Monthly Archives: July 2020

Matthew 19: 1-12 Relationships and the Kingdom Revisited

James Tissot, Sermon on the Beatitudes (1886-96)

Matthew 19: 1-12

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.

3 Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

10 His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Even though chapter nineteen begins with the notation that ‘Jesus had completed these words’ which normally signals the end of a block of teaching and the movement into narrative, there is are several strong links in chapters nineteen and twenty to the teaching in chapter eighteen. These next two chapters continue to have Jesus help the community to discern the values they are to embody in the world while narratively moving Jesus into position for the final week in Jerusalem. While chapter eighteen is directed to the disciples, even though the crowds are not far away as evidenced by the presence of a child who can be pulled into their midst, but now the focus expands to the large crowds which are back and with them comes the Pharisees. Jesus continues to heal and teach and embody the kingdom of heaven as he moves through this region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Jesus’ ministry continues to be to the lost sheep of the house  of Israel as he bypasses Samaria on his journey south. Jesus only mention of Samaria and the Samaritans in Matthew is his command for the disciples not to go to them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10: 5-6)

The test of the Pharisees provides an opportunity for Jesus to teach the crowds, the Pharisees and his disciples how to read scripture and to interpret the law. This is not an idle question, but as Warren Carter can identify, “Questions of marriage, divorce, and remarriage are life-and-death matters, as John the Baptist found out (14: 1-12)” (Carter 2005, 378) In Matthew’s gospel we will later see the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians to attempt to entrap Jesus (22: 15-22) and as I’ve alluded one of the reasons both John and Jesus probably find themselves in conflict with the Pharisees (and Sadducees) is the way they have accommodated themselves to the political powers represented by the Herods and Rome. The placement of the Pharisees now asking a question to entrap Jesus about divorce opens the possibility that they also informed Herod Antipas of John’s condemnation of Herod’s relationship with Herodias.

Matthew’s gospel has already stated Jesus’ beliefs on divorce, which are rearticulated here, in the Sermon on the Mount (5: 31-32) and it is probable that the Pharisees are aware of this position, and select this question of whether it is ‘lawful’ for a man to divorce his wife for any reason expecting him to restate this position and perhaps alienate many men who are following him. Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 is the one place in the law where divorce is discussed for the general population of the people of Israel:

Suppose a man enters into a marriage with a women, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; Deuteronomy 24:1

Divorce is, in Deuteronomy 24 and in the position of the Pharisees in this narrative, an assumed option of any man who has a wife who does not ‘please him.’ We know that there are various perspectives within Judaism about what would provide justification for a man to divorce his wife, but in the question the Pharisees are testing Jesus with a question where there assumption is that it is ‘lawful.’ Jesus previously has quoted Deuteronomy 24 but then goes on to say to those listening:

But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (5: 32)

Here Jesus goes back to the creation narrative for his answer referencing both Genesis 1:27 where God made them male and female and Genesis 2:24 where a man leaves father and mother and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. These Pharisees interpret the law differently and point back to the commandment of Moses which they believe gives them permission to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce their spouse for any cause. Jesus’ attributes this to Moses’ accommodation to the ‘hard-heartedness’ of the people and continues to point to a community where divorce is only an option for men in rare circumstances.

As in 5: 31-32, The Greek term porneia which is translated unchastity by the NRSV is open to debate about its exact meaning: illicit sexual relations with a person other than the spouse, premarital unchastity (this is the assumption behind Joseph’s initial decision to quietly divorce Mary prior to the angel of the Lord, and Joseph is considered a righteous man (1:18-21)) or even (in relation to Leviticus 18) being married too closely in family relations (an incestuous marriage in the eyes of the law). In Greek this term is a general term relating to sexual misconduct, but it is a different term than moicheoo which is translated adultery in this passage. I’ve assumed throughout these reflections that Mark’s gospel is older than Matthew’s and the addition of the “except for unchastity” between the two gospels demonstrates (along with Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians about Christians married to non-Christian spouses whose spouses choose to divorce) demonstrates that even within the formation of the Christian cannon there is already a deliberation and adaptation about the prohibition against divorce.

What the disciples’ reaction highlights is the manner in which Jesus’ reframing of marriage alters the renunciation of rights for the male involved in the marriage. Marriages in the ancient world were primarily economic relationships where women were dependent upon men for their status, their linkage to the land and their property, and when men dissolve this relationship it places women in a challenging position of being isolated from their status, land and home. There is a costliness for husbands in committing their life and resources without reservation to one individual. I don’t say this to ignore the sacrifices that women make in relation to marriage, but instead I want to highlight the leveling of the relationship by Jesus and others who argued for a restrictive view of divorce in the ancient world. This renunciation of a man’s right to request a divorce on their terms is enough for his disciples to contemplate celibacy as a better economic option. We know that at least Peter is married (Jesus healed his mother-in-law in 8:15) and presumably other disciples were as well. Jesus’ appeal to eunuchs is also another place where Jesus challenges this perception of masculinity. Eunuchs are viewed as emasculated men, people who have lost a fundamental part of their identity and do not fit neatly into the category of male or female. Eunuchs, in Deuteronomy 23:1, are prevented from being a part of the assembly of the Lord and from the priesthood (Leviticus 21:20). Yet Isaiah 56:4-5 includes the promise for eunuchs who hold fast to the LORD’s name a place within God’s house. Jesus, siding with Isaiah, announces that there is a place within God’s household for those who by birth, by being made a eunuch by others, or who renounce marriage (and procreation) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, but that is not the path for everyone. For those who choose the path of marriage and procreation there is a renunciation of the privilege of maleness to terminate that relationship, except in extreme cases, because one’s partner does not ‘please them.’ Jesus’ reinterpretation of the commandment goes to the heart of God’s intent in creation where the creation of male and female are both the image of God and their joining together in marriage is a joining of their identities in the eyes of God. Yet, for the man there is the choice to renounce their maleness, through celibacy, as another option in pursuing the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18: 21-35 A Forgiving King and Community

By Domenico Fetti – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

Matthew 18: 21-35

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This parable is unique to Matthew’s gospel but is well known as the parable of the unforgiving servant (or slave). In the individualistic culture of modernity it is natural that we focus primarily on this one slave who has an incredible debt forgiven, but the placement of this parable within a chapter that is focused on forgiveness and reconciliation within a community setting should alert us that something beyond an individualistic interpretation which neglects the surrounding community is insufficient. In Matthew individual actions and communal responsibility go together just like forgiveness of sins/trespasses and the forgiveness of economic debts. We have already seen Jesus model for the disciples in Matthew 6: 12-15 where in the Lord’s prayer the disciple asks for God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtor.” And follows this with, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” In response to Peter’s question about forgiveness these statements are given narrative form in the parable.

Peter’s question, narratively prompted by the practices of reconciliation with a member of the community of Christ who sins against another member, about the limits of forgiveness and Jesus’ response about the expansiveness of forgiveness provide the foundation for the world of the parable. Peter’s question of limits is a practical one in discerning when a fellow member of the community is beyond redemption, when a lost sheep should remain lost of a fellow member be perpetually condemned as a Gentile and tax collector. Jesus’ answer invokes the figure of Lamech and stands in direct opposition to Lamech’s way of retaliation:

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech listen to what I say: I have killed a young man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4: 23-24)

Lamech, the descendant of Cain, responds to violence with greater violence, Jesus responds to sin and violence with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. As David Garland can state, “Under Lamech there was no limit to hatred and revenge; under Moses it was limited to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life; under Jesus there is no limit to love, forgiveness, and mercy.” (Garland, 2001, p. 197)

Entering the parable, we have the kingdom of heaven placed alongside a king settling accounts with his slaves. Although the slavery imagined in this parable is different from slavery as it was practiced in the United States, the people ordered by the king are not merely servants who are bound by an economic arrangement that either party could terminate. The slave, their relationships and their property are ultimately the property of this king who has the power, as we will see in the parable, to dispose of as he sees fit. On the other hand, this king delegates incredible economic authority, and presumably power as well, to the first slave in particular. In settling accounts (literally settling words) with the slaves of the king only one debtor is significant enough to bear mention for the story. We can become fixated on how to communicate the value of 10,000 talents, but both the word for 10,000 is like seventy times seven, a number too high to account for and the unit of measure, a talent, is too large for most of Jesus’ hearers to ever possess. As M. Eugene Boring can state:

A talent is the largest monetary unit (20.4 kg of silver), equal to 6,000 drachmas, the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. “Ten thousand” (mupia,j myrias, “myriad”) is the largest possible number. Thus the combination is the largest figure that can be given. The annual tax income of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation. (NIB VIII: 382)

For Matthew debt and sin are closely related and so it is a short jump from a question of forgiveness of sin to a narrative where an unpayable debt is owed and forgiveness is granted on account of compassion and mercy. In the narrative the king is entitled to sell of the slave, his family, and his possessions to regain as much of the impossible amount that this slave is unable to pay back. The slave prostrates himself and asks for patience, the king responds with compassion and grants a release from the loan and from the impending punishment of himself and his family.

The first slave forgiven the impossible debt then encounters another slave who is indebted to him for a realistic and repayable amount (1/600,000 of the forgiven debt if one wants to be literal). The violence of the forgiven slave’s action towards the debtor where he grabs him and is choking him as he makes his demand for repayment stands in contrast to the king’s summoning. While in the world of court political intrigue where the forgiven slave is attempting to reassert power over his subordinates may make sense in a normal kingdom (Carter, 2005, p. 373) it is anathema to the kingdom of heaven. It is helpful to remember that a parable is a narrative world based upon but not dependent upon a concrete reality, a real king or an earthly kingdom. The forgiven slave claims a power the king did not use initially, the power of violence and threat, the power to imprison and demand. The still indebted and choked slave responds to the assaulting slave with the exact stance and words used before the king, asking not for forgiveness but time. Yet, this former debtor shows no patience or mercy to the current debtor. Instead he imprisons him, perhaps to demonstrate his own power or to sooth his own ego. Regardless of the reason it impacts the community of those who serve the king.

The community knows what has happened in its midst, it grieves exceedingly the violence and injustice done to one of their own. In their grief they report it to their lord, hoping that their lord will intervene. The slaves of the king are heard and noticed, and this type of activity within the king’s reign, especially in light of the previous forgiveness, is unacceptable. The king’s will is to show mercy and to have mercy shown (perhaps a strange king but what normal king is like the kingdom of heaven). It is necessary to forgive others as one has been forgiven in this community. The forgiven slave may have a claim on the slave indebted to him, but the king of both has the final claim. The king finally responds to the previously forgiven slave in the same manner he responded to his debtor.

Some modern interpreters and many modern Christians are troubled by a God who judges. We may either believe in the distant god of modernity which is an unmoved mover, or we may imagine a god whose love excludes punishment of any kind. Neither of these gods are the God we encounter in scripture. God does take sides and God does judge and this is a corollary of God’s love for God’s people and the creation not in opposition to it. A community committed to reconciliation and doing the hard work of advocating and including lost sheep, Gentiles and tax collectors and debtors is an alternative to the ways of power in the world. The kingdom of heaven is not like a regular king, but a forgiving one. At the same time, it is still better for a millstone to be hung around the neck of those who place barriers for the little ones of the kingdom for God judges what the community cannot. The community of Christ may have the hard work of binding and loosing on earth, and God values that work, but it is always directed towards a community of forgiveness and mercy. Just as Christ is present where two or three are gathered, so the community’s cries when an individual or group does not practice forgiveness are heard by their heavenly Father. There is an edge to God’s dwelling with the community that does not practice the life God calls them to. This is the edge in the prophets’ voices as they spoke to Israel when they did not live in accordance with God’s covenant for them and this is the edge of the parable when a community or individual does not forgive as they have been forgiven.


Matthew 18: 15-20 A Reconciling Community

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)

Matthew 18: 15-20

15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This short passage, unique to Matthew’s gospel, has exercised a powerful influence on the shaping of church practices and understandings. In five short verses we have the background of the church’s practice of excommunication, a second reiteration of the ability to bind and loose, and the promise of Christ’s presence where two or three are gathered. Our understanding of these verses is often locked into our understanding of church as it exists two thousand years after Jesus’ life with all its accumulated traditions and practices. Every act of interpretation is an act of imagining the context in which these words were spoken to an early community of disciples attempting to enact the assembly that Jesus calls into being with his words and presence. Yet, for Matthew more than any other gospel, the formation of a community that can embody Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of heaven in their proclamation and life together is an important feature.

When we use the term church to translate the Greek ekklesia it ensures that most readers will bring to this reading their concrete experiences of church and their intellectual and emotional baggage that the term may carry. Ekklessia in the Greco-Roman environment is typically an, “assembly, as a regularly summoned political body” or when used in the Septuagint to talk about the gathered community of the Israelites is typically the “congregation” of the Israelites. (BAGD, p.241) Matthew’s understanding of the ekklesia taking on the role of Israel on behalf of the world probably leads to ‘congregation’ being a better term, but that is also associated in modern times with the experience of church. Ultimately for the purposes of this I would translate this as the ‘congregation of Christ’ or ‘the assembly of Christ’ hopefully calling attention to the unique nature of this community in relation to the world around it and its distinction from our experience and understanding of ‘church.’

In the church the historical practice of excommunication was used to enforce the boundaries of the church, to exclude those who by beliefs or practices were felt to be a danger to the right worship of Christ. Unfortunately, the manner in which it has often been practiced in the life of the church was centered upon exclusion rather than reconciliation which is the direction of Matthew 18. The congregation of Christ that Matthew speaks to does have the difficult task of holding a brother or sister accountable for their actions towards an individual or the community. The imperative to act is placed upon the one who perceives they have been sinned against. Here the action is against a one person, and the initial response is for the individual to point out the fault while they are alone.

The action of bringing the action of the brother or sister to light in a way that encourages reconciliation and forgiveness is countercultural in our society of shame and blame. This is a courageous action which hopes for healing, rather than an identification of faults for the sake of exercising power over the individual or to justify their exclusion. The entire direction of this fourth block of teaching is directed towards forgiveness and reconciliation, the hope that the lost sheep might be rejoined to the flock. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say as he tried to re-imagine a community of Christ in Life Together:

Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin. (DBWE 5: 105)

This community called into existence by Christ is called to practice a way of life that can hold another brother or sister accountable for their actions and let them know that by their actions they are walking outside the way of the community of Christ in the hope of repentance and reconciliation between the one whose sin has placed a stumbling block before others in the community.

The one who is sinned against had the responsibility to bring the action to light, but this also requires a community that supports this practice of accountability. Just like the owner of the sheep who realizes that one of their flock has gone astray, so the individual who realizes a brother or sister has sinned goes to seek them and to try to heal the brokenness. Yet, just as there is the possibility that a sheep may not be found, there is the possibility that a sinner will not change; but the community bears responsibility for providing them every opportunity for repentance and reconciliation. If one on one the reproving is not received, then they are to go as a group of two or three. This parallels the requirements in Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 where the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain the punishment or exclusion from the community (by death in Deuteronomy 17). Matthew’s community may not practice the death penalty, but it is attempting to figure out how it can model a society based upon a merciful reading of the law. If even in the presence of witnesses the person refuses to hear reproving, then the matter is brought before the congregation for an additional opportunity at public reconciliation. It is now the congregation of Christ that bears the power to receive or release the individual from the community, they can declare that one is no longer living in accordance with the congregation and are therefore an outsider who would need to be evangelized and repent before being considered a brother or sister once more. The congregation bears this authority because of Christ’s presence among the congregation.

As I argued in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew is trying to articulate a community of Jesus followers who can live and hand on Jesus’ teaching. As Richard B. Hays can state: “There can be no question here of a purely individualized spiritual formation. Matthew is strongly ecclesially oriented.” (Hays, 1996, p. 97) This community is always oriented towards forgiveness. Yet, it is a community that cares enough to declare some actions as inappropriate and scandalous towards the little ones of the community of Christ. It is a place that is an alternative to the practices of the kingdoms of the world and provides a place where forgiveness can be learned, and courage is practiced as sins are named and sinners have an opportunity for reconciliation.

The gospel of Matthew begins and ends by referring to Jesus as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ and here within the guidance about life in the community of Christ the reference to Jesus’ presence among the gathered community is highlighted once more. In Matthew 1:23 the narrator uses the name Emmanuel to introduce Jesus’ coming birth and here in this passage we have Jesus promising for the first time his continued presence among the congregation of Christ (this theme returns at the end of the gospel). There is an oft noted parallel teachings in the Rabbinical Jewish tradition where the rabbis state: “But if two sit together and the words between them are of Torah, then the Shekinah[1] is in their midst.” (m. Aboth 3:2) The community of Christ gathered around Jesus’ words experiences the presence of God in the way the rabbis expected of observant Jews gathered around Torah. This is heightened when one anticipates Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24:35 where, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” and that passage’s connection to Isaiah 40:7-8,

The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

There is a theological boldness to the claiming in a manner parallel to God’s words not fading, Christ’s words will not fade, and that as God’s Shekinah is present in the gathering around Torah, the community gathered around Jesus’ words for discernment shares the presence of Jesus in their midst. The formation of a community of Christ that can both name sins that are committed and practice reconciliation is a community that will later be called to make disciples of not only the little ones of Israel, but all nations, handing on all that they have been commanded. Yet, they go in the presence of the Jesus who is with them always.

[1] The Shekinah is from the Jewish word for ‘settle’ or ‘dwell’ and while not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures is an idea in rabbinic writing that refers to the presence of God among God’s people. It can refer to the presence of God in the temple, but also as here to God’s presence in the midst of the studying of Torah, also in prayer, in judging, in relationships and in times of need.

When a Dream Dies

Glimpse of a Dream, IR photo of French River by Paul Bica, 2013 shared under creative commons 2.0

Often they simply fade into the night, slipping into the ether
They dwelt for a brief time deep within our sleeping mind
We wake with no remembrance of their sojourn through synapses
Our short journey with their evanescent existence in the dark
Yet, rare visions weave themselves into the warp and weft of the soul
Their lives become joined to our own, birthing hopes and aspirations
A symbiotic connection of between vision and will, the dream and dreamer
And when that dream dies it takes a piece of us with it into oblivion

The Mansion of My Mind

House of Prince Gagarin By Aleksandr Lozhkin – Степанов К.Н. (March 2014). “Художник Александр Васильевич Ложкин (1881–1942). Краткий очерк жизни и творчества”. Московский журнал (3 (279)): back cover. ISSN 0868-7110., Public Domain,

I will never dwell on some vast estate with a gardener to care for the land
But I can cultivate the fertile soil of my mind and plant seeds that grow
Care for the flowering plants, harvesting the produce, clearing the weeds
Pruning thoughts that have grown unruly to make space for the seeds I sow
I will never build some great mansion with rooms to fill and halls to decorate
But my mind contains an expanding multitude of rooms to fill as I choose
A library full of stories and wisdom, an art gallery filled with beauty and color
Halls of memories holding pictures and remembrances of a past still alive
The ever-expanding building may be complex, but I contain multitudes
Teachers and friends and family, writers and artists all inhabit my mind
And I can choose the dialogue partners I allow inside these walls
As master of this house, I send out the invites and I am the gracious host
I find as I grow that I need new rooms and spaces as life expands its reach
Curiosities need places to be explored, relationship need spaces to live
Sometimes, I need to explore the vast expanses of nature that adjoin
Sea and sand, mountain and forest, babbling brook, rushing rivers
I choose not to dwell too long on the mirror of lost loves and hopes
There is no wing full of the mementos to untraveled roads and broken hearts
Some rooms have been removed; others remodeled as I have grown
But I love the beauty of the place, it is home in a way no building is

Matthew 18: 12-14 The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Lamb By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Matthew 18: 12-14

Parallel Luke 15: 3-7

12 What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

This short little parable is placed here in the midst of the discussion of the community Christ is imagining for those who will follow him and it demonstrates the continuing concern for the little ones who may be ‘scandalized’ and lost to the community. Both Matthew and Luke use this brief illustration of a flock of sheep with one missing whom the master of the sheep seeks out and rejoices over, but their placement of this parable within the context of the gospel and the structure of the surrounding text are used to illustrate different points. In Luke’s gospel, this parable is the first of three familiar parables which answer the accusation that Jesus, “eats with sinners and tax collectors” and through stories of a lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son Jesus points to the joy in heaven over a sinner repenting and a child returning home. In Matthew’s gospel the primary issue is the finding of one lost to the community and it is set within parables and teaching about reconciliation and it is paired with two different parables about unforgiving servants and ungrateful workers.[1]  For Luke this parable is used to explain to outsiders the inclusive nature of the community of Christ, in Matthew the parable reminds insiders of their continual need to seek out those led astray and to welcome them home with forgiveness and rejoicing.

In the parable a person has a hundred sheep. It is important that the person is not labeled as a shepherd in the original Greek but is ‘a certain person’ having 100 sheep. The person is not merely the ‘caretaker’ of someone else’s flock but they both own and are present with the flock.  Most translations tidy up the parable to indicate that the missing sheep has ‘gone astray’ but the Greek plano has the primary meaning of being led astray or deceived, this is language unique but important to Matthew’s narration of this parable, especially sandwiched between a discussion of those who ‘scandalize’ the little ones by their actions and the upcoming discussions on forgiveness and reconciliation. The sheep has not merely wandered off, but has actively been deceived or mislead to be away from the remainder of the 99. Likewise the action of the owner of the flock is not merely leaving the ninety nine on the mountain, but the Greek aphimi has the connotation of abandoning and the act of leaving behind the majority of one’s sheep to search for the lost one who might be found would not be a normal action for a person caring for a flock but this again demonstrates the point of the parable, that the one rejoiced over in the kingdom of heaven is the little one who was lost and regained.

Even though the owner of the sheep in the parable values the restoration of the lost one, in Matthew’s relation of this parable there is no guarantee that the lost one is regained. While Luke’s parables states ‘when’ the owner finds the sheep, Matthew says ‘if’ leaving the possibility that even with the owner’s search the led astray sheep may not be recovered, just as an corrected member may not accept correction in the following section. Matthew’s placement of this parable within a discussion of relations between members in the church and the continual emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness can realistically acknowledge the danger that a little one can be led astray by the actions of those inside or beyond the community, but the hope is always for restoration. The lost little one restored is the source of joy of the owner and the will of the heavenly Father.

Amy-Jill Levine points to a midrashic text which has an interesting resonance to this parable. In Exodus Rabbah, Moses is shown as a paradigm of what it means to care for a flock. The story in Exodus Rabbah states:

The Holy One tested Moses by means of the flock, as our rabbis explained: when Moses rabbenu (Moses our teacher) was tending Jethro’s flock in the wilderness, a lamb scampered off, and Moses followed it, until it approached a shelter under a rock. As the lamb reached the shelter, it came upon a pool of water and stopped to drink. When Moses caught up with it, he said, “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired.” So he hoisted the lamb on his shoulders and started walking back with it. The Holy One then said, “Because you showed such compassion in tending the flock of a mortal, as you live, you shall become the shepherd of Israel, the flock that is mine.” (Levine, 2014, pp. 43-44)

Matthew’s placement of this parable in the context of discussions of the community that will be shaped by the message of Jesus, the ekklesia (often translated church) indicates the stance of compassion that God has for those who have been led astray. This also should is to shape the response of those called to participation in this community and the compassion they are to have for the little ones who are led astray. When possible they are to be restored and that restoration is to be greeted with joy. Restoration may not always be possible, but the owner of the flock is willing to leave behind the majority to seek the sheep who is missing. Leaders in this ekklesia are to model the compassion of Moses in the parable above and the compassion for the little ones who trust in him that Jesus shows throughout his teaching. If the owner of the flock will abandon the herd to search for the lost one, those who shepherd the flock are called to practice this type of care for those they guide. Throughout Matthew’s gospel and throughout most of scripture there is always an opportunity for repentance and reconciliation. Sometimes the led astray little one may need to repent and sometimes the individual or community that allowed a stumbling block to be placed before the little one will need to repent so they can participate in the joy over the reconciliation between the lost little one and the remainder of the flock.

[1] As mentioned in the previous sections I view Matthew 18: 1-20:28 as a unit structurally. Many scholars end this unit at 19:1 with “When Jesus had finished saying these things…” but I view the section beginning and ending with questions of ‘the greatest in the kingdom’ and it also includes Matthew’s (and Mark’s and Luke’s) normal pattern of groups of three parables which center around a common theme.

The Wisdom of Myth

Adrift by Locopelli at

In our modern arrogance we wanted to demythologize the world
Science and rationality became our new gods, but now they served us
Creation became merely resources for consumption turned to capital
Capitalism became the religion of the new age, money became meaning
Wisdom was abandoned for data and people became means to profit

Yet, I continue to seek the wisdom of myth, the reason of religion
Returning to the songs passed through the ages that taught us to sing
The yearning of our ancestors for a story that tells where we came from
That gives us a frame to understand who we are in relation to the world
Common stories that give meaning, that bear some ancient knowledge

Were the myths misused in the past to divide and to destroy, yes
Just as science, rationality and capitalism have all been used to enslave
And there is no going back to some imagined past before our postmodern age
Perhaps in listening again not only to these stories and the world they imagine
But also, to the society they tried to form and the wonder the inspired

How creatures of creation came to understand their place in a world of magic
A porous world where the divine and the demonic were not far from the surface
A world saturated by meaning through the stories that shaped the people
Perhaps they were merely the ruminations of old men or the tales of women
The ravings of a misunderstood prophet or the songs of kings and queens

And though it is the path overgrown with weeds, I still try to traverse
This quest for wisdom in the myths of our ancestors, the sense in the stories
Which might help me to use the data and science of our time in ways humane
To see the creation beyond the consumption, the people behind the profit
To seek a society where my children can know both knowledge and wisdom
Myth and math, story and science, money and meaning, and so I seek