Bible: Complicated commands

July 1 — Matthew 18:21-35; July 8 — Matthew 23:1-8, 23-26

Jun 18, 2018 by

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Matthew seeks to trace how Jesus prepared his followers to spread his good news to “all nations” that they might obey what he has commanded (28:16-20; for the commands, see especially the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7).

Ted Grimsrud


We also get a crucial command from Jesus in our passage from Matthew 18: Forgive one another in your faith community not just seven times but seven times 70 (18:21-22). Jesus’ good news requires our faith communities to live in harmony, to act as salt and light, to show the world the true meaning of justice. And this includes reconciling when inevitable conflicts arise.

Just think how often the witness of the gospel of Jesus has been undermined when his followers don’t obey this command. What would happen in our world today if Christians would simply agree never to go to war against other Christians? What would happen if Christians learned how to resolve our conflicts with one another with genuine reconciliation?

Jesus offers a troubling parable about forgiveness. A king seeks to settle accounts with a slave who owes him a staggering debt that could never possibly be repaid.

Out of pity the king forgives this debt. So far, so good. The king is our model.

But then things take a darker turn. The slave refuses to imitate his benefactor and throws a fellow slave into prison when the latter can’t repay his debt.

When the king learns of this, he becomes angry: “You wicked slave. . . . Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had mercy on you?” (18:32).

There is no happy ending here. The king turns the unforgiving servant over to be tortured until he pays the entire debt. Jesus says his “heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if your do not forgive your brother or sister from you heart” (18:35).

Is this true justice, to torture an unforgiving person until they can pay their debt? Especially since the debt is too great ever to be repaid. Doesn’t that simply mean torturing the debtor to death? What is Jesus trying to tell us? I suspect the “from your heart” element is crucial.

Our next text, Matthew 23, points to valuable lessons — with some troubling emphases. Jesus’ conflict with religious leaders accelerates. He offers a sharp critique that might inform our understanding of our religious leaders — and stimulate some critical self-reflection for those of us in leadership roles.

More so, though, I believe we may read Matthew 23 as a useful statement about what Jesus wants as alternative behavior to that of the religious leaders.

Practice what you preach. Work to help those who struggle to be faithful. Practice humility rather than striving for prestige. And so on.

Make justice and mercy and faith central. Tend to your heart, so that your loving actions follow from a loving heart and aren’t just external.

But perhaps this chapter also illustrates the problems with harsh critiques. Let’s assume Jesus was justified in his critique here (though what we know about Pharisees from other sources shows them in a more positive light).

What have been the consequences of his words here? They likely have encouraged centuries of anti-Jewish beliefs and actions from Christians. And many harsh and hurtful words toward lots of people.

Is there a way we might read Matthew 23 as compatible with Jesus’ core command from his Sermon on the Mount? “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:43-44).

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harris­onburg, Va.

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