The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – 17th September 2023
Lectionary Readings: Sir. 27:30-28:7; Ps. 102 (103):1-4. 9-12: Rom. 14:7-9: Mt. 18:21-35.
Theme: Forgiveness

The gospel reading of today, with its lengthy parable of the unforgiving servant, is the third treatment of forgiveness in Matthew’s gospel, so it is something he saw crucial to Christian living. The first is verse 5:24 which proclaims that forgiveness is necessary for true worship, and the second, verse 6:41, comes immediately after the Lord’s Prayer in which we are taught to say “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive
” This commentary deals only with the interchange between Jesus and Peter in the first two verses of today’s reading.

Nearly all the major English versions of Matthew, translate the Greek word adelphos as “brother”, its dominant meaning. It can however be interpreted in a broader sense and the widely used New Revised Standard Version uses “member of the church”. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which uses the NRSV, notes that the word “church” (found only in Matthew) translates the Greek ecclesia (assembly), which in the Greek text of the Hebrew bible (the Septuagint) translates the Hebrew qahal â€œcongregation”. Peter’s use of ‘member of the church’ in this story as told in NRSV perhaps picks up Peter’s view of Gentiles, or even of Jews who refused to follow Jesus, as outsiders to whom he felt no obligation. This was a view he later drastically changed (see Acts 11:17-18).

Later rabbinic discussion of forgiveness includes the view that “One who says: I will sin and then I will repent, can be forgiven up to three times for this, but no more” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 40a; also tractate Yoma 86b; Bock & Herrick 8.7). We don’t know whether this view was circulating at the time of Jesus, but if it were, it highlights the generosity of Peter’s suggestion about forgiving seven times. 

The numbers in Jesus’ reply recall Genesis 4:24 “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” in which the perfect, or sacred, number 7 is expanded to indicate absolute or unlimited retribution, so great is the wrong done. Jesus adopts the convention to speak about the need for unlimited forgiveness. Some English versions of his reply have “seventy times seven” (i.e. 490) instead of “seventy-seven”. It depends on how the Greek in the Septuagint translation of Genesis 4:24 is interpreted (Stack & Billerbeck, 18:22). The intention in Matthew 18:22 is the same whichever is used. God offers us unlimited forgiveness and we are called to do the same.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. What is your reaction to replacing “brother” with “member of the church” in this story? How about “brother and sister”? 2. Share stories of forgiveness that have affected you, or of which you have been a part.

BibliographyBock, D.L. & Herrick, D.J. Jesus in Context: Background Reading for Gospel Stuey (Grand Rapids MI: 2005); Strack, H.L. & Billerbeck, P. A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Midrash Vol. 1 (Bellingham WA: 2022). Levine, A-J. & Brettler, M.Z. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford: 2017).

This week’s Sunday Liturgy Commentary was prepared by
Kevin L McDonnell cfc, Australia, Bat Kol alumnus 2003, 2004, 2005


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