Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
Sundays after Trinity (13)
Matthew 18.21-35 :
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Share together a situation in which you, your family or Christian community have been stretched to the limit in terms of the offering of forgiveness time again to someone who repeatedly sins against you.
Reflection on the text
It seems that relationships in Matthew’s households were seriously conflicted.
The conflicts may have arisen over differences in interpretation of the Jewish Law and its place in the life of the community (clashes between Jewish and Gentile believers), ethnic differences or differences about how material resources were shared.
In the face of broken relationships, the author of the gospel outlines Jesus’ teaching on how to resolve conflict and reach a place of reconciled forgiveness. Some commentators suggest that this ‘code of conduct’ extends from chapter 17 verse 24 to 20 verse 34.
Last week’s passage focused on a path to follow in the event of one member in the Christian community sinning against another: one that could lead to relationships of reconciled forgiveness (18 v 15). It also outlined what to do should a member of the church (ekklesia) refuse to enter into a reconciling process (18 v 16 - 20). This represented a major shift in Matthew’s communities from a hierarchical to an egalitarian pattern of relationships. There’s no suggestion of a ‘father’ figure or ‘power group’ sorting out the problems or telling the community what to do. The task of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ is given to the whole community not just to Peter (see 16v19).
This week, we have the seventy times seven challenge in the practice of forgiveness (v 21-22). It suggests that no-one should be ‘written off’ and that the community must maintain a disposition of openness towards repeat offenders, hopeful of reaching a state of reconciled forgiveness and embrace. The goal in relationships, always, is one of communion. Clearly, Jesus wants the practice of mercy to be central to the life of his community. But it doesn’t mean that issues of justice should be ignored. Verses 21 and 22 must be understood in relation to verses 15 to 18 (compare Luke 17v 3 – 4).
The parable that follows (v 23 – 34) suggests that forgiveness is to be both material (debt cancellation) and relational (forgiveness of wrongs); Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer reads ‘forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (6 v 12). A truly forgiving community is one that practices Jubilee. Debt forgiveness, however hard it may be to implement, is to be one of the distinguishing marks of the Christ community. Christian discipleship is as much about economic relationships as it is about faith relationships. Indeed, economic matters are profoundly spiritual.
some questions for group discussion:
- People often say, ‘you must forgive and forget’ often quoting Jesus’ words about 70 times 7 forgiveness; meaning that one should act as if the offence had not been committed. Can you think of circumstances when forgiveness ought to be withheld from a person, that is, it should remain conditional? If so, what might those circumstances or conditions be?
- What happens if a person doesn’t feel that they have been forgiven, of if they don’t feel they need forgiveness?
- What difference does it make to the way we go about seeking reconciled forgiveness if we understand this passage in the light of Jesus’ answer to the question ‘who is the greatest?’ (18 v 1)
- What economic lessons can be drawn from the parable (v23ff) for your Christian community? For example, are you involved in the campaign for the cancellation of third world debt? Are there ways to help those in your church or neighbourhood with large debt burdens?
Pray together about some of the issues raised in your group discussion.
Say together the Lord’s Prayer using ‘forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors’ instead of ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Pause for a minute after these words and then complete the prayer.
Finish your time of prayer by using the following prayer for Debt Cancellation
Creator God, who made this beautiful earth,
thank you that you have given us the opportunity to share in your work.
Help us as we strive towards a world where unjust debts are cancelled
- for with you nothing is impossible.
Dear Lord Jesus,
who taught us that we are all neighbours to each other,
show us how to put this principle into action
as we negotiate for debt cancellation.
you help us to know the reality of cancelled sin through Christ's cross.
Give us determined energy to see debts cancelled
and our brothers and sisters stepping freely into more abundant life. Amen.
Prayer for Debt Cancellation. With kind permission of Elizabeth Leicester, www.jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk This material may be freely copied or used in other documents, as long as the source is credited.
More background information
- The Jews were obliged to forgive people who sinned against them but rabbis in Jesus’ day argued about how many times a person was required to forgive another’s offences. The number of times varied according to who the offender was: a child, a wife, a brother and so forth. It seems seven was the maximum number of times required and was understood to mean indefinitely. However, it did give some the opportunity to count up and refuse forgiveness on the eighth count.
- Jesus didn’t mean literally 490 times (v 22). It’s not about keeping scores. Rather, people are to forgive as they themselves have been forgiven. It boils down to a person recognizing their own sinfulness and the enormity of God’s forgiveness towards them. How can you withhold forgiveness from someone who asks when God has so liberally forgiven you?
- 10,000 talents was an enormous sum of money. The Jewish historian Josephus says that the sum total of taxes collected from all of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria in 4 B.C. was 600 talents!
- For a really interesting commentary on the passage read Elaine Ramshaw’s article ‘Power and Forgiveness in Matthew 18’ at http://www.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/18-4_Matthew/18-4_Ramshaw.pdf.
- Here’s a great quote worth pondering: ‘Christian forgiveness is at once an expression of a commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which we seek to ‘unlearn’ sin and learn the ways of God, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sins, specific instances of brokenness. In the broadest context, forgiveness is the means by which God’s love moves to reconciliation in the face of sin. Hence the craft of forgiveness involves the ongoing and ever-deepening process of unlearning sin through forgiveness and learning to live in communion with the Triune God, with one another, and with the whole Creation.’ L Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness, page 232.
- For more information on third world debt go to the Jubilee Debt Campaign website at http://www.jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk/Drop20the20Debt+1.twl. Resources for faith groups can be found at http://www.jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk/Faith20Groups+2847.twl and prayer: http://www.jubileedebtcampaign.org.uk/Materials20for20use20around20Journey20to20Justice20201820May2C202008+4036.twl.