We start with a rehash of Mark 9 – unless you become like a little child (credulous? simple?) you will never get into heaven, and if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Next, the parable of the lost sheep – a Sunday school favorite, and always cute and animated!
Verses 15-17 concern how to deal with someone accused of wrongdoing. The advice might be reasonable in many instances, but it is also misused in some churches (particularly JW’s) to avoid investigating abuses unless there are at least two witnesses. In 18, anything is up for grabs, since acts can be arbitrarily either permitted or prohibited, so it becomes a meaningless statement. V 19 is based on conjecture and demonstrably false; and v 20 is well-known and frequently quoted by cherry-pickers.
The last section, the parable of the unmerciful servant, apparently is unique to the gospel of Matthew (unlike most other stories and parables which appear in at least 2 gospels). The advice about forgiving in v 21-22 is a welcome change from the cruelty of the OT, but then again, there is a time and a place for everything. That’s a big problem in the bible in general – lack of nuance, lack of accommodation for differing circumstances. This advice could turn us all into doormats willing to accept any kind of ill treatment without rancor. Is that what Jesus intended? Is that what we want? Then the parable follows and I remember it from Sunday school. It’s sort of a reverse of the Golden Rule – instead of repaying kindness with kindness, god repays cruelty with cruelty. Really, we’re back to ‘and eye for an eye’ here. The central message is positive – the servant was shown mercy and he should have paid it forward, as should we. But the ending is not merciful at all (v 34-35). Why would a parable intending to communicate the importance of showing mercy, show no mercy? Sunday schools serve this ‘morality tale’ up to children in colorful picture books. And don’t miss the subtle approval of slavery in v 25.
Here’s an alternate version of the discussion about divorce from Mark 10 – with two notable additions:
First, “unless she has been unfaithful” (or “sexually immoral”, or commits “fornication”, depending on the translation) (v 9). Note that only the woman’s fidelity or behavior matters.
And second, v 10-12, about eunuchs. Apologists interpret v 10 to mean that, given the level of commitment required in marriage, it is not to be entered into lightly. I think that’s a fair enough statement, but most of us would agree without needing religion to confirm it. On to the eunuchs. According to my apologist site, Jesus is saying that not everyone can accept celibacy; and that the term ‘eunuch’ is being used figuratively to refer to those who do not marry. I questioned that and looked it up, but for once the apologists are correct – “In some ancient texts, ‘eunuch’ may refer to a man who is not castrated but who is impotent, celibate, or otherwise not inclined to marry and procreate.” (Wikipedia) The SAB questions whether the LGBT community may be included among those Jesus claims are ‘born as eunuchs’. Good question – my guess would be, quite likely.
V 16 brings us back to the rich man who wants to be saved (Mark 10). Then Jesus makes a second attempt at the Ten Commandments, and it’s another fail. He still only lists six, and the last is not one of them – but it’s a different one from the odd one out in Mark’s version. Keep trying! Note that the ones he does get are all secular and relatively common among diverse cultures. The rest of the story is the same, until the end – Jesus’ vision of heaven is a little grander in Matthew, with the ‘Son of Man’ sitting on a glorious throne, and his disciples getting their own thrones, too.