Jesus Raises the Dead – Matthew 9:18-26

In Matthew 9:18-26 Jesus raises a young girl from the dead and heals a woman with a flow of blood. These miracle stories immediately follow Jesus’s response to the Pharisees and Disciples of John who question his practice of eating with “sinners” like the tax collector Matthew. In fact, these two miracles illustrate Jesus’s teaching that it is not the time for mourning, but celebrating.

Raising Jairus's Daughter (Ilya Repin; 1871)

As expected, Matthew greatly reduces Mark 5:21-43. Luke 8:40-56 is also shorter than Mark, but many of the details dropped in Matthew remain. The child is dying in Mark 5:23, but in Matthew 9:18 she has just died. Matthew drops the name of the man and simplifies his title. With respect to the woman, Matthew reduces the description by omitting what she had spent on doctors. She does not touch Jesus, he speaks to her when he sees her. This allows Matthew to omit the troubling line about Jesus feeling his power go out if him and the question “who touched me?” Since the daughter is already dead, no one tells the man his daughter just died, and mourners are reduced. He does not take Peter, James and John into the room with him, nor does he speak to the girl (the Aramaic words are dropped) and he does not give strict orders not to talk about the miracle or tell her parents to give her something to eat. Mark reports the girl is twelve years old; Luke includes this detail but moves it to the request for healing.

John Nolland thinks this is the first of three miracles illustrating the three metaphors in the previous section (Matthew, 394). Jesus does not mourn at funerals; he raises the dead (taking the two women in 9:18-26 as both dead women). The next two (healing the blind and casting out a demon) are less clearly connected to the patch and new wine metaphors.

Going back to 9:6, Jesus healed the paralyzed man so that the teachers of the Law would know he has authority to forgive sin. This is followed by calling Matthew as a disciple and sharing a meal in Matthew’s home. That meal generates two more reactions, first from the Pharisees and then from the disciples of John. To the Pharisees Jesus says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” and to the disciples of John he response with three metaphors (a bridegroom, patched clothing, and new wine in old wineskins).

In Matthew 9:18-19, A man asks Jesus to raise his daughter. The man is identified as a ruler (ἄρχων), in Mark 5:23 he is a synagogue ruler (ἀρχισυνάγωγος in Mark, ἄρχων τῆς συναγωγῆς in Luke). In Mark and Luke his name is given as Jarius.

A synagogue ruler is the person in charge of the daily operation of a synagogue. He is not a priest or a rabbi. In Matthew, Jesus has not left Capernaum (8:5 he enters Capernaum and in 8:14 he went to Peter’s house and he is in “the house” in 9:1 where he forgives the paralytic’s sin), so the man is in charge of the synagogue in Capernaum. Undoubtedly this leader knew Jesus and perhaps witnessed his healing of the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-6). He would certainly have known Jesus’s reputation as a healer and exercised.

In this case it is remarkable because the man is the leader of the synagogue, usually the religious establishment is somehow against Jesus. It is possible however the ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum was not part of the religious aristocracy or a Pharisee. Think of him as a custodian of a small country church. It is unlikely denominational leaders will know hm at all. This may explain Matthew’s reduction of his title from synagogue leader to just a leader, with no reference to the synagogue. Although an archon could be a lord or prince, it can refer to anyone who has some administrative authority.

The man knelt before Jesus and says his daughter has just died. He expresses faith that if Jesus is able to lay his hand upon her, she will live. Kneeling (προσκυνέω) is often associated with worship. In Matthew the verb appears 13 times, three times in the story of the wise men, who worship Jesus as a child; twice in the temptation story. In 14:33 the disciples worship Jesus after he walks on water and calms the sea. The word appears twice in Matthew 28:9, 17 for people who realize Jesus has been raised from the dead and they worship him.  In every other case Matthew uses the word to describe someone who coming to Jesus with a special request (healing, in 9:2, 9:18; a servant in a parable, 18:26; James and John’s mother, 20:20).

The man expresses remarkable faith. In Matthew, the people who express faith in Jesus are usually outsiders (lepers, centurions, unclean women). This is another hint the man is not from a high social status.

By the time Jesus arrives at the ruler’s home, the professional mourners have already arrived: flute players and the crowd making a commotion (Matthew 9:23-26). The verb θορυβέω refers to making a fuss, shouting or other chaotic activity. The place is in an uproar!

As the leader of the synagogue, he would have been expected to hire several professional mourners to wail and sing appropriate laments. Matthew mentions flute players (αὐλητής), this refers to reed-flutes typically used for mourning the dead.

Jeremiah 48:36 describes the mournful sound of flutes played for the dead. Josephus mentions professional mourners with flutes or pipes: “a great many hired mourners, with their pipes, who should begin the melancholy ditties for them” (JW 3.437). Rabbi Judah said, “Even the poorest man in Israel should not hire fewer than two flutes and one professional wailing woman” (m.Ketuboth 4:4).

The mourners mock Jesus when he tells them she is not dead, but only sleeping (v. 24). These mourners know their business, and the girl is clearly dead. When Jesus declares that she is not dead but rather only sleeping these mourners laugh at Jesus!  Jesus is telling them their behavior is not appropriate because she is not dead (like a mourner at a wedding in 9:15).

The resurrection is simple: Jesus takes the girl’s hand and she got up (v. 25). Mark includes the Aramaic phrase Talitha cumi, meaning “little girl, rise up.” Since the Pharisees suspect Jesus is casting out demons by the power of the Devil (Matt 9:34), the Aramaic could have been dropped so that Jesus does not appear to be using a “magic word.”

As with other miracles in Matthew 8-9, it is impossible to keep this quiet. News spread throughout the region that Jesus had raised a girl form the dead.

What Did Jesus Mean by “Old and New Wineskins”? – Matthew 9:16-17

Jesus is the guest of honor at a festive meal at Matthew’s home and he shares food with tax collectors and “sinners.” The Pharisees question his choice of table partners (Matt 9:10-11) and John the Baptist’s disciples question him on the practice of fasting (Matt 9:14). In response to the question about fasting, Jesus offers three analogies explaining his practice of sharing food with “sinners.”

The first analogy is that Jesus is like a bridegroom and fasting is inappropriate at a wedding. The second and third analogies, patching cloth, old and new wineskin, have a slightly different nuance. Putting new, still fermenting wine in an old dried out leather wine skin will destroy both the skin and the wine. “The fermenting wine was stored either in earthenware jugs that could hold up to ten gallons or in leather skins” (Donahue, 108; here is a photograph by Ferrill Jenkins of a Bedouin skin for churning). If the new wine is placed an old skin, then the skins would naturally burst.

Likewise, patching an old cloak with a new piece of cloth that has not been preshrunk will likely result in tearing, and perhaps ruining the old cloak. It is inappropriate for a person to patch clothing or store wine in these ways, the result will ruin the clothing, the wine and the wineskin. Likewise, one who mourns at a wedding celebration ruins the celebration.

What is the old and new in these analogies? What is the old thing that has been replaced by a new thing?  

The new wineskins saying has often been taken to mean that Christianity is superior to Judaism and will replace it. For example, R. C. Sproul says “The bridegroom in the Old Testament is God and the bride is Israel. But in the New Testament, the bridegroom is the Son of God and the bride is His church” (Mark, 47). This supersessionist reading is not what Jesus is saying.

First, the contrast is not between Jesus and the Pharisees. The disciples of John the Baptist are also questioning Jesus on fasting. The point of the metaphor is not replacement of old things with new, but rather appropriate behavior when the bridegroom is present (Gundry, Mark, 138).

Second, the image of new wine is suggested by the context of a feast at the beginning of a new age. When Hosea describes the restoration of the marriage of Israel, the wife is given vineyards (2:16-17 [ET14-15]) and the Lord will cause the earth to produce grain and תִּירוֹש, “new wine.” New wine is associated with the eschatological age in Joel 2:24 and is the wine served in the messianic banquet in 1QSa.The noun תִּירוֹש was used in 1QSa because this is the wine set aside for the priests in the first fruits offering (for the details, see Long, Jesus the Bridegroom, 160).

Third, in both metaphors everything is ruined, both the old and the new. It is not the case that new wine is somehow preserved when it bursts the old wineskin. It to spills all over the ground in this ruined! The clothing is ruined when it is inappropriately patched. If this is an allegorical description of the state of the church during Matthew’s day, then it is difficult to see how the new wine of the Christian church has destroyed the old Jewish wineskin yet somehow was preserved.

In summary, in the bridegroom saying in Matthew 9:16-17 Jesus describes his practice of open fellowship as like a wedding banquet and himself the bridegroom. Jesus emphasizes the joy of feasting in contrast to gloom of fasting based the New Covenant (Jer 33:11). The people participating in this joyous meal are celebrating the restoration of Israel’s marriage at the end of the Exile (Jesus the Bridegroom,197).

Why Does Jesus Call Himself a Bridegroom? – Matthew 9:15

In response to a question from the disciples of John the Baptist, Jesus explains why he does not fast by comparing himself to a bridegroom and his ministry to a wedding banquet. Later in this passage he will use the metaphor of patched clothing and new wine in old wineskins. But here I want to focus on the first metaphor, that Jesus is like a bridegroom.

wedding feast of the Lamb

The first analogy for Jesus’s ministry is a wedding celebration. Later in Matthew Jesus will say the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who makes a wedding banquet for his son, comparing the invitation to come to a wedding celebration to his invitation to the Jews to follow him and celebrate the presence of the Kingdom (Matt 22:1-12). Another parable uses the long delay of the arrival of the bridegroom as a warning to keep alert before the return of Jesus (Matt 25:1-14). Here in Matthew 9, Jesus compares himself to the bridegroom and the people he is currently celebrate with are the guests at a meal which is in some ways like a wedding banquet.

Wedding banquets in the first century were the opposite of a fast. A family might invite the whole village to a festive meal with plenty of food, music, dancing and wine. Like the celebration in the parable of the Prodigal Son, when a father gave a wedding banquet, he would provide food and drink for the community, perhaps even celebrating for seven days. Consider the amount of wine consumed at the wedding at Cana (John 2).

The Old Testament often uses a marriage metaphor to describe God’s relationship with his people. Beginning with Hosea, this marriage ended in separation or divorce because of the infidelity of the wife, Israel. The eschatological age will be a time when the marriage between God and Israel will be renewed. The unfaithful wife will be restored to her former position because her sins have been forgiven and the marriage covenant has been renewed.

The marriage ended in disaster because Israel was an unfaithful spouse. But in the eschatological age, God will restore Israel to her former position and create a new covenant with them. God in fact does a miracle by restoring the faithless bride to her virgin state and re-wedding her in the coming age. It is therefore not implausible that Jesus stands in this prophetic tradition when describes the eschatological age as a wedding celebration and himself as the bridegroom.

The book of Revelation picks up the theme of the eschatological age as a banquet, albeit the “great supper of God” is the slaughter of the nations (19:17-19, cf., Ezek 38-39). Revelation 21:1-4 the New Jerusalem is described as “a beautiful bride fully dressed for her husband.”

If Jesus is the like a bridegroom, then his ministry is like a wedding celebration. If this is the case, then it is inappropriate to fast. Commenting on the Markan parallel, Anderson argues Jesus is merely making a contrast between his disciples (who are feasting) and the disciples of John (who are fasting) (Mark, 107).  Cranfield suggests the disciples of John the Baptist are fasting because of the recent death of John. This would explain the contrast between wedding and funeral imagery in the saying without assigning the saying to the later church (Mark, 111).

But as Gundry comments, this trivializes the issue since the main problem is regular fasts, not an occasional fast in at the time of a death (Mark, 135). Far more can be said about the background to the bridegroom metaphor (this was my PhD topic, see the right sidebar for a link to my book on the topic). In Matthew 9,

The people participating in this joyous meal are celebrating the restoration of Israel’s marriage at the end of the Exile (Jesus the Bridegroom,197).

Why Doesn’t Jesus Fast? – Matthew 9:14

After Jesus called the tax collector Matthew to follow him, Matthew hosted a meal in honor of Jesus (Matt 9:10-11). Jesus is eating with people the Pharisees considered “sinners,” prompting a Pharisee to ask about Jesus’s practice of eating with potentially unclean people (Matt 9:11-13). But this meal prompts a second question from some of John the Baptist’s disciples. The meal seems to have fallen on a day the Pharisees and John’s disciples fasted, yet Jesus and his disciples are feasting!

Jesus Feasting with Sinners

The story appears in Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-37. One significant difference in Matthew is the question comes from the disciples of John; in Mark it comes from “some people” after the observation that the Pharisees and disciples of John were fasting. Unlike Mark, Matthew does not mention both John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.

John’s disciples ask about the common spiritual practice of fasting. Other than the Day of Atonement, the Law does not mention required fast days. Fasting was associated with mourning for the dead. David fasting after his son died (2 Sam 12:17-23). Fasting is often associated with prayer. Daniel fasts while praying and seeking the Lord’s will (6:18; 9:3; 10:1-3;  cf., Neh 1:4-10). Fasting and prayer are often linked in the Psalms (35:13; 109:21-24). Fasting is often associated with repentance. In Jonah 3:4-9 the people of Nineveh fast after hearing Jonah’s announcement of God’s judgment. In Esther the Jews fast when they hear of Haman’s threats (4:3) and then feast in celebration of God saving the people from Haman (9:25-32).

These reasons for fasting are also found in the literature of the Second Temple period. For example, Tobit 12:8 associates fasting and prayer (although almsgiving is better). In The Testament of Joseph 3.4-6 Joseph claims to have fasted for seven years when his master was gone and he needed strength to resist Potiphar’s wife.

Tobit 12:8 Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness.

Testament of Joseph 3.4 For those seven years I fasted, and yet seemed to the Egyptians like someone who was living luxuriously, for those who fast for the sake of God receive graciousness of countenance.5 If my master was absent, I drank no wine; for three-day periods I would take no food but give it to the poor and the ill. 6 I would awaken early and pray to the Lord, weeping over the Egyptian woman of Memphis because she annoyed me exceedingly and relentlessly.

Based on Daniel’s fasting, some Second Temple texts imply fasting is necessary before an encounter with God. For example, in the Apocalypse of Abraham 9.7-10 Abraham is told to abstain from food cooked by fire and wine and from anointing himself for 40 days. After this period God will reveal what judgments are coming on the evil of the human race.

By the first century the Jewish practice of fasting was well-known. “Fasting like a Jew” was proverbial in the Roman world of the first century (Suet. Aug. 76). The Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. Didache 8:1commands Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays to avoid looking like the hypocrites, the Pharisees. In Matthew 23 Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites for many of their practices, although he does not mention fasting. In Luke 18:12 the Pharisee boasts of his righteous practice of fasting twice a week.

Although he fasted for forty days prior to his public ministry, Jesus seems to distance himself frequent fasting even though the practice was considered a pious spiritual practice in the Judaism of his day. This is consistent with his practice of the Sabbath. He certainly kept the Sabbath but challenged the traditions of the Pharisees. With respect to fasting, undoubtedly, he would have fasted on the Day of Atonement. But it does not appear he would have fasted twice a week like the Pharisees.

Early Jewish Christianity continued to practice fasting as a spiritual discipline despite the fact Jesus did not teach his disciples to fast (Didache 8:). The bridegroom saying in Matthew 9:15 explains why Jesus’s disciples returned to fasting after the resurrection.

Jesus’s answer does not address the issue of Christian fasting or feasting. The Sermon on the Mount assumes his followers will fast at times, but he re-defines how they ought to practice the spiritual discipline (Matt 6:16-18).

 

Bibliography: David Seal and Kelly A. Whitcomb, “Fasting,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016); John Muddiman, “Fast, Fasting,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:774-76.

Who are the Sinners Who Eat with Jesus? – Matthew 9:10

After calling Matthew to follow him, Jesus “reclined at the table in the house.” Since Jesus is the guest of honor at a festive meal shared with other tax collectors and “sinners,” the Pharisees question Jesus’s disciples about sharing food with these sorts of people.

Jesus Eating with Sinners

In Matthew 9;10 it is simply “the house,” probably referring to Peter’s house, but Mark has “his house,” making it at least possible this occurs at Matthew’s house.  Luke 5:29 makes it clear the meal took place at Levi’s house. The usual way of reading this story is Matthew was so overwhelmed with Jesus that he hosted a rich banquet in his home and invited all his friends to come and hear Jesus. In this scenario, Jesus is the guest of honor at a festive meal in the home of a Jewish man who was hated “as greedy, self-serving, and parasitic.” If Matthew intended the reader to understand this as Peter’s house in Capernaum, then Jesus is the host of this meal rather than Matthew. This is significant because Jesus is opening his home to tax-collectors and sinners and sharing his food with them. This is the main reason the Pharisees question the disciples.

What makes these people sinners? In the Law one could be in a state of sinfulness without committing what Christians consider sins. Nolland suggests these are “unsavory types” who life on the edges of respectable society (Matthew, 386). However, if Matthew was indeed a tax-farmer, then he may have earned a reputation “as greedy, self-serving, and parasitic.” Even if he was just a worker in a toll both, he was in constant contact with the Romans and would have been unclean by contact.

Like Zacchaeus in Luke 19, a tax collector meets Jesus, follows him and then Jesus shares a meal with him.

The Pharisees ask about Jesus’s practice of sharing food with sinners (Matthew 9:11). The Pharisees would not enter the house of a tax collector nor share food with him because they are unclean.

In the previous story the scribes questioned Jesus’s authority to forgive sin. Here it is the Pharisees who wonder how Jesus can eat with people who are obviously still in their sins. From Jesus’s perspective, they are not sinful anymore because he has forgiven them. From the perspective of the Pharisees, they are still sinful because they are still tax collectors and other “unsavory types.”

By way of analogy, if a scary looking biker with tattoos and piercings (probably named “Porkchop”) accepts Christ as savior and comes to church for the first time, people might look at him, judge his outer appearance and assume he is still in his sins. Since the Pharisees see Jesus eating with some people and know they are sinners, these people are known by sight at people on the fringe of society. This might be as simple as “oh look, there is Matthew, the tax collector,” or it might be the case the people look like sinners to the proper Pharisee.

Since Jesus seems to be eating with a number of people he is possibly in the courtyard of the house. The little homes in Capernaum would not have formal dining rooms like a Roman villa (or a modern home); even if Matthew was a wealthy tax farmer (which he probably was not), his home would still not be that large. The only way for a crowd to eat together is to gather outdoors.

Perhaps some disciples were not eating with Jesus and were on the fringe of the gathering listening to Jesus. Maybe two or three Pharisees see the gathering and see Jesus as the honored guest among a group of people they consider to be sinners and wonder how Jesus could eat with such people.

The question assumes Jesus would behave like a Pharisee with respect to food traditions. For the Pharisee, contact with an unclean person would communicate that uncleanliness. If the sinner touched the food, then the food itself would be considered unclean. In their defense, they were trying to obey the commands God gave through Moses and were willing to think through every possible situation that might render them unclean. This is no different than Christians asking questions about what God would think of any new situation (can a Christian go to the movies?)

In the ancient world, to share the table with another person made statement about yourself and about your guest. People wanted to share a meal with someone who was at least in the same social circle; to be invited to a meal by an elite citizen was indeed an honor. On the other hand, there is no way an elite citizen would invite people from the lower classes to share a meal with them. A Pharisee would only eat with people they were sure were ceremonially clean, and the people Jesus is eating with are clearly are not even close!

As with the inner thoughts of the scribes in the previous story, Jesus hears what the Pharisees are discussing with his disciples and responds directly to them.

Jesus Calls Matthew to Follow Him – Matthew 9:9

Matthew is sitting at a tax booth, and he seems to be friends with other tax collectors. A τελώνιον (telōnion) refers to a tax office, or as BDAG suggests, “toll-collection operation.” In Matthew 10:3 he is called a tax-collector (τελώνης, telōnēs).

Matthew icon

The noun does not refer to an employee of a Roman equivalent to the IRS, but rather to a “tax-farmer.” A person bids on a contract to collect taxes in a particular area, then collect whatever they could from the people and pays the Romans what he bid and pockets the rest. “The prevailing system of tax collection afforded a collector many opportunities to exercise greed and unfairness. Hence tax collectors were particularly hated and despised as a class” (s.v. τελώνης, BDAG).

In a similar situation, Zacchaeus is a tax collector and is described by those who grumbled against Jesus as a “sinner.” Zacchaeus confessed to defrauding people and promised to make restitution (Luke 19:1-10).

Matthew may not have been a tax farmer, but rather an employee in a tax office. His role is not clear, it could be something innocent (an account, a counter), or something more blame-worth (an enforcer?). In either case, anyone working for the Romans would be suspicious, perhaps even disloyalty to Jewish nationalism.

Tax collectors are never particularly popular in any society, but Jews who worked for the Romans to collect taxes and tolls were considered to be traitors since they collected money for the occupying forces. Not all taxes are bad (people tend to like nice roads and national parks, for example). Roman taxes did pay for some level of stability in the region and provided valuable infrastructure all people enjoyed. But because of the practice of tax-farming, tax collectors “were despised as greedy, self-serving, and parasitic” (Hagner, Matthew, 238).

However, like Americans who “do not want their taxes to pay for…” whatever they do not like politically, the Jewish people assumed their money was being rounded up and sent to Rome to pay for pagan temples or other sinful activities.

In addition to the political aspects of tax collecting for the Romans, a tax collector would be in constant contact with gentiles and therefore in a state of ceremonial uncleanliness. Like the leper (8:1), the centurion (8:5-13), (perhaps) Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-15), the demon possessed men in the cemetery (8:28-34) and the paralyzed man (9:1-8), the woman with the flow of blood (9:18-22) and perhaps even the blond and mute men (9:27-31), Matthew is in a state of uncleanliness which would keep him from entering the Temple courts or sharing fellowship with the Pharisees.

Jesus simply commands Matthew to follow him and he immediately “rose and followed” Jesus. This is the same way he called the first disciples (Matt 4:13-22). The fishermen were going about their business and Jesus called them to follow without any indication they had heard Jesus preaching prior to the call. John 1:35-42 implies the early disciples were followers of John the Baptist prior to following Jesus.

It is one thing to heal a person who is ceremonially unclean, but now Jesus is calling an unclean person to be one of his disciples. When his new disciple reaches out to his social circle, the Pharisees will become indignant and will question his disciples about this practice.

This is a clear example of Jesus’s practice of eating with people who are on the fringe of what it means to be Jewish, at least from the perspective of the Pharisees.

Is Matthew the same as Levi? Matthew 9:9

The parallel story in Mark 2:14-22 and Luke 5:27-38 agree Jesus called Levi the to leave his tax booth and follow him. Virtually every detail is the same except the name and the citation of Hosea 6:6. Why does Matthew 9:9 have Matthew and not Levi?

Jesus calls Matthew Giovanni Paolo Panini

The name Matthew is Μαθθαῖος (or Ματθαῖος) in Aramaic it is either מתי or מתא. The name is likely an abbreviation of Mattaniah or Mattithiah (2 Kgs 24:17; Neh 8:4) which means “gift of Yahweh.” The name Matthew is therefore not related to the Greek noun translated disciple (μαθητής). Mark calls Levi “the son of Alphaeus” complicating this issue since in Matthew 10:3, Matthew is “the tax collector” and James is the “the son of Alphaeus.” Luke 5:27 has Levi but not Alphaeus, perhaps to avoid confusion (Dulling, 619). If this was not confusing enough, there are a variety of textual variants which try to sort out the problem.

I agree with Hagner (WBC, 238) that is most likely Matthew and Levi are the same person. Like Joseph the Levite who was also called Barnabas (Acts 4:36), Matthew may have had two names (France, Matthew, 352). There are a number of people in the New Testament with two names; Simon bar Jonah is also called Cephas (on Aramaic) or Peter (in Greek). Some scholars suggest Levi was his pre-conversion name. After following Jesus, he was known as Matthew (similar to Saul/Paul in Acts; Hagner, Matthew, 238; Turner, Matthew, 12)

If Matthew is indeed the author of the first Gospel, then this he made this editorial change himself. The main problem with this view is there is no name-change story, either canonical or non-canonical.

There are several other less-likely suggestions. First, Levi may not be a name, Albright and Mann suggested Matthew was a Levite (Albright and Mann, Matthew, clxxviii). Second, some suggest there were two different tax collectors called by Jesus, the author of the fourth Gospel used the name “Matthew” since that was the name he knew (Davies and Allison, Matthew, 99). Third, the use of Matthew in 9:9 is the author’s self-identification. Fourth, the author of the first gospel may have replaced Levi with Matthew for theological reasons.

Regardless of whether the name is Levi or Matthew, when Jesus calls the tax collector as a disciple, he demonstrates the kind of mercy God requires. This stands in contrast to the Pharisees, who question Jesus when he eats with “sinners” (9:10-13) and the disciples of John who wonder why Jesus is eating at all (9:14-17).

Bibliography: Dennis C. Duling, “Matthew (Disciple),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 619; J. G. Bashaw, “Matthew the Apostle,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant – Matthew 18:23-35

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.

A Question about Forgiveness – Matthew 18:21-22

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.

What does Binding and Loosing in Heaven and Earth Mean? – Matthew18:18-20

“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.