Matthew 17:24–18:35. Of Children, Taxes and Other Difficulties.

Key Notes: Paying taxes. Receiving children. Settling disputes. Forgiveness required.

This lesson brings us to the end of another block of Matthew, in which Jesus gave advanced training to the disciples. It began with the death of John the Baptist and its implications. It includes the feeding of 5000 and 4000, and walking on the sea, Peter’s confession of Christ and the Transfiguration. Jesus conducted four sessions of large-scale healing. They were taught that sin originates from within. They were informed that Gentiles were in the Kingdom. They heard twice that Jesus would die.

In this lesson, Jesus talks to the disciples about personal matters, seemingly small issues like the trivial temple tax, dealing with children and church discipline. There is more about children in Matthew than any place except the Proverbs. Forgiveness at the end of the lesson is a serious spiritual challenge for me and I think all of us. It is not much taught or seriously thought about. Let us consider whether this teaching is the will of God for my life, or if it is a series of suggestions in a self-help manual?

17:24–27 A half-shekel annual tax for the temple maintenance came from the time of Exodus. (Ex.30:11–16). At the time of that first census, everyone numbered in the census was to pay a half-shekel to the Lord as “an offering”, ” a ransom”, or “atonement money”, to be devoted to the service of the tabernacle. By New Testament times it had become an annual requirement. Peter was asked by the collectors if Jesus would pay it. Of course.

Jesus, staying in Capernaum, knew what Peter had said and asked Peter if a king or his family paid taxes to their government. Peter said they did not. Jesus said therefore the sons of the kingdom are free, but are under obligation not to offend unnecessarily. He did not hesitate to offend when an important principle had to be made, but this was not such an occasion. He had previously told the Pharisees that He was greater than the Temple. (Matt.12:6). He ate with sinners. He denounced ceremonial purifications that substituted for spiritual purity. He picked His battles.

The miracle of the coin in the fish’s mouth joins two other small miracles, the donkeys tied in preparation for the Triumphal Entry (Matt.21:2) and the arrangements for the Upper Room. (Matt.26:18). It would be unusual, but not be unheard of, to find a colt tied or a man with a water jar. It is not unusual for a fish to snap up a shiny object like a coin. We use similar lures to catch fish—“spoons” and “spinners”. The miracles are such because they had happened when Jesus said they would. Did the apostles not have the money to pay the temple tax? We know they were very poor.

18:1–14 This passage relates to the treatment of children. The topic was brought up by the disciples asking Jesus who was the greatest—hoping it would be one of them. It is probable that they were responding to Jesus’ announcement that He would be leaving them soon. (Matt.17:22–23). That was plainly their motive when Jesus’ third announcement of the Cross was immediately followed by the mother of James and John asking Jesus to command that her two sons be on either side of Him in His Kingdom. (Matt. 20:17–21). The disciples wanted to know who is next in line, who would be boss when Jesus was out of the picture.

Jesus called to a child, stood him in the circle and told them that unless they turned around (were converted) and became as this child, they could not even enter the Kingdom, much less preside over their brothers. The humble will be greatest in the Kingdom. We must be willing to be led by our Heavenly Father, willing to be taught and do the small task. We are not to dominate, manipulate or micro-manage.

18:5–6 What does it mean to “receive” a child? (For an example, see Jesus in Matt.19:13–14.) It would appear at least that we are to accept confessing children for baptism and fellowship in the church. The word “these little ones” (Gr. “micron” ) may include children with disabilities—Down’s syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and simple retardation. Receiving such children requires special resources, love and skills.

18:7–15 Jesus challenged the disciples not to lead a child into sin. Better to maim yourself than abuse a child or despise a child. He told the story of the Ninety and Nine and exhorted them to go after those children who stray away. It is not the Father’s will that any should perish. Are we surprised to find how much Jesus cares about children?

There are innumerable many ways a child can be hurt.
*Teasing, vexing, or thwarting a child (Col.3:21) is easy and tempting.
*Neglect includes leaving the child in the hands of strangers, as well as ignoring obvious needs.
*Children are vulnerable to flattery "(You are so beautiful."), unfair comparisons ("Why aren’t you like your brother?" ) and lies. (“You can succeed at whatever you try to do.”)
Children are likely to continue in the sins of the parents— materialism, alcohol and drug addiction, physical abuse, gambling, and sexual promiscuity.

Jesus said people who cause little ones to sin are candidates for Hell (18:6)—and He was talking to disciples! Admittedly the disciples have left houses and lands and family and children for the Kingdom. (19:29). Therefore neglect was an obvious problem for them. Only recently are mission boards coming to grips with the impact of family separation on the emotional health of children. How can children not be sacrificed for the greater good of the Kingdom? Close relatives must stand in the gap.

Although Margaret Mead said “It’s not a good time for children” we have since learned a great deal about child development and how to treat children well. We have Christian resources of CEF, AWANA, YFC, Sunday School, adoption agencies, home-schooling and Christian day-schools and other youth programs. Clearly, children carefully raised in Christian homes are doing better than ever, even as neglected children are worse off.

18:15–20 Jesus then turned to another kind of problem, the fellow-believer (“brother”) who has done you wrong. The rules Jesus established are simple, and have been widely applied, perhaps more often outside the Church than in it.

  1. Go to the person and attempt reconciliation one to one.
  2. If you are not successful, bring one or two others as witnesses.
  3. If not successful again, bring the problem to the church.
  4. If the guilty party rebels against the church, excommunication may be appropriate.

However, it is not mandated that all four steps be followed. It may not be wise to bring the whole Christian community into the struggle for a trivial problem. Then simple forgiveness is the other conclusion.

The most frequent error is to skip step one because of the anxiety of confrontation. It is much easier to complain to others than to go to the work of reconciling. The offended person may find it necessary to share the burden with any number of other people before deciding whether it is right to confront. In such a case, the whole process has failed and a possibly false accusation has become slander.

Gossip comes naturally. Confrontation is hard work for most people. Jesus goes on to say that the decisions of the Community settle the matter, even if only two or three are united in prayer.

18:21–35 The issue of confrontation raises the question of forgiveness. Peter knew the Jewish rule of three acts of forgiveness and decided to be generous with seven. It is thought that the rule of three comes from Amos. “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four, I will not revoke the punishment….” (Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13;  2:1,  4,  6). Jesus’ answer has been interpreted as 70 times 7 or 70 plus 7. Either way, Jesus makes forgiveness virtually unlimited. Then He told a parable to amplify the point.

The King is like a king settling accounts. One servant owed the equivalent of 60 million days’ wages. He and his family were put up for sale to pay the debt—and even that would not be enough. But the servant begged and pleaded for time. The lord had pity on him and forgave the debt.
That servant at once went out and choked a fellow-servant to get his hundred days’ wages back. That servant also begged for time to pay. But the forgiven servant had his fellow-servant put in jail until he paid up. The rest of the  servants did not think that was fair and reported to the lord. The lord was furious and had his wicked servant delivered to be tortured until he paid the debt. That was Hell for him.

“And so my Heavenly Father will do to everyone of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. “

The first servant owed a debt that would take thousands of years to pay off—an impossibility. Forgiveness was the only possible escape. He then attacked a second servant whose debt could be paid in a year. The master said that that servant deserved eternal punishment. The application is clear. We have an infinite penalty to pay because we have sinned and rebelled against God, the Holy One. He freely forgives us our unpayable debt, unless we fail to forgive the trivial offenses that other human beings have committed against us.

Jesus said the same thing earlier.
“And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matt.6:12
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matt.6:14–15

CS Lewis captures the message well:
“We must forgive all our enemies or be damned.”
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (The Quotable Lewis. W. Martindale, J. Root; Tyndale,’63; p.219; ibid. p.221)

But some have argued that Jesus is speaking in the pre-Atonement period, still under Law. We who are on the other side of the Cross and Pentecost are thought not to be subject to this restriction. That is, we are not under obligation to forgive, even if the disciples were?

Paul (after Pentecost) said
“…and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Eph.4:32
“…as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Col.3:13

Not only are we forgiven once for all, but God has to keep on forgiving us virtually every day.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I Jn.1:9

Jesus’ last statement is at odds with our simple theological position: “Once saved, always saved”. Simple theology turns out to be inadequate. Two verses illustrate.

“If you shall confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Rom.10:9
“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” Matt.7:21

Both are true and must be understood together. On one hand, salvation is free for the asking, on confession of faith. On the other hand, we must show evidence of a changed life, willing and able to do the will of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Back-to-back promises and warnings are found most conspicuously in Hebrews, where they are repeated eight times.

We may be at a number of levels away from forgiveness. Our feelings fluctuate but may move up or down .

Striking out

Since we will continue to be offended by other people, we are also going to be in the process of forgiving for the rest of our lives. Forgiveness for old offenses as well as new ones is a life-work. This is one sense in which our salvation is ongoing, as well as having been accomplished once and for all. Frequent repetition of the Lord’s Prayer makes more and more sense.
            “and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Matt.6:12