which that perfection is pursued [see Author’s Note 2].

Final Instructions Before the Confrontation: Chapters 19 and 20

In 19:1 we are told that Jesus has entered the region of Judea, which reminds us that he is getting closer to Jerusalem, betrayal, and death (16:21). The scenes that follow offer final community instruction, focusing particularly on themes of family and house management. Much of what is said reiterates earlier instruction. So the teaching on divorce (19:1–9) expands what was said earlier in 5:31–32, upholding once again Jesus’ prohibition of divorce.

The Pharisees’ counterclaim that Moses commanded (19:7) a particular procedure in divorce again shows their misunderstanding of Scripture. Jesus corrects them: Moses only permitted (19:8) divorce because of hard-heartedness (Deuteronomy 24:1–4), but the first two chapters of Genesis make God’s view on the matter clear: marriage is a divine “joining” that is not intended to be sundered. “Gee,” the disciples say, “maybe it’s better to never marry at all!” (19:10). Jesus’ appeal to different types of eunuchs (19:11–12) focuses the point: devotion to the Kingdom may indeed lead some to live a life of devoted singleness (compare 1 Corinthians 7:32–35). But clearly Jesus doesn’t have a low view of family life, as he once again elevates children as examples of those who already possess the Kingdom (Matthew 19:14).

The next section (19:16–20:16) focuses again on money in recollection of 6:19–34. In connection with the Old Testament story, Jesus responds to the question about gaining eternal life by insisting that believers keep the commandments of God, focusing particularly on the treatment of neighbors outlined in the Ten Commandments and summarized by Leviticus 19:18.

The young questioner has kept all these and still senses something is lacking (Matthew 19:20). Jesus responds, “If you wish to be perfect” (the call of Christian discipleship, 5:48), invest in the Kingdom of Heaven: sell your worldly possessions, give the money to the poor, and join the community of followers. The man’s inability to give up his possessions provides Jesus with a final opportunity to insist on the spiritual danger of money. Because money is a master with a different agenda from God’s (see again the comments from Week 3 on 6:19–24), a person laden with money will not be able to enter God’s Kingdom.

This teaching stands in disconnection with the Old Testament story (which often correlated divine blessing with material gain), so the exasperated disciples blurt out, “Who then can be saved?” Who could ever have such daring trust in God as to give away their possessions? “With God all things are possible,” Jesus says; with God’s help, even those who cling to the security of wealth will be enabled to give up their worldliness to seek the Kingdom of Heaven.

Peter sees an opportunity for self-gain here: “We’ve given up everything,” he says hopefully, “so what are we going to get?” Again, Jesus insists, the reward we ought to seek comes from God at the end of time, where “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30).

The wonderful parable that follows (20:1–16) extends that maxim in response to Peter’s question. In fact, the young man’s earlier concern for worldly status (via wealth) is similarly expressed in Peter’s concern about spiritual status (via divine rewards). The parable that follows insists that we avoid carrying this worldly, self-interested concern for rank with us as we respond to the call to Kingdom service. When, at the end of the day, those who worked very little receive the same reward as those who worked all day, the landowner responds, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (20:15).

The correction is crucial: the logic that rules the Kingdom is grounded in God’s generosity and not in human concepts of merit and justice. Before God we are all undeserving recipients of grace. Without a deep awareness of this foundational truth, we will never be able to love our enemies, honor the insignificant, or provide for those who cannot pay us back. We will not be able to be a sign that directs people to the Kingdom.

Clearly the disciples don’t fully understand the logic of the Kingdom, so for a third time Jesus sets before them the Kingdom path that lies ahead: self-giving into betrayal and death, followed by God’s exaltation in resurrection (20:17–19). Immediately after this James and John’s mother hauls them before Jesus with the request that they be rewarded with high status in the Kingdom.

One can just imagine Jesus banging his head against the wall when he heard this request. The other disciples then become angry with James and John, so Jesus offers one final correction (20:25–28): The Kingdom of God takes the human quest for power and turns it on its head. If any rank is to be sought after, it is that of a slave — for those who seek that position will find they are keeping company with Jesus, the Son of Man who came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.

The scene ends with Jesus providing sight for blind people (20:29–34). The particular mercy they seek is narrowly focused: “Lord, let our eyes be opened” (20:33). Though they are blind, Jesus’ compassion for them opens their eyes so that they might be enabled to follow him on the way (20:34). May Jesus’ compassion also be poured out on all of us who struggle to see the Kingdom realized in our churches, our families, and our own lives.

Questions for Further Reflection:

  1. In Matthew’s gospel, faithful disciples are depicted as ones who seek to understand the word of the Lord (e.g. 13:19, 23, and 51; 16:5-12). But we’ve also noted that understanding in this gospel isn’t simply a cognitive reality; we are dealing in mystery here, and one’s “understanding” is directly related to one’s “openness” to things only God can reveal. On the one hand we should strive to know more about God, about the Bible, about living life as a Christian. At the same time, we must be wary of relying too heavily on human knowledge (otherwise we’ll end up like the Pharisees!). How do you balance this tension in your faith life?
  2. Jesus’ call for rigorous Church discipline (18:15-20) is balanced by a series of other descriptors meant to hold our quest for power in check (i.e., humility, supporting believers, treating those who wander from the faith as loved ones who are lost, etc.). . And yet, the church is to hold its members accountable and discipline them when they refuse to live up to their call. How has this balance been kept in your church experience? Is your church a community of care that emphasizes mercy and forgiveness but lacks discipline? Or is it a community of discipline that emphasizes obedience and righteous living but struggles to bestow care? How can Christian leaders to strike a better balance?
  3. How does this Lectio describe Matthew’s definition of the church? In what ways does this align with your conception of the church and/or your experiences within the church?
  4. Matthew’s account continues to contrast the logic of the world against the logic of the Kingdom. In what ways is Jesus’ new way of living counter-intuitive to Western culture?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Let me offer a brief word about the identity of these humble, powerless “little ones.” As both the context and the terminology of these paragraphs make clear, the person Christians are here exhorted to care for is not just any powerless person, but a powerless disciple of Jesus, a “little one who believes.”

This is of course not to say that disciples of Jesus should be uninterested in the welfare of all powerless sufferers (far from it!), but simply to make clear that at this point in the gospel Jesus is describing the distinctive life of the Christian community.

The internal politics of the church’s life is in view, not the external politics of the church in its relations with the non-Christian world. Jesus is describing what it is that is supposed to make Christian community distinct: in contrast to “worldly” forms of human community that conceive of “greatness” in terms of status and power, this is supposed to be a community that protects the vulnerable in its midst, treats those who are struggling with mercy, and bestows honor on those whom the world would disregard as insignificant or dishonorable. Indeed, these are the “great ones” we are to welcome, for they in some sense already possess the Kingdom (recall 5:3–11).

In doing so, the church becomes a community of mercy and care, bearing witness to the merciful God whose care for us cannot be overstated (5:16; 6:25-34; 7:7-11; 10:29–31).


Author’s Note 2

See Kierkegaard’s wonderful “like for like” passage from The Works of Love.


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