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Marshall, Mary. The Portrayals of the Pharisees in the Gospels and Acts. FRLANT 254; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015. Hb;  €89.99.  Link to V&R 

In this important monograph, Mary Marshall answers the “comparative neglect of the Gospels and Acts” in recent research on Pharisees. Most scholars studying the “historical Pharisee” observe that the tendency of the Gospels to vilify the Pharisees limits their value as sources. Too frequently it is assumed the Gospels and Acts have a uniform, negative view of Pharisees. On the contrary, Marshall contends the Gospels and Acts are complex and each writer has an individual view of the Pharisees. Her goal is not a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” but rather to fairly and accurately describe how each of the four Gospel author’s presented the Pharisee in the service of their own theological agendas. She points out the Pharisees appear in all four Gospels and Acts without any explanation as to who they are or why they are significant (23). Josephus, on the other hand, does have an excursus explaining what a Pharisee was to his Roman audience.

Marshall, PhariseesIn order to achieve this goal, she begins with Mark as the earliest Gospel and argues Mark’s view of the Pharisees in “univocally negative” (66). The Pharisees oppose Jesus and his ministry at key points in the Gospel by challenging Jesus’ authority, either by questioning his behavior (Mark 2:15-3:6), by demanding a sign (Mark 8:11-15), or by engaging Jesus in a discussion on some particular practice (Mark 10:2-9, divorce; 12:13-17, payment of taxes to Caesar). Marshall thinks the challenge to Jesus’ behavior is not included to legitimate later church practice in Mark’s community (as is commonly assumed), but rather to convey his Christology and the Pharisee’s rejection of that Christology (41). Even the controversies over hand washing and korban in Mark 7 emphasize the “Christological implications of the Pharisees’ challenges” (51).

Assuming Matthew has used Mark in the creation of his own Gospel, Marshall examines Matthew’s redaction of Mark with respect to the Pharisees. Although Matthew includes all of Mark’s material on the Pharisees, it is possible to hear Matthew’s unique nuances by observing the changes he makes in his sources. For example, Matthew changes Mark’s “scribes” in Mark 12:24 in order to include the Pharisees in the request for a sign. She concludes Matthew, like Mark, is consistently negative toward the Pharisees and in no way reduces the negative implications of his sources. In most cases Matthew increases the visibility of the Pharisees in order to highlight their rejection of Jesus and the demands of the kingdom (123). For example, in Matthew 22:15-16 the Pharisees seem to have more authority than the Herodians (79). In 22:34-40, Matthew has omitted the scribe’s praise of Jesus and “portrays only unmitigated hostility” toward the Pharisees who only want to test him (89). After surveying several examples, Marshall argues a “motif of replacement emerges” in which the Pharisees are unworthy of a privileged position and are “easily replaced” (112). This is clear in the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt 22:1-14). Although she comments briefly on the parable, Marshal refrains from comparing the parable to the Lukan parallel in order to argue for (or against) a Matthean redaction. She also does not suggest who these “replacements” are in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, although in her conclusion to the chapter she suggests Matthew is “defending the legitimacy of ‘Judaism’ ad the inheritance of the law and the prophets by his own community” (125). For Matthew, there is still hope for the Jewish people, but that hope is through Jesus, not the Pharisees. This implies a post 70 CE situation for Matthew’s Gospel.

Although there are differences between Luke and Acts, Marshall examines several themes which run through both works with respect to the Pharisees. First, the Pharisees have forfeited their place in the Kingdom of God by rejecting Jesus as early as his baptism (131). She examines several meals in Luke and argues Luke highlights an eschatological perspective in these meal scenes. For example, the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) is given in response to a guest who assumes he will participate in the coming messianic banquet. Marshall correctly connects the Pharisee of Luke 14:15 with the prodigal’s brother, both of whom represent entitlement and an expectation of eating in the great banquet (135). A second theme appears more clearly in Acts: the reputation of the Pharisees serves Luke’s apologetic function (141). Gamaliel, for example, is a prominent Pharisee who appreciates the apostolic message (although he compares it to other failed messianic movements). In fact, Luke’s apologetic concern is to show that the Christian missionaries did not deviate from Judaism, but are in fact in continuity with it (154). A related third motif in Luke is that the Pharisees were most sympathetic toward early Christianity. Acts 15:5, for example, indicates some early Christians were from the Pharisees and were still concerned with the details of the Mosaic Law (160). Luke has redacted his sources to show the Pharisees some respect, although Marshall rejects the suggestion there is an affinity between Jesus and the Pharisees (179).

Finally, John’s unique presentation of the Pharisees presents several problems because scholars usually dismiss John as a historical source in general. With respect to the Pharisees, it is often assumed John lumps the Pharisees together with chief priests, scribes as “the Jews.” The Jews then represent the unreceptive world (229). Marshall challenges this assumption as an oversimplification. It is the Jews who are the objects of fear and attempt to kill Jesus. Pharisees are part of the crowd and are associated with the arrest of Jesus, but they are not the “real opponents” in John’s Gospel as is often assumed (231). In fact, they are not consistently hostile toward Jesus and some (like Nicodemus) are potential sympathizers. This observation causes her to reevaluate the popular view of J. Louis Martyn that John’s community was formally expelled from the synagogue about the time the birkath-ha-minim were introduced in the synagogues. She concludes the portrayal of opposition to Jesus in the fourth Gospel “may not accurately reflect any real life opposition to his community” (241).

Despite eschewing a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” Marshall concludes her chapters with a comment on the relationship of each Gospel to historical Pharisaism. She points out that Mark did not write a book about the Pharisees, but about Jesus (68), so some of the questions which interest scholars with respect to the Pharisees will not find a solution in Mark. Matthew’s portrayal of the Pharisee cannot be understood apart from his view of Judaism. Although Marshall sees Matthew as representing legitimate Judaism, the Pharisees are out the outside of Matthew’s definition of what Judaism should be in a post-70 CE world (125). For Luke, it is not certain his audience had any contact with Pharisees (183), so the Pharisees in Luke and Acts function to convey Luke’s literary themes. For John’s Gospel she evaluates and rejects popular views of a recent ejection of John’s community from the synagogue because John’s portrayal of the Pharisees is not homogeneous (241).

Conclusion. Marshall’s monograph is an excellent contribution to the study of the Pharisees. The unique contributions of each Gospel are clearly presented. This approach is refreshing since the Gospels are not uniform in their presentation of the Pharisees. Popular studies tend to make the Pharisees the arch-enemy of Jesus, but Marshall demonstrates that in Luke (and perhaps John) this is not the case. This book should be part of any discussion of the Pharisees in the New Testament.

NB: Thanks to Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Jesus illustrates his view of unending mercy with a parable demonstrating how the real disciple has experience unlimited forgiveness and therefore should extend unlimited forgiveness to others.

In the story, a king forgives a great debt owed him by his servant (v. 23-27). The details of the parable are hyperbolic: a servant owes his master far more than he can possibly repay. The context may be the “court of the Gentiles” rather than the Galilean Jewish context of Jesus (suggested by Keener, Matthew, 457). This does not take away from the authenticity since most Jews would have a general knowledge of the way things usually went in a Gentile court.

The person who owes the great debt is a slave. Most modern readers wonder how a slave could incur such a massive debt. Although the word can refer to court officials and people with power, something that can always be turned into wealth. Perhaps Jesus has in mind a corrupt Herodian bureaucrat who has used his position to make himself wealthy, but has instead lost the Herod’s court a massive amount of money. Slaves could be in important roles in the Empires, so that they could accumulate wealth and power, even if they were in a master-slave relationship with the Emperor.

The debt is unimaginably large: ten thousand talents. A “talent” is a standard weight, so this might be a talent of gold, silver, copper, etc. Most scholars assume a talent of silver here, which was worth approximately 6,000 denarii. Since he owed ten thousand talents, the debt is sixty million denarii. If a denarius was the standard wage for a day laborer, then this debt represents nearly 200,000 years of labor, if interest on the debt, then the average laborer could not possibly work enough to pay off the debt.

Even if we assuming the slave was in a position to invest, take bribes, sell favors, etc., he could raise more money, but the debt is intentionally so large even the wealthiest person could not possible pay it back. If Bill Gates owed ten trillion dollars he could not pay off the debt!

In verse 27 Matthew uses a word which usually means a loan. It is possible the man took money from his mater, invested it badly, lost the capital and then accrued massive interest on the loan. John Nolland points out the annual income of Herod’s kingdom when he died in 4 B.C. was about 900 talents, to be divided between his sons (Nolland, Matthew, 756). This servant’s debt is more than ten times the value of Herod’s kingdom. In fact, the word translated as ten-thousand is often translated, “myriad,” an uncountable number. Maybe a modern gloss would be to say he owed “a bazillion dollars.” Bazillion is a made up word that simply means an uncountable, hyperbolic number.

The master responds as any wealthy Roman would, he intends to sell everything the slave owns, including his family into slavery. This is an entirely believable, appropriate, and fair response in the Roman world!  The man’s wife and family were probably already slaves owned by the master, if he were to sell them on the open market, he might generate 500-2000 denarii each (Jeremias, Parables, 211). The slave may not own very much property himself, so the threat to sell everything will not come close to covering the debt.

The servant “fell on his knees,” or better, “did obeisance.” Imploring (προσκυνέω) does not express the depth of this man’s actions before the master. Although it often means worship, it can used “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). In Matthew, this is the word used in the temptation of Jesus, Satan demands Jesus worship him (Matt 4:10, Luke 4:8), but also the wise men who want to worship Jesus (2:2), but also the disciples who witness Jesus’s control of the storm (14:22, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” In Matthew 28:9, after the resurrection, the disciples once again fall to the ground in worship of Jesus.

The servant cries out, “Have patience on me” (μακροθυμέω). This is a plea for more time to pay off the debt. Since there is no earthly way to pay off this debt, the man is asking for a “stay of execution” (Nolland, Matthew, 757).

His plea is successful, the master releases the servant from his debt.  In Matthew 18:27 the debt is called a loan (τὸ δάνειον). Since the word is only used in this passage, it might be a variation of vocabulary, or it might be a hint of how the man got into such deep debt in the first place. In either case, this is an audacious act of mercy, one which would have surprised the audience of poor Galileans! People who own debts do not usually forgive them. (Imagine calling up your bank and explaining you have no way to pay your mortgage. He banker may try to help you find a way to pay, but they will probably not forgive what you owe. They will seize your house and resell it to recoup the debt!)

The servant has therefore experienced an audacious act of mercy and has been released from the bondage of his debt.  Does this make any differences in his attitude toward those who owe him a debt?

The servant who received audacious grace went out and found the servant who owned him money. This is not a random encounter, he went out of his way to find the servant and force him to pay the debt. The verb “found” is common, but Jesus used it in 18:13 or the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep and finds him. When he found someone who owed him money, he seized the servant and began to choke him (imperfect used for the beginning of an ongoing action). The image is also hyperbolic, imagine the unmerciful servant grabbing him around the neck to strangle him in order to make him pay. (I imagine Homer Simpson choking Bart!)

The fellow servant asks for forgiveness, using the exact same words as the unmerciful servant. He also asks for more time to raise the cash to pay the debt, the unmerciful servant is not willing to extend him additional time to pay. The debt is large, but not unmanageable. One hundred denarii would represent about three month’s wages for an average day laborer. But debt is relative, for someone making virtually nothing, one hundred denarii is impossible to repay. Since the servant cannot pay his debt, the unmerciful servant has his put in the same prison in which he was going to go if he had not been shown mercy by his master.

When the king hears what this unmerciful servant has done, he demands the servant pay his entire debt (v. 31-34). This is the point of the parable, the other servants see what this man has done and were “greatly distressed.” This word (λυπέω) can refer to emotional or physical pain, but may have the sense of “offended” in this context. It is modified by σφόδρα, an adverb which is much stronger than “very.” Matthew just used this phrase (ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα) in 17:23. After Jesus predicts his impending death, the disciples were “greatly distressed.” In 19:25, the disciples are “greatly distressed” when Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything and follow him. When Jesus declares one of his disciples will betray him, they are all “greatly distressed” (26:22). At the crucifixion, those who witnessed the earthquake were “greatly afraid” (ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα, 27:54).

The master hand demonstrated extreme compassion and mercy, but now he is angry (v. 33) and condemns this wicked servant. There are a number of parables with this same language, a servant is judged for failing to do the masters will and is punished (often by being sent out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, Matthew 25:26). Here the wicked servant is given to the punishment he always deserved, a debtor’s prison. The master became angry, as did the king in Matthew 22:7 (and destroyed the city of those who had refused the invitation to the wedding feast, both passive forms of ὀργίζω).

So it is with God! Matthew 18:35 says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (ESV). If we have been forgiven such a great debt of sin, why would we dare to withhold mercy and grace to those who offend us! There is a threat here, if we are not forgiving to those who offend us, then the Father will not forgive us!

The context of this parable is dealing with “someone who sins against you” (18:15-20). The point of the parable is not to calculate just how much abuse you will able to take with each and every person, but to forgive everyone even if that forgiveness is socially unacceptable.

What effect will this kind of forgiveness have on a Christian community? It is possible some person will abuse mercy and offend over and over again. But coupled with the previous teaching on confronting those who sin within a congregation, Jesus’s point is not to coddle the unrepentant sinner who refuses to listen to the community (kick that person out!) Jesus wants his followers to be genuinely forgiving, merciful and gracious.

Matthew 18:21–22 (ESV) Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

After hearing Jesus’s teaching on how to handle someone who has committed an offense against us, Peter raises a question which reflects Jewish thinking about forgiveness in the first century. The “process” Jesus outlined in 18:15-20 sounds like a person might receive two warnings before being excommunicated from the assembly of believers. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus describes “turning the other cheek.” Did he want to imply “two chances” in that teaching?

Peter had discussed the temple tax with Jesus in 17:24-27, a pericope which follows “the disciples were filled with grief,” the same phrase appears in 18:31 (fellow servants are “filled with outrage”). Perhaps this is a frame? Perhaps Peter is being generous, not simply turning the other cheek, or forgive twice then bring it to the assembly and excommunicate the sinner. Seven times forgiveness would be remarkable!

Judaism did emphasize forgiveness for those who have offended. In the Testament of Gad, for example, the writer says “Love one another from the heart, therefore, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him in peace. Expel the venom of hatred, and do not harbor deceit in your heart. If anyone confesses and repents, forgive him” (T.Gad 6:3). This example is sufficient to demonstrate Jews in the first century were not proto-Puritans condemning everyone’s sin, nor were they standing on the street corners with signs damning everyone else to Hell. For the most part, the Judaism of Jesus’s day understood they had received great mercy and grace from God and that the “venom of hatred” does no one any good.

Jesus extends forgiveness to “seven times seventy.” By this he means the kind of unending forgiveness God has already given to the disciples, and by extension to all those who are in Christ in the present age.

The translation of the number of times to forgive is difficult, it could be seventy-seven times (as in the ESV, NIV and most modern translations) or “seventy times seven” (as in the KJV), which would be 490 times in all.  Although both are possible, most scholars today think the phrase is modeled on the LXX of Genesis 4:24, Lamech will be avenged “seventy-fold seven” (Nolland, Matthew, 754). In Genesis 4:24 Lamech wanted to be avenged seventy fold, Jesus is reversing that sort of outrageous, unlimited vengeance with equally outrageous, unlimited mercy.

In either case, Jesus is using hyperbole to express the idea that his disciples will not keep an accounting of wrong, but rather will reflect the unending mercy of the heavenly Father who has already forgiven them of all of their sins.

The problem is too many Christians are thin-skinned when it comes to taking offense. Five minutes on Facebook is enough to prove Christians are easily offended and do not offer forgiveness to those who need it. In fact, Christians are quick to use the “venom of hatred” when they are comfortably anonymous!

But As Craig Keener observes, “No one can offend our human moral sensibilities as much as everyone offends the moral sensibilities of a perfect God” (Matthew, 458). Rather than be offended at the sins of others, Christians ought to be amazed at the grace they have received and offer that some grace and mercy to other who desperately need it.

“Binding and Loosing” in Matthew 18:18-20 is another very difficult sayings in Matthew. It is also one of the most misused sayings in of Jesus. It is applied to personal and corporate prayer to encourage Christians to agree together in prayer, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not really what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 18. Worse, some Christians take this verse to claim the power to “bind Satan,” as if they have some supernatural power over satanic forces if there are two or three of them praying together. Although the binding of Satan does appear in Revelation 20, that has nothing to do with the modern practice of attempting to bind Satan by the prayers of two or three gathered believers.

The phrase appears here and in Matthew 16:19. The difference is in Matthew 16, Peter is addressed, here the pronouns are all plural, it is the church which binds and loosens. These two passages are the also only two places where Matthew uses the word church, so it was natural for the Roman Catholic Church to apply them directly to the authority of the Pope as one who, like Peter, is permitted to bond and loose sin. However, Even Luther thought binding and loosing referred to forgiving sin.

As always, the most important thing to consider for good interpretation of Scripture is the context. Up to this point, Matthew 18 has discussed dealing with followers of Jesus who are causing others to sin or are caught in some kind of sin themselves. I have suggested this may be a problem in Christian communities originally served by Matthew’s Gospel. If that is the case, then “binding and loosing” refers to the Christian community deciding for or against theological or ethical challenges as they arise in the later first century.

Rather than forgiving sin or binding Satan, a better interpretation of the phrase is to read it in the context of Second Temple Judaism and the rabbinic practice of applying scripture to specific situations. If the command was applicable, then it was “bound,” if they determined it was a commandment not applicable in a specific circumstance, then it was “loosed.”

In an important article on this issue, Mark Allan Powell observed the rabbis (and Matthew) did not consider “loosing the Law” as “dismissing scripture or countering its authority.” God’s Law is perfect, but the problem was the Law’s intention and how that intention can be brought forward into a new situation. This is something akin to dispensationalism’s horizontal and vertical truth or drawing principals from the Old Testament Law.

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Hananiah b. Teradion says, “[If] two sit together and between them do not pass teachings of Torah, lo, this is a seat of the scornful, “as it is said, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful (Ps. 1:1). “But two who are sitting, and words of Torah do pass between them—the Presence is with them, “as it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord and gave thought to His name (Mal. 3:16).” I know that this applies to two. How do I know that even if a single person sits and works on Torah, the Holy One, blessed be he, sets aside a reward for him? As it is said, Let him sit alone and keep silent, because he has laid it upon him (Lam. 3:28).

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Halafta of Kefar Hananiah says, “Among ten who sit and work hard on Torah the Presence comes to rest, as it is said, God stands in the congregation of God (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that the same is so even of five?  For it is said, And he has founded his group upon the earth (Am. 9:6). “And how do we know that this is so even of three?  Since it is said, And he judges among the judges (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that this is so even of two?  Because it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard (Mal. 3:16). “And how do we know that this is so even of one?  Since it is said, In every place where I record my name I will come to you and I will bless you (Ex. 20:24).

In his ETS plenary address in San Diego a few years ago, Joe Hellerman described an example of this method of applying Scripture from later church history. As the church grew, people who were actors began to accept Jesus as savior. This raised the question: is acting an appropriate occupation for a Christian? Because of the pagan nature of a Greco-Roman play, the church concluded a Christian should not earn their living as an actor. Jesus never said “though shalt not become an actor,” but separation from the world would certainly make it difficult for a Christian to be an actor. This would be an example of the church “binding” something one earth, it is a sin to be an actor.

Most Christians today would not see the job of acting as inappropriate for a Christian, although there might be some limits on roles accepted, etc. This might be a case of the church “loosening” on earth, it is no longer a sin to be an actor (within these parameters). Each generation will have new issues which arise and faith communities will have to decide whether the Christian can or cannot participate in some new behavior or belief. Can a Christian be a politician? Run a store which sells alcohol? Be a bartender? Be a model? Believe in gay marriage? Believe in evolution?

The role of the church, then, is to know the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 28:18) and to draw principles from his teaching to apply to new situations. This is essentially what Paul does, and what he instructs Timothy to do and for Timothy to instruct new elders to continue the process of applying Scripture to new situations.

 

Bibliography: Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew,” Currents in Theology and Mission 30 (2003): 438-445; 438.

So far in Matthew 18 Jesus dealt with those who cause a little child to stumble (18:6-9) and the person who has wandered away from their faith (the one who has stumbled, 18:10-14). In this paragraph, Jesus addresses another related issue, a brother or sister in Christ who has some fault but has not yet stumbled and wandered away from the faith. As suggested by Craig Keener, this person may very well be a stumbling block to others, therefore they need to be addressed before they cause others to stumble (Matthew, 452).

Jesus is concerned his followers should discreetly confront those who are beginning to wander and bring them back into the flock as gently as possible. The earliest communities were very small house churches in the Jewish diaspora. As more gentiles were attracted to the Gospel, it is likely these house churches had to deal with serious conflicts between disciples of Jesus.

Total MoronThere are several difficult issues in 18:15-20. Jesus appears to lay down a process for church discipline, and Matthew’s use of church seems anachronistic. There was no church prior to the resurrection, although it is possible the word can refer to the community of Jesus followers, something like the yahad at Qumran. If this is the case, is there a direct application of the process to modern Christians as they confront one another over their faults?

The disciple of Jesus should attempt to deal with personal offenses privately. The verb is the typical one expected for sin (ἁμαρτάνω, aorist subjunctive). There is nothing here which implies this is offending someone’s preferences. For example, this is not about confronting someone for wearing a bolo tie and cowboy boots to church, nor is this about coming to church with a face full of piercings and tattoos. These things are matters of (good or bad) taste and not personal sin which is damaging to one’s spiritual life.

The phrase “point out their fault” (ESV) is a single word, ἐλέγχω. This verb can have the connotation of “to scrutinize or examine carefully, bring to light, expose” (BDAG) as in Ephesians 5:13. But is sometimes used for “express strong disapproval of someone’s action” (BDAG), to reprove or to correct someone (as in 2 Tim 4:2, “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching”).

The problem is how this works out in real life. Some people really do enjoy pointing out another person’s fault. The Internet is full of people who have nothing better to do than argue about theological issues and condemn someone’s practice of their Christian faith. Some of those issues may be legitimate, but most of the time there is condemnation without any real engagement.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about how one confronts a fellow disciple because of a sin. The disciple ought to deal with their own sin, the “log in your own eye,” before confronting someone over a minor sin, the “speck in their eye.” If the disciple of Jesus is busy dealing with their own spiritual life, then they will “see clearly” (Τότε διαβλέψεις). In Matthew 7:3-5 Jesus says the one who has dealt with a particular problem is able to gently correct a fellow disciple. To “gently correct” is the guiding principle in Matthew 18:15 as well.

Jesus commands his followers not to despise, or “look down on” the little ones. Although this seems fairly straight forward, there are several issues with this saying.

First, what happened to Matthew 18:11? In the King James Version the verse reads “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” At some point a copiest added Luke 19:10 in order to enhance the connection between verse 10 and verses 12-14 (Morris, Matthew, 464). Most modern translations do not include the verse.

Second, the verb καταφρονέω has a wide range of meanings, such as “not to be concerned with.” But Luz points out it is not synonymous with σκανδαλίζω, the verb used in the previous passage (cause to sin). He considers this verb “much weaker” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 440, note 27). There is therefore a shift away from causing a child to sin to simply ignoring children as unimportant.

Third, are the “little ones” in this paragraph the children from verse 5?  Jesus used a word which means child in v. 5 (παιδία) but on verses 5-6 he uses a more generic term (μικροί). It appears Jesus has actual children in mind in this saying rather than his disciples.

Eh….No.

The reason no one should despise a little one is that they have an angel before the father. Does Jesus imply children have guardian angels? One problem with Christian thinking about angels is we are more influence by popular culture than the Bible. In the Bible, angels are in fact concerned for the believer, but they never are portrayed as “Harold the Angel” who is trying to earn his wings.

There is some hint of “angels as guardians” in the Old Testament and the literature of the Second Temple period. In Psalm 91:11-13, for example, angels guard every way of the psalmist. This is the verse Satan himself quotes during Jesus’s temptation. There are several stories in the Old Testament in which people see angels (Jacob in Gen 24:7, 24:40, 48:16). There are a number of Second Temple allusions to something like a guarding angel. In Tobit 5:4-22, Tobit sees the angel Raphael, Raphael then travels with him and protects his on several occasions.

Most modern discussions of angels range from sober recognition of the protection of God to new age psychobabble. For example, Ulrich Luz concludes guardian angels are part of an outdated worldview. “I am of the opinion that a modern interpretation of Matt 18:10 can simply try to take seriously the substance of the concern expressed in the language of an earlier age.”  He therefore abandons “the concrete idea of guardian angels, since it is no longer self-evident to the modern mind.”  But he also observes that even Martin Luther believed “it is proper and necessary to preach about the good guardian angel of children who wears a white robe and sits at the child’s crib” (Matthew 8-20, 440, note 28). This verse is sometime used to defend infant baptism, although that is a particularly theological reading of this difficult verse.

Most modern discussions of angels sounds more like new age psychobabble. In modern new age, mystical Christianity the guardian angel idea has grown into a wild eco-system of demi-gods who allegedly can be contacted, evoked and manipulated into giving you good fortune and wealth. “Guardian angels watch over you throughout your lifetime. Guardian angels provide protection, guidance and encouragement. Your guardian angel is praying for you and delivering the answers to your prayers. Your guardian angel also keeps a record of the choices you have made in your lifetime.

This is not at all what Jesus is saying! He says that the little ones have an advocate before God’s throne. By using a small child as an illustration in Matthew 18, Jesus is making a lesser-to-greater argument. If even a child receives justice before God, how much more the follower of Jesus. If there are “angels in heaven” pleading the case of little children, how much more should the true disciple of Jesus care for the lowest in their society?

This is a particularly important principle for global Christianity. In the west, there is a general sense that children are vulnerable and need to be protected, including proper health care and education. Even where this is woefully inadequate, most western countries understand the need to care for children. But in countries where care for children is not an important cultural value Christianity must take the lead and care for the child, especially those who are orphaned or have special needs.

What does Jesus mean when he says “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” in Matthew 18:8?

One of the more disturbing sayings in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus’s command to his disciples to cut off a hand, foot or eye is better than being sent to hell. Also has already said it is better to pluck out an eye (5:29-30) than to enter hell with two good eyes. In that context I suggested Jesus meant “don’t let your eyes make you sin.” Jesus’s command to “cut off your hand” is an intentionally shocking saying by Jesus, although most modern readers take these commands to maim oneself as warnings intended to catch the reader off-guard and shock them.

Was mutilation used as a punishment in the Second Temple Period? Josephus refers to the amputation of hands for forgery: “Galileans had cut off his brother’s hands on a charge of forging letters prior to the outbreak of hostilities” (Life, 177). Rather than execute a man for treason, Josephus substituted cutting off a hand: “To his urgent request to spare him one hand I grudgingly consented; at which, to save himself the loss of both, he gladly drew his sword and struck off his left hand” ((Life, 34, 173, cf. JW 2.21.10; see Morna Hooker, Mark, 233).

Anyone in the Jewish audience would have been shocked at the suggestion one ought to mutilate themselves in order to avoid sin. Although there is an “eye for an eye” principle in the Law, it was not intended for self-control. Given what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount about the source of sin, would cutting off a hand or foot actually control the thoughts and desires which motive one to steal or physically harm another person?

Why the hand, foot and eye? Nolland suggests these are the three body parts which mediate our contact with the world (Matthew, 739). The ear could be included, since it hears; the tongue is the source of much sin in the Wisdom lit, but it shows what is inside a person.

Jesus says it is better to be maimed that enter into hell, where “the fire never goes out and the worms never die.”Gehenna refers to the valley (ge in Hebrew) of Hinnom.  Manasseh used this valley to sacrifice human to Moloch. Josiah destroyed these altars and turned the valley into a garbage dump (2 Kings 23:10). Because fires burned continually, it became a metaphor for hell. The fire in verse 44 is “unquenchable” (ἄσβεστος), the same word used in Matthew 25:41 for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. John the Baptist described the messiah has having his winnowing fork ready to gather the wheat into his barn and the chaff to the unquenchable fire.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24, the final line of the book describe a scene of apocalyptic judgment. The metaphor appears in Judith 16:17 (probably quoting Isaiah and applying it to judgment on Assyria) and Sirach 7:17 (the ultimate punishment of the ungodly). Like all metaphors for hell, it is difficult to know how literal the image of constantly burning flesh should be taken.

Isaiah 66:24 (NRSV) And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

Judith 16:17 (NRSV) Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the Day of Judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.

Sirach 7:17 (NRSV) Humble yourself to the utmost, for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms.

This gruesome metaphor is a vivid contrast to the goodness of entering into the life of the kingdom of God. But “the work of a physician who may have to amputate parts of a body” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 436).

This is a radical call to holiness; how ought it work out in the life of the believer today? Sometimes we need to separate from a particular behavior because it may cause us to sin. Some of these are very obvious and most Christians have enough sense to know to avoid the “big sins.” It is possible some behavior is socially acceptable and popular, but it puts us in a place where we sin. When I talk with tends or college age people, I talk quite a bit about entertainment choices. Most Christians have the sense to stay away from the obvious sins on the internet, but if your use of social media leads to mean-spirit talk, gossip, materialism, etc. the perhaps your phone needs to be amputated from your hand!

Sometimes it is necessary to voluntarily separate from other people because they may lead you into sin. A classic example: a person who struggles with alcoholism should not hang out with friends at a bar. But if you have a friend who constantly encourages gossip, maybe it is time to amputate that person from your life.

The disciples of Jesus are going to face temptations. In fact, in Matthew 18:7 he says that it is necessary for temptations to come. The word translated “temptation” in the ESV (σκάνδαλον) is the same as “cause to sin” in 18:6. The NIV 2011 renders the phrase “the things that cause people to stumble” and the NRSV has “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks.”

In Matthew 18:1-9 the noun σκάνδαλον refers to putting something in the way of another person to cause them to stumble. Leviticus 19:14 is a command not to place a stumbling block (מִכְשׁוֹל, LXX σκάνδαλον) in front of the blind causing them to trip. By way of illustration, a football player to throws himself at the feet of another player to cause him to trip. Causing someone to sin may not be as intentional as this, but the result is the same, a person is led into some sin by some circumstance in this world.

In Matthew13 the same word is used in the Parable of the Sower. The seed falling on the rocky ground has no roots so it withers up when persecution comes. This is the person who hears the gospel and seems to accept it, but something happens which causes them to fall away before they have produced fruit. Their faith is “tripped up” by trouble in this world Does this imply the person who “trips up” another is in danger of damnation? The true disciple of Jesus is careful how they live their lives so that they do not cause another to sin. As Craig Blomberg said, “a life-style characterized by causing others to sin is incompatible with true discipleship” (Matthew, 274).  

Jesus says the origin of this kind of temptation is “the world” not the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus will encounter all sorts of things in the world which may cause them to stumble. The neuter plural σκάνδαλα can be translated “things that cause stumbling.” What are “these things” Jesus has in mind? Certainly these could include the typical sins on offer in any culture, but the phrase as Jesus uses it may allude to a particular passage in the Old Testament.

In Ezekiel 14 the elders of Jerusalem have put “stumbling blocks in front of the people” by worshiping idols. The possible intertext is mentioned by Keener (Matthew, 449). I have developed it beyond what Keener does in his commentary, even if the LXX does not use σκάνδαλον. The Hebrew word translated as “stumbling block” (מִכְשׁוֹל) is a noun built from the verb כשׁל, to reel, stagger or stumble, but it is often used to describe the result of bad leaders. In Malachi 2:8, for example, the prophet rebukes bad priests who have “have caused many to stumble by your instruction.”

Similarly, in the context of Ezekiel 14 it is the religious aristocracy in charge of the Temple who are accused of consulting idols rather than God. As a result the Lord will “set his face against them” and no longer guide them at all. He will cut off the one who is leading the people astray “from the midst of my people.” If Jesus has a text like Ezekiel 14 in mind, then he may have in mind leaders who cause people under their leadership to sin. Just as the priests in Ezekiel 14 were leading God’s people into the extreme offense of idolatry, so too it is possible some leaders in Matthew’s community were leading their congregations into behaviors or beliefs which prevent them from actually hearing the Gospel.

Like a Hebrew prophet, Jesus pronounces “woe” on those who cause the stumbling of a little one. “Woe” expresses anguish or distress, like the old English use of the word “Alas!” It appears in Hebrew as הוֹי or  אוֹי and is used in the prophets frequently in the context of judgment. The one who causes others to sin face serious judgment (looking ahead to the hand or foot which causes one to sin).

It is easy enough to draw the analogy to later theological aberrations which understood Jesus in a way which could prevent someone from a full understanding of the Gospel, or a later behavioral aberration which is offensive to God. In a modern context, it is very easy point out examples of pastors and teachers who have been so utterly hypocritical that their congregations may never hear the simple Gospel of Jesus.

Jesus warns his disciples they are responsible for the flocks assigned to them and they will be held responsible for their well-being.

“Whoever receives a child, receives Jesus” refers to showing basic hospitality towards those who are in need.  Jesus says something similar in Matthew 10:40-2 where the “little ones” are the disciples and 25:35-40 where the “least of these” are given hospitality by the “sheep.” In this saying in Matthew 18:5-6 Jesus is warning his disciples that causing one of these “little ones” to sin is a very grave offense.

Millstone, Ancient, Israel, CapernaumTo “cause someone to sin” is a single word (σκανδαλίζω) often associated with being offended, or causing someone to stumble (the weaker and stronger brothers in Romans 14-15). The verb refers to putting something in the way of another person to cause them to stumble (think of a football player to throws himself at the feet of another player to cause him to trip). In Matthew 11:6 Jesus used the word to describe those who doubt who he really is, they are “offended” on account of Jesus.

The verb is also used in the parable of the sower for some of the seed that falls on the rocky ground. Because the plant had no roots, it withers up when persecution comes. I suggest this is the kind of person who hears the gospel and seems to accept it, but something happens which causes them to fall away before they have produced fruit. If the Parable of the Sower is a valid guide, then this is more than causing a child to sin. Someone is preventing a child from hearing the gospel and coming to a saving faith.

Jesus says it is better for the one who prevents a child coming to saving faith to never have existed. In the context, this refers to the disciples who were preventing children from coming to Jesus! “There are hardly suitable translations for the verse’s keywords, the verb σκανδαλίζειν and the substantive σκάνδαλον” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 432).

This person would be better off to have a heavy millstone hung around their neck and tossed into the sea! Even small millstones used by women to bring wheat were very heavy, but this is the kind of millstone turned by a donkey. An “ass’s millstone” (μύλος ὀνικὸς) refers to the upper stone of a stone mill, heavy enough that it must be turned by a donkey, horse, or slave. It would result in a quick and inescapable death. “Drowning was apparently used by the Romans as a form of capital punishment and was presumably known as such in Palestine” (Hooker, Mark, 232). Keener cites Livy 1.51.9, a person was stuffed in a crate of stones and tossed into the sea (Keener, Matthew, 449).

This warning is aimed at the one who prevents the little one from coming to saving faith, a common theme in Matthew (11:6; 13:57; 15:12; 26:31, 33) and apostasy (13:21; 24:10). That he is thinking here also of leading people into apostasy is obvious.

Who are these little ones, and who are leading them astray? In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus may have the child from 18:2 in mind (assuming he is still standing there). However, as I said above, Jesus calls his disciples “little ones” several times in Matthew (10:42, for example). This is a warning to those who are leading the disciples after the resurrection to be very careful about how they present Jesus’s teaching to the growing church.

Does this have an application to Matthew’s original audience? Although it is far from certain, a common suggestion is that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the context of the church a Syrian Antioch. If this is the case, the “stumbling blocks” may be individuals in those churches who are teaching something other than what Jesus taught his disciples. This may be variation in theology or practice, and at that point in history it may not be a major heresy. But anything which leads the true disciples of Jesus into sin is extremely dangerous.

This ought to be convicting to anyone involved in ministry. It is obvious that what you teach and preach can drive people away from the Gospel, but how you interact with people and how you behave is equally offensive. I am not talking here about dropping key doctrines of the faith because they are strange to the modern listener. Something like, “since people do not understand the Trinity anymore I am going to drop Trinity from the church doctrinal statement.” Pick any given study of why people are leaving the church, the reason given is hypocrisy of leaders of the church. Although this might sometimes be a perception rather than a reality, there are plenty of examples of pastors failing morally while demanding their congregations avoid those very sins. There are several recent examples of big name pastors who support politicians who are objectively immoral to please their constituency.

If this is the case, we are going to need a lot more millstones.

In America, asking a child to do some basic chore around the house is likely to generate a serious protest: “am I a slave?” Kids tend to think being told to some something around the house is equivalent to Cinderella scrubbing the floors for the wicked step-mother. But this is the opposite of the world of Jesus (or most of the world), children did a great deal of hard work and obeyed their parents without question. Is this what Jesus is talking about? What can we know about children in the Second Temple period?

Children were far less important in most ancient cultures than in the modern world. As Ulrich Luz observes, that “the words παῖς and παιδίον can also mean ‘slave’ says a great deal about the legal standing of children, who were subject to the unlimited authority of their fathers” (Matthew 8-20, 428). In the Roman pursuit of honor, serving a child did not bring any honor and likely would be seen as a shameful thing. But to a Greek, humility was not a virtue. After a list of “various kinds of shameful behavior” Aristotle said these were “signs of littleness of soul and baseness” (μικροψυχίας καὶ ταπεινότητος σημεῖα, NIDNTEE, 4:449). The word was used to describe a weak state after a military defeat (Isocr. Paneg. 118, NIDNTEE, 4:449).

In Jewish culture children were certainly loved, but they did have a low status socially. One did not stop and talk to a child, or consider the opinions of a child particularly valuable. This is perhaps why Jesus talking with the rabbis when he was twelve is an important story, he was worthy of respect even as a child (Luke 2:4150). However, as Oepke observes, the idea of an “innocent child” is not found in the Old Testament (TDNT 6:646). The focus of the metaphor may not be “become innocent like a child” or have “child-like wonder.”

It is likely Jesus is already interacting with children in a socially shameful way. Jesus is able to call to a child to stand among the disciples indicates the child was nearby, perhaps even listening to Jesus teach. Like his association with tac-collectors and other sinners, Jesus was crossing over a social boundary which a typical rabbi might avoid (or simply never consider as important).

Jesus says the true disciple will become humble (ταπεινόω) like a child (v. 4). This view of children is found elsewhere in the Gospels. Jesus takes the time to bless children in (Matt 19:14) and in John 3:3 he says one cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless they are “born again,” which may be a similar idea to this “become like a child.”

Although this seems clear to the modern reader, to “be humble” can mean “little” or “low.” Luz, “In a general sense, to become low voluntarily is to reverse completely one’s previous standards of thought and action and to orient one’s life to a different order and to new standards” (Matthew 8-20, 429).

It is critically important to understand humility in the context of the Greco-Roman world. The word does not mean “low self-esteem” or self-abasement. Jesus himself is the model of humility (Matthew 20:28, Philippians 2:5-11), yet he can claim to be the Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God, the one who will return to the Father, etc.

Jesus reverses common understanding of humility in both the Jewish and Roman world. Moses was considered a model of humble service who did not seek his own glory. But often humble service was offered to someone who is your social superior (Keener, Matthew, 447). In the LXX, David is “a humble man and not of high repute” (1 Sam 18:23). The Qumran community called themselves “the poor” and considered humble submission to God’s law to be one of the greatest virtues.

How does one “become like a child?” Jesus highlights a child’s status as the lowest in society. The disciple of Jesus must think of themselves as the lowest of low and serve others like the lowest imaginable person in a society, like a child.

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Christian Theology

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