(1) Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?—St. Mark records more fully that they had disputed about this in the way, that our Lord, knowing their thoughts (Luke 9:47), asked them what had been the, subject of their debate, and that they were then silent. We may well believe that the promise made to Peter, and the special choice of the Three for closer converse, as in the recent Transfiguration, had given occasion for the rival claims which thus asserted themselves. Those who were less distinguished looked on this preference, it may be, with jealousy, while, within the narrower circle, the ambition of the two sons of Zebedee to sit on their Lord’s right hand and on His left in His kingdom (Matthew 20:23), was ill-disposed to concede the primacy of Peter.
Ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.—The force of the words as spoken to the Twelve can hardly be exaggerated. They were disputing about precedence in the kingdom, and in that very dispute they were showing that they were not truly in it. It was essentially spiritual, and its first condition was abnegation of self. Even the chief of the Apostles was self-excluded when he gloried in his primacy. The words at least help us to understand the more mysterious language of John 3:3; John 3:5, as to the “new birth” of water and the Spirit, which one, at least, of the disputants must, in all likelihood, have heard.
As this little child.—That which was to be the result of a deliberate act in the disciples was found in the child’s nature as it was. They were to make themselves lowly as he was lowly. The transition from the plural to the singular gives an almost dramatic vividness to the form of our Lord’s teaching. We seem to see the child shrinking timidly, with blushing face and downcast eyes, from the notice thus drawn to him.
That a millstone were hanged about his neck.—The word for “millstone” indicates the larger stone-mill, in working which an ass was commonly employed, as distinguished from the smaller handmill of Luke 17:35. The punishment was not recognised in the Jewish law, but it was in occasional use among the Greeks (Diod. Sic. xvi. 35), and had been inflicted by Augustus (Sueton. Aug. lxvii.) in cases of special infamy. Jerome states (in a note on this passage) that it was practised in Galilee, and it is not improbable that the Romans had inflicted it upon some of the ringleaders of the insurrection headed by Judas of Galilee. Our Lord’s words, on this assumption, would come home with a special vividness to the minds of those who heard them. The infamy of offending one of the “little ones” was as great as that of those whoso crimes brought upon them this exceptional punishment. It was obviously a form of death less cruel in itself than many others, and its chief horror, both for Jews and heathen, was, probably, that it deprived the dead of all rites of burial. St. Mark and St. Luke, it may be noted, insert here the complaint of St. John, that he had seen one casting out devils in the name of Jesus, and this must be taken into account as an element in the sequence of thought. He was unconsciously placing himself among those who were hindering the work of Christ, and so “offending” those who believed in him. (See Note on Mark 9:38.)
In heaven their angels.—The words distinctly recognise the belief in guardian angels, entrusted each with a definite and special work. That guardianship is asserted in general terms in Psalm 34:7; Psalm 91:11, Hebrews 1:14, and elsewhere. What is added to the general fact here is, that those who have the guardianship of the little ones assigned to them are among the most noble of the heavenly host, and are as the angels of the Presence, who, like Gabriel, stand before the face of God, and rejoice in the beatific vision (Luke 1:19). The words “I say unto you” clothe what follows with the character of a new truth, as they do the like utterances of Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10. Whatever difficulties may connect themselves with the whole range of questions connected with the ministry of angels, they lie outside the work of the interpreter. There can be no question that our Lord adopts as His own the belief in the reality of that ministry, and this at a time when the Sadducees, as a leading sect, were calling it in question (Acts 23:8). The words are indirectly important as a witness to the fact that the Lord Jesus, while He proclaimed the universal Fatherhood of God as it had never been proclaimed before, also (almost, as it were, unconsciously, and when the assertion of the claim was not in view) claims a sonship nearer and higher than could have been claimed by any child of man.
Go and tell him his fault.—The Greek is somewhat stronger, convict him of his fault, press it home on him in such a way as to reach his reason and his conscience. (Comp. John 16:8.) But this is to be done “between thee and him alone.” Angry words spoken in the presence of others would fail of that result. It is significant that the substance of the precept is taken from the passage in Leviticus (Leviticus 19:17-18) which ends with “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
Thou hast gained thy brother.—The words in part derive their force from the subtle use of a word in one sense which men associated commonly with another. “Gain” of some kind, aimed at, or wrongfully withheld, was commonly the origin of disputes and litigation. A man hoped to reap some profit by going to law. In the more excellent way which our Lord points out, he would by sacrificing the lower gain, attain the higher, and win for God (see 1 Corinthians 9:19, 1 Peter 3:1, for this aspect of the word) and for himself the brother with whom he had been at variance.
Tell it unto the church.—Here, and here only in our Lord’s teaching after the promise to Peter (Matthew 16:18), we have the word Ecclesia repeated. The passage takes its place among the most conspicuous instances of the power of a word. Theories of church authority, as exercised by the priesthood, or bishops, or councils, or the personal infallibility of the Bishop of Rome, have been built upon it. The last clause has been made the groundwork of the system of church discipline which loads the heretic with anathemas, excommunicates the evil-doer, places nations under an interdict. It can scarcely be doubted that the current thoughts and language of Englishmen as to ecclesiastical discipline would have been very different, if instead of “tell it unto the church,” “if he neglect to hear the church,” we had had the word “congregation.” And yet this, or some such word (say “assembly” or “society”), is confessedly the true meaning of the Greek, and was the rendering of all the English versions, from Tyndale onwards, till the Rhemish translators introduced “church,” and were followed by the Authorised version.
So understood, the words point to the final measures for the reformation of the offender, and the vindication of the divine law of righteousness. When the two forms of private remonstrance have failed, the case is to be brought before the society at large. The appeal is to be made not to the rulers of the congregation, but to the congregation itself, and the public opinion of the Ecclesia is to be brought to bear upon the offender. Should he defy that opinion and persist in his evil doing, he practically excommunicates himself. All societies are justified in excluding from their communion one who repudiates the very conditions of membership; and his being regarded as “a heathen and a publican” is but the legitimate consequence of his own act. Even here, however, we can hardly think of our Lord as holding up the Pharisees’ way of acting towards “the heathen and the publican” as a pattern for imitation. They were to be made to feel that they were no longer within the inner circle of brotherhood, but they were still men, and, as such, entitled to courtesy and all kindly offices. St. Paul’s teaching as to the treatment of the incestuous adulterer in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 2 Corinthians 2:6-7, and of fornicators generally in 1 Corinthians 6:1-7, may be referred to as a practical illustration of the meaning of our Lord’s words.
It is obvious that the rule, as such, presupposes a small society, in the midst of a greater outside world, able to deal thus minutely with the offences of individual members. With the extension of the society, so that the church and the world became conterminous and hardly distinguishable, it was natural, perhaps, that it should follow the course of other human societies, and transfer its jurisdiction from the “congregation,” or “assembly,” to individual judges as its representatives. And so it was that, in the long-run, the bishops took the place of the congregation, and exercised its functions. So long as they were really in harmony with the mind of the church at large, this might work well enough, but there was the risk of their “lording it over God’s heritage” (1 Peter 5:3); and, in any case, there was the loss of that activity of the reason and conscience of the society which the original form of polity implied, and of which St. Paul’s appeal to its judgment as against the inconsistency of the chief of the Apostles, is a very striking instance (Galatians 2:11). How far that can be revived is one of the hard questions of our own time and, perhaps, of all times. The end may have to be attained by very different means. We cannot inform the Universal or the National Church of the misdeeds of each individual member. Practically, to submit them formally to the judgments even of the smaller society of the town or village to which the offender belonged, would not be workable. Possibly, the solution of the problem may be found in remembering that in a Christian nation the Church and the State, as far as morality is concerned, tend, in spite of doctrinal divisions, to be, as was said, conterminous, and hence that we are fulfilling the spirit of our Lord’s commands when, after all private remonstrances have failed to check the evil, we appeal to the public opinion of Christians in the neighbourhood, larger and smaller, which is affected by it. How this is to be done will vary with the varying circumstances of each individual case, but it is no idle paradox to say that as society is now constituted, the most effective way of “telling the church” may sometimes be to appeal to that public opinion as represented by lawful courts, or otherwise impartially expressed.
I will pay thee all.—The promise was, under such circumstances, an idle boast, but it describes with singular aptness the first natural impulse of one who is roused to a sense of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. He will try to balance the account as by a series of instalments; he will score righteous acts in the future as a set-off against the transgressions of the past. In theological language, he seeks to be “justified by works.”
Forgave him the debt.—The Greek noun in this case expresses a debt contracted through a loan, and in the interpretation of the parable suggests a thought like that in the parables of the Pounds, the Talents, and the Unjust Steward. What we call our own—life, with all its opportunities—is really lent to us, and God requires repayment with interest.
He laid hands on him.—We are shocked, and are meant to be shocked, by the brutal outrage with which the creditor enforces his claim, but it doubtless was but too faithful a picture of what the disciples had often witnessed, or, it may be, even practised. We are tempted to ask whether this really represents any phenomena of the spiritual life. Can a man who has really been justified and pardoned become thus merciless? The experience of every age, almost of every household, shows that the inconsistency is but too fatally common. The man is not consciously a hypocrite, but he is as yet “double minded” (James 1:8), and the baser self is not conquered. In the language of the later teaching of the New Testament the man’s faith is not one which “worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6). He is justified, but not as yet sanctified.
Till he should pay all that was due unto him.—As in Matthew 5:26 (where see Note), the words suggest at once the possibility of a limit, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of ever reaching it. How could the man in the hands of the tormentors obtain the means of paying the ten thousand talents? And the parable excludes the thought of the debt being, as it were, taken out in torments, a quantitative punishment being accepted as the discharge of what could not otherwise be paid. The imagery of the parable leaves us in silent awe, and we only find refuge from our questionings in the thought that “the things that are impossible with man are possible with God” (Matthew 19:26).
Do also unto you.—The words cut through the meshes of many theological systems by which men have deceived themselves. Men have trusted in the self-assurance of justification, in the absolving words of the priest, as though they were final and irreversible. The parable teaches that the debt may come back. If faith does not work by love, it ceases to justify. If the man bind himself once again to his old evil nature, the absolution is annulled. The characters of the discharge are traced (to use another similitude) as in sympathetic ink, and appear or disappear according to the greater or less glow of the faith and love of the pardoned debtor.
From your hearts.—A verbal, formal forgiveness does not satisfy the demands of the divine righteousness. God does not so forgive, neither should man.
Every one his brother their trespasses.—The two last words are not in some of the best MSS., and have probably been added to make the verse correspond with Matthew 6:14-15.