Paul and the Gentile Problem

This post is part of an ongoing series on Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism.

The status of the Gentiles within the Jesus Movement seems to have become a topic of concern soon after the death and resurrection appearances of Jesus in the mid-30’s CE. By the time Paul began his missionary work, likely in the late 40’s, at least two perspectives on the “Gentile Problem” (if Gentiles could belong to the Jesus community) had congealed. The first option was that Gentiles had to become religious Jews[1] in order to be saved. Paul’s opponents in Galatia seem to have held this view (Gal. 1:6-3:14), which was apparently a fairly common Jewish perspective on what God-Fearers had to do in order to become Jews.[2] The second perspective on the “Gentile Problem” argued that Gentiles and Jews alike could belong to the movement. In this view, “Through the death and resurrection of Christ, the God of Israel has called the gentiles to be his people…. [The] gentiles have been adopted as sons and made into a laos of the God of Israel, a position previously occupied by the Israelites alone.”[3] In years past, some (primarily Protestant) scholars believed a third perspective existed, namely, that the Gentiles had supplanted the Jews as the People of God.[4] As we will see below, this view incorrectly read later Christian arguments back into the earliest years of the Jesus Movement.

Most modern scholarship rightly affirms Paul’s location within the second perspective: both Jews and Gentile could belong to the Jesus Movement. Exactly how this worked, however, has been open to considerable debate. For years, the so-called “Lutheran View” of Paul dominated Biblical Studies, claiming that Jesus did away with Judaism qua Judaism and replaced the Jewish Law with a faith-centered Law of Christ. In this view, Jesus Followers—Jews and Gentiles alike—were freed from the shackles of rote legalism and the burden of the Jewish old covenant. In recent decades, however, this perspective has been challenged by the New Perspective on Paul. New Perspective scholars such as E.P. Sanders, Krister Stendhal, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright argue that the failure of Israel centered on its ethnocentrism and that the Christian innovation extended the people of God category to Gentiles as well.[5] In this view, Paul’s statement in Gal 3:28 was paradigmatic: there is no longer Jew or Greek in Christ, for ethnic identity has been done away with. The New Perspective on Paul has not convinced everyone, least of all those belonging to the Paul within Judaism school of thought. For this viewpoint ethnic identity remains—Jews and Gentiles were separate peoples as they had been since the time of Abraham—but these differences are surpassed by the Christ event, which makes Gentiles “descendants of Abraham, adopted sons of God and coheirs with Christ.”[6] Jesus makes possible Gentile inclusion and Judaism rightly understood[7] still grants access to God.

This series proceeds on the basis of the Paul within Judaism perspective. To flesh out this viewpoint further, being in-Christ does not negate ethnic identity, for Paul can still use terminology of Ioudaioi and ethnoi meaningfully in his letters.[8] Kinship and ethnicity are not merely metaphorical but instead constitute fundamental identity characteristics which impact one’s status before God. Christ Followers are always simultaneously ethnic—Roman, Greek, or Jewish—and their salvation must be articulated in terms of their identity, not apart from it.[9] This is why circumcision became such a sticking point for Paul and the early Church, for it inappropriately blurred Jewish and Gentile identity.[10] Indeed, the only correct way to establish veritable identity in the people of God comes through Christ, who brings Gentiles into the genealogy of Abraham and faithful relationship with God.[11] In the letters of Paul, the Christ event inaugurated the inclusion of the Gentiles within the People of God, though not at the expense of Israel. Faithfulness to Christ means faithfulness to God and—if you are a Jew—faithfulness to the covenant of Israel. This concept of the boundaries of the Jesus community would not be translated into the thinking of many later Christians.

[1] For an outline of the history and parameters of Jews and Judaism in Late Antiquity, see Lee I. Levine, “Jewish Identities in Antiquity: An Introductory Essay” in Jewish Identities in Antiquity: Studies in Memory of Menahem Stern (ed. L.I. Levine and D.R. Schwartz, Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

[2] Matthew Thiessen, Paul and the Gentile Problem (Oxford: OUP, 2016), 115.

[3] Caroline Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul (Oxford: OUP, 2007), 3.

[4] Johnson Hodge, 7. Joel Willitts, “Paul and Jewish Christians in the Second Century” in Paul and the Second Century (ed. M.F. Bird and J.R. Dodson, LNTS 412, London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 140, 167. Building from F.C. Baur, this school often posited a radical divergence between Jewish Christianity and Pauline Christianity, a dichotomy in which to be a Jewish Christian was to be anti-Paul and (by extension) anti-grace.

[5] E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977). Krister Stendhal, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979). James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). N.T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).

[6] Johnson Hodge, 5. Caroline Johnson Hodge, “Apostle to the Gentiles: Constructions of Paul’s Identity,” Biblical Interpretation 13.3 (2005): 276. Lloyd Gaston, Paul and the Torah (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 23f. William S. Campbell, “Gentile Identity and Transformation in Christ According to Paul” in The Making of Christianity: Conflicts, Contacts, and Constructions: Essays in Honor of Bengt Holmberg (ed. M. Zetterholm and S. Byrskog, Winona Lake, I.N.: Eisenbrauns, 2012), 38-9. (here and throughout: don’t separate secondary sources by periods – use commas or semi-colons)

[7] The Messiah has come!

[8] Gal. 2.15, Rom. 11.1-2, 26. Johnson Hodge 4, 9, 43. Johnson Hodge, “Apostle,” 271. See also Gal. 1.16, 2.7-9; Rom. 1.5-6, 13, 11.13, 15.1-6. “Followers of Christ are not a new creation in the sense that their past is entirely annulled or negated, and that there are multiple identities in Christ.” See William S. Campbell, Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 14.

[9] Johnson Hodge, 9.

[10] Gal. 5.2-15. Rom. 2.25-29. Mark D. Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 337-71. Mark D. Nanos, The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 152-4.

[11] Johnson Hodge, 5, 151. Campbell, “Gentile Identity,” 38-9.


Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho

This post is part of an ongoing series on Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism.

Although numerous writings have been attributed to Justin throughout the years, only three extant works are believed to be authentic: the First and Second Apologies[1] and the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.[2] While some scholars have questioned if Justin could have written apologies and a dialogue, the general consensus holds his authorship of all three.[3] The earliest manuscript of the Dialogue is Codex Parisinus Graecus 450, dated to 11 September 1363 CE.[4] As for when the Dialogue was originally written no one can say for sure. Although internal evidence suggests that the dialogue was held over two days and at a time shortly after the bar Kokhba revolt (c. 135 CE).[5] Justin’s use of sources offers no further delimitations for the date of composition,[6] a further indication that the Dialogue could have been written any time between c.135 and 165 CE.

The Dialogue was addressed to an otherwise unknown Marcus Pompeius (Dial. 141) and Justin’s chief interlocutor was Trypho, a learned “Hebrew of the circumcision and a fugitive from the war that has just ended” (Dial. 1.3).[7] But apart from these obvious addressees, for whom was the Dialogue written? Scholars have argued for three audiences. First, the Dialogue was composed for a Jewish audience, an apology for a Christian reading of the Jewish scriptures.[8] Second, the Dialogue was composed for a pagan and primarily Gentile audience, seeking to prevent their conversion to Judaism.[9] Third, Justin wrote the Dialogue for Christians, either using a liturgical style or composing for an educational setting.[10] The theory which makes the most sense of internal and external evidence posits that the Dialogue was written for a Diaspora Jewish audience in the context of Christian missions and (somewhat quickly) found wider circulation among Christians opposed to Judaism.[11]

Justin employed a four-part structure in his Dialogue with the Jews, each of which spoke to his overarching theme of “how do we know what we know,” especially about the scriptures?[12] Chapters 1-9 describe Justin’s personal search for truth and his encounter with the Hebrew prophets. Chapters 10-30 explain the Christian interpretation of the Mosaic Law.[13] Chapters 31-108 discuss the person of Jesus, the divine messiah spoken of by the prophets. Finally, chapters 109-142 offers his thesis on the fact that Gentiles in Christ are the new spiritual Israel. Throughout this work Justin reveals his concern for properly Christocentric soteriology: since the old law has become obsolete and can no longer save, all must turn to the new law of Jesus the Christ.[14] Justin’s context in hand, this paper now considers Paul, particularly the facets of his theology on the Jewish-Gentile problem with which Justin interacted.

[1] The relationship of the First and Second Apology remains debated, with some suggesting both are part of a single work, see Parvis, 57. For a general introduction to the Apologies see Parvis, 56-9.

[2] Allert, 32. Piscini, 172. In all subsequent footnotes, I recommend using an abbreviated form of the title of a previously cited work.

[3] Philippe Bobichon, “Justin martyr: ‘etude stylistique du Dialogue avec Tryphon, suivie d’une comparaison avec l’Apologie et le De resurrectione,” Researches augustiniennes et patristiques 34 (2005): 1-61. Philippe Bobichon, Justin Martyr. Dialogue avec Tryphon, edition critique, traduction, commentaire (Paradosis 47/1-2, Fribourg: Academic Press, 2003), 23-40. Slusser, 15-7.

[4] Sylvain Jean Gabriel Sanchez, “Le Manuscrit du Dialogue avec Tryphon de Justin Martyr,” BLE 103 (2002): 371. Juan Pablo Sena Pera, The Polemic Construction of Judaism at the origins of Christianity: from Paul to Justin Martyr (Ph.D. diss., Bologna: Universita di Bologna, 2015), 166. Slusser, 14. For a discussion of the manuscript history and some noteworthy text critical concerns with the Dialogue, see Sanchez, 377-82.

[5] Allert, 32-4.

[6] Justin employs both the LXX and another Greek version in his citation of the Jewish scriptures. He also knows and uses Matthew, Romans, and Galatians. Scholars have posited his use of two other sources: a “testimony source” for Jewish writings and a “kerygma source” for Christian teaching. See? Dial. 121.1. Oskar Skarsaune, The Proof from Prophecy: A Study in Justin Martyr’s Proof-Text Tradition: Text-Type, Provenance, Theological Profile (SuppNT 56, Leiden: Brill, 1987); idem, “The Development of Scriptural Interpretation in the Second and Third Centuries—except Clement and Origen” in Hebrew Bible, Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation I/1: Antiquity (ed. M. Saebø, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996), 373–442; idem, “Justin and His Bible,” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. S. Parvis and P. Foster, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 53–76; idem, “Jewish Christian Sources Used by Justin Martyr and Some Other Greek and Latin Fathers” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (ed. O. Skarsaune and R. Hvalvik, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 380-401; and Antti Laato, “Justin Martyr Encounters Judaism” in Encounters of the Children of Abraham from Ancient to Modern Times (ed. A. Laato and P. Lindqvist, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010), 103. See also Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 4.26.13-14.

[7] Dial. 1.3, 38.2, 120.5. Parvis, 53-4. Laato, 103. Trypho may be the R. Tarphon of Mishnaic fame.

[8] Dial. 32.2, 55.3, 64.2-3. Theodore Stylianopoulos, Justin Martyr and the Mosaic Law (SBLDS 20, Missoula, M.T.: SBL and Scholars Press, 1975), 39. Stephen G. Wilson, Related Strangers: Jews and Christians 70–170 C.E. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 264. Allert, 37-8, 57-60. Nina E. Livesay, “Theological Identity Making: Justin’s Use of Circumcision to Create Jews and Christians,” JECS 18 (2010): 51.

[9] Dial. 1-9, 23.3, 24.3, 29.1, 32.5, 64.2, 119.4, 141. Livesay, “Theological,” 52. David Rokéah, “Ancient Jewish Proselytism in Theory and in Practice,” Theologische Zeitschrift 52 (1996): 8. Claudia J. Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians: History and Polemics, 30–150 C.E.. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 136. Allert, 38-53.

[10] Dial. 24.3, 29.1. Georges, 83. Livesay, “Theological,” 53. Tessa Rajak, “Talking at Trypho: Christian Apologetic as Anti Judaism in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew,’” in Apologetics in the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews, and Christians, ed. Mark Edwards et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 78. Judith M. Lieu, Image and Reality: The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 105. Allert, 54-7.

[11] This conclusion, of course, should raise awareness to the fact that Justin and Paul were likely writing to different ethnic audiences: Justin to Jews and Paul to Gentiles. Allert, 61. Laato, 117. See also Daniel Rebecca Sangeetha, “The Theme of ‘Exclusion’ in Rabbinic Literature, Its Interpretation and Impact of the Separation of Judaism and Christianity,” Bangalore Theological Forum 43.2 (2011): 84-5, and Alan F. Segal, “The History Boy: The Importance of Perspective in the Study of Early Judaism and Christianity” in Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians, and Others: Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson (ed. Z.A. Crook and P.A. Harland, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), 220.

[12] Sena Pera, 167-8. For an extensive outline of the Dialogue, see Michael J. Choi, “What is Christian orthodoxy according to Justin’s Dialogue?,” SJT 63.4 (2010): 400-1.

[13] This theme is revisited in chapters 40-47, 67, and 92-93.

[14] Allert, 169-171. Choi, 399.

Who Was Justin Martyr?

This post is part of an ongoing series on Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism.

Justin occupies a relatively unique place in the history of Christianity, for not only was he a “mover between many worlds” but he also stood at the end of the apostolic age and the beginning of the apologetic period of early Christianity.[1] Justin provides enough autobiographical detail in his writings to create a fairly strong outline of life and background, although the details of his birth are relatively obscure.[2] What we do know about his early life is that Justin was a gentile—possibly a Samaritan—born in Flavia Neapolis of Syria Palestine, son of Priscus and grandson of Bacchius.[3] Dialogue 1-9 recounts Justin’s education and philosophical background. After finding other philosophical schools wanting in his search for true understanding, Justin became a Platonist.[4] Even post-conversion, Justin’s thought remained largely indebted to Middle Platonic philosophy, a fact which comes across clearly in his own statements (Dial. 2.6. 1 Apol. 20. 2 Apol. 12.1) and through examination of his thought.[5] According to Justin’s telling, he encountered an “old man” who problematized his Platonism—asking how the mind can possibly know God if it has no kinship with God (Dial. 7.1-3)—and led him to recognize the necessity of the Holy Spirit and Christian faith.[6] Justin considered himself a philosopher before and after his conversion to Christianity, and he appears to have spent much of his later life instructing Christians in Rome.[7] According to The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs, during the reign of Antoninus Pius (r. 161-169 CE) Justin and six others (presumably his students) were arrested and brought before Roman prefect Q. Junius Rusticus (r. 162-168 CE).[8] What led to this arrest remains unknown, but Justin was martyred shortly thereafter (c. 165 CE) and subsequently given the name by which he is known to this day.

[1] Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, “Introduction: Justin Martyr and His Worlds” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. S. Parvis and P. Foster, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 2.

[2] Craig D. Allert, Revelation, Truth, Canon and Interpretation: Studies in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (SupVC 64, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2002), 27. Michael Slusser, “Justin Scholarship: Trends and Trajectories” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. S. Parvis and P. Foster, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 20. Arthur J. Droge, “Justin Martyr and the Restoration of Philosophy,” Church History 9.1 (1987): 303.

[3] 1 Apol. 1.2, 53; Dial. 41.3. Justin and father’s names are Latin while his grandfather’s name. Allert, Revelation, 28. Paul Parvis, “Justin Martyr,” Expository Times 120.2 (2008): 53.

[4] On Justin’s rejection of the Stoic system of philosophy—though not every facet of Stoic thought—see Runar M. Thorsteinsson, “Justin and Stoic Cosmo-Theology,” JTS 63.2 (2012): 541-559. See also 2 Apol. 4-13. Thorsteinsson’s study reveals that “while Justin greatly admired the morality and moral integrity of (some of) the Stoics, he strongly rejected their doctrines on the nature of God as a corporeal being, on the world-cycles and conflagration, and on fate. In somewhat simplified terms, according to the Stoics, the nature of God is changeable, whereas God’s [sic] [why is the sic here?] judgment is unchangeable.” See Thorsteinsson, “Justin,” 570.

[5] Thorsteinsson, “Justin,” 533-34. Also see the following: Charles Nahm, “The Debate on the ‘Platonism’ of Justin Martyr,” SecCent 9 (1992): 129-51. Carl Andresen, “Justin und der mittlere Platonismus,” ZNW 44 (1952-3): 157-95. J. H. Waszink, “Bemerkungen zum Einfluss des Platonismus im frühen Christentum,” VC 19 (1965), 146-51. Allert, 28-9, 73-4. Erwin R. Goodenough, The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences (Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1968), 295-320. Rebecca Lyman, “Justin and Hellenism: Some Postcolonial Perspectives” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. S. Parvis and P. Foster, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 163-4. Slusser, 15. Droge, 304f. Tobias Georges, “Justin’s School in Rome—Reflections on Early Christian ‘Schools,’” ZAC 16 (2012): 76. Evangelia G. Dafni, “Septuaginta und Plato in Justins ‘Dialog mit Tryphon,’” Neotestamenica 43.2 (2009): 451-7. Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies (Oxford and New York: OUP, 2009), 59-60n6.

[6] Allert, 152-3. Vladimir de Beer, “The Patristic Reception of Hellenic Philosophy,” SVTQ 55.4 (2012): 379-80.

[7] Georges, 75. Allert, 67.

[8] Allert, 30-1. Parvis, 59. Gianluca Piscini, “L’apologiste Justin et Usbek: une possible citation patristique dans les Lettres Persanes,ASE 32 (2015): 172.

Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism: Introduction

A series on the reception and transformation of Paul in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

In the 100 years between the time when the apostle Paul wrote his epistles and when a Christian named Justin read those letters, numerous transformations occurred in the community of Jesus followers.[1] Perhaps most important was the shift surrounding the most basic of questions for any group of people: who belonged to the community, in this case, the church? While Pauline Christianity emphasized Gentile inclusion within the people of God, just a few generations later Christians were arguing for the community’s exclusion of the Jews apart from Jesus Christ.[2] Put another way, for Paul the driving questions of the day were if Gentiles could be saved and how that could happen; for Justin the question was whether or not Jews could belong to the community of Christ followers. This paper explores this transformation of community boundaries by tracing the reception of the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) in one writing from a Christian philosopher in Rome (Justin).

In this series, I argue that the reception of Paul’s letters in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho demonstrates a transformation of Pauline concepts of who belongs to the people of God. Although Paul and Justin shared certain foundations—such as the authority of Jewish scriptures and ancestry of Abraham for the people of God—they worked from different contexts and divergent philosophical trajectories—Stoicism and Middle Platonism, respectively. Perhaps most importantly, the different theological grammars of Paul and Justin—influenced primarily by their different cosmologies—led them to conceive of pneuma[3] differently. This ultimately caused Justin to misread Paul on the relationship between the Judaism and the Christian community, thereby deepening the fault which had formed between the two socio-religious movements and leading Justin to argue (contra Paul) that Jews stood outside the covenant of God.[4] After briefly introducing Justin’s background, contemporary scholarship’s discussion of Paul on the Gentile Problem, and Justin’s general knowledge and use of Paul’s letters, this paper examines three realms of Justin’s transformation of Paul: the meaning of belonging to the pneuma, the importance of belonging to the family of Abraham, and the identity of true Israel.

[1] Joseph R. Dodson, “Introduction” in Paul and the Second Century (ed. M.F. Bird and J.R. Dodson, LNTS 412, London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 1.

[2] Jeffrey S. Siker, “From Gentile Inclusion to Jewish Exclusion: Abraham in Early Christian Controversy with Jews,” BTB 19 (1989): 30–36 (30) [Here and throughout the rest of the essay, give full range of articles and essays and then specific page number].

[3] Here and for the duration of this paper, I leave this term untranslated but present the Greek πνεῦμα in Latin characters as pneuma. In so doing, I follow the lead of Robertson in attempting to avoid anachronistic concepts and associations which are often attached to translations of pneuma. See Paul Robertson, “De-Spiritualizing Pneuma: Modernity, Religion, and Anachronism in the Study of Paul,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 26 (2014): 365-83.

[4] On the creation of this fault, see Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), and Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

Forgiveness in Matthew: Conclusion and Bibliography

This post concludes our series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

The imperative of forgiveness stands at the heart of the Parable of Unforgiving Servant. For Jesus and Matthew, releasing others from sins and debts constitutes an integral part of what it means to be a member of the Christian community and proclaim God’s love and mercy to the world. True forgiveness finds itself rooted not only in God’s forgiveness of our sins—the emphasis of Matthew 18:21-35—but also in the forgiving blood of Jesus, the means by which human sin becomes forgiven. Matthew’s wider theology of forgiveness demonstrates the importance of extending mercy in the Matthean community, as these parables and rules guided practices on the limits of forgiveness and who could be forgiven. May contemporary Jesus-followers continue to heed Matthew’s messages of forgiveness: that we must extend to everyone true forgiveness from the heart.


Ancient Sources

Augustine of Hippo. Sermons. Translated and edited by Manlio Simonetti. Matthew 14-28: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Community Rule. Translated and edited by Geza Vermes. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York: Penguin Press, 1997.

Damascus Document. Translated and edited by Geza Vermes. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York: Penguin Press, 1997.

Eusebius of Caesarea. Ecclesiastical History. Translated by G.A. Williamson. Edited by Andrew Louth. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

Flavius Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Translated and edited by William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged.  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987.

Galen. In Hippocratic sextum librum epidemiarum commentaria. Edited by E. Wenkebach. Corpus medicorum Graecorum. Leipzig: Teubner, 1940.

Hermogenes. Rhetoric. Edited by H. Rabe. Hermogenis Opera. Leipzig: Teubner, 1913.

Hilary of Poitiers. On Matthew. Translated and edited by Manlio Simonetti. Matthew 14-28: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Irenaeus of Lyons. Adversus Haereses. Translated by Robert M. Grant. Irenaeus of Lyons. The Early Fathers of the Church. London: Routledge, 1996.

Jerome. Commentary on Daniel. Translated by Gleason L. Archer. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958.

John Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew. Translated and edited by Manlio Simonetti. Matthew 14-28: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

New Revised Standard Version: Harper Collins Study Bible Revised Edition. Edited by Harold W. Attridge. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006.

Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 27. Edited by Kurt Aland. Westphalia: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2011.

Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 28. Online: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2015.

NRSV Cambridge Annotated Study Apocrypha. Edited by Howard C. Kee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Papias. Fragments. Translated by Bart D. Ehrman. The Apostolic Fathers: Volume Two. Loeb Classical Library 25. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Plutarch. Life of Antony. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Lives, Volume IX. Loeb Classical Library 101. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920.

Septuaginta: Editio Altera. Edited by Alfred Rahlfs and Robert Hanhart. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006.

Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Translated H.C. Kee. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Volume One: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.

Modern Sources

Abel, Ernest L. “Who Wrote Matthew?” New Testament Studies 17.2 (1971): 138-152.

Allison, Dale C. “Matthew and the History of its Interpretation.” The Expository Times 120.1 (2008): 1-7.

Ascough, Richard S. “Matthew and Community Formation.” Pages 96-126 in The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study: Studies in Memory of William G. Thompson, S.J. Edited by David E. Aune. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001.

Beasley-Murray, George R. Matthew. London: Scripture Union, 1984.

Black, David Alan and Beck, David R., eds. Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Brooks, Stephenson H. Matthew’s Community: The Evidence of His Special Sayings Material. Sheffield: JSOT, 1987.

Bronn, William R. “Forgiveness in ‘My Brothers’ of Matthew 28:10 and Its Significance for the Matthean Climax (28:16-20).” Biblical Theology Bulletin 40.4 (2010): 207-214.

Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary: Volume 2: The Churchbook Matthew 13-28. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Buckley, Thomas W. Seventy Times Seven: Sin, Judgment, and Forgiveness in Matthew. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Crossan, John Dominic. In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Davies, W.D. and Allison, Dale C. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew in Three Volumes: Volume II: Commentary on Matthew VIII-XVIII. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991. 

de Boer, Martinus C. “Ten Thousand Talents? Matthew’s Interpretation and Redaction of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:23-25).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50 (1988): 214-232.

Deidun, Thomas. “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-25).” Biblical Theology Bulletin 6.2-3 (1976): 203-224.

Deissmann, Adolf. Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1927.

Derrett, J. Duncan M. Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970.

Dietzfelbinger, Christian. “Das Gleichnis von der erlassenen Schuld: eine theologische Untersuchung von Matt 18:23-35.” Evanelische Theologie 32.5 (1972): 437-451.

Doriani, Daniel M. “Forgiveness: Jesus’ Plan for Healing and Reconciliation in the Church (Matthew 18:15-35).” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13.3 (2009): 22-32.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary 33A. Dallas: Word Books, 1993.

–. Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary 33B. Dallas: Word Books, 1995.

Harrington, Daniel J. “Matthew’s Gospel: Pastoral Problems and Possibilities.” Pages 62-73 in The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study: Studies in Memory of William G. Thompson, S.J. Edited by David E. Aune. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001.

–. The Gospel of Matthew. Sacra Pagina Series 1. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Hylen, Susan E. “Forgiveness and Life in Community.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 54.2 (2000): 146-157.

Illian, Bridget. “Church Discipline and Forgiveness in Matthew 18:15-35.” Currents in Theology and Mission 37.6 (2010): 444-450.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Parables of Jesus: Revised Edition. New York: Scribner’s Press, 1972.

–. Unknown Sayings of Jesus. London: S.P.C.K., 1964.

Johansson, Daniel. “’Who can forgive sins but God alone?’: Human and Angelic Agents, and Divine Forgiveness in Early Judaism.” Journal For The Study of the New Testament 33.4 (2011): 351-374.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation: Revised Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

Kähler, Martin. The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ. Translated by Carl E. Braaten. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2009.

Konradt, Matthias. “’Whoever humbles himself like this child…’ The Ethical Instruction in Matthew’s Community Discourse (Matt 18) and Its Narrative Setting.” Pages 105-138 in Moral Language in the New Testament: The Interrelatedness of Language and Ethics in Early Christian Writings. Edited by Ruben Zimmermann and Jan G. van der Watt. Contexts and Norms of New Testament Ethics 2. Tübigen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.

Kselman, John S. “Forgiveness: Old Testament.” Pages II: 831-833 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2 (D-G). New York/London: Doubleday, 1992.

Lambrecht, Jan. Out of the Treasure: The Parables in the Gospel of Matthew. Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs 10. Louvain: Peeters Press, 1998.

Lee, Anna Suk Yee. “Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Old Testament Sacrifice.” McMaster Journal Of Theology & Ministry 13 (2011): 24-44

Liddell, George, Scott, Robert, and Jones, H.S. A Greek-English Lexicon (9th Edition). Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20. Hemeneia. Translated by James E. Crouch. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

–. Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

Mbabazi, Isaac Kahwa. “The Jewish Background to Interpersonal Forgiveness in Matthew.” African Journal of Evangelical Theology 30.1 (2011): 15-34.

–. The Significance of Interpersonal Forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel. PhD Dissertation. Manchester: University of Manchester, 2011.

Martinez, Ernest R. “The Interpretation of ‘Oi Mathetai in Matthew 18.” Catholic  Biblical Quarterly  23.3 (1961): 281-292.

McKnight, Scot. “Matthew, Gospel of.” Pages 784-800 in The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament: A One-Volume Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Edited by Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Meier, John P. “Matthew, Gospel of.” Pages IV: 622-641 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 4 (K-N). Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York and London: Doubleday, 1992.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Companion on the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Third Edition). London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.

Nel. M.J. “Interpersoonlike vergifnis in Matteus 18:15-35.” Die Skriflig 49.2 (2015): #1935, 8 pages.

Nelson, Randy. “Exegeting Forgiveness.” American Theological Inquiry 5.2 (2012): 33-58.

Reimer, David J. “Stories of Forgiveness: Narrative Ethics and the Old Testament.” Pages 359-378 in Reflection and Refraction: Studies in Biblical Historiography in Honour of A. Graeme Auld. Edited by Robert Rezetko, Timothy H. Lim and W. Brian Aucker. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Scott, Bernard Brandon. “The King’s Accounting: Matthew 18:23-34.” Journal of Biblical Literature 104.3 (1985): 429-442.

Senior, Donald. “Matthew 18:21-25.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 41.4 (1987): 403-407.

Simonetti, Manlio, ed. Matthew 14-28: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament 1b. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Soding, Gerardo. “La ‘Novedad de Jesus’ en sus Parabolas: Una propuesta hermeneutica.” Revista Biblica 1.4 (2010): 151-186.

Soulen, Richard N. Soulen and Soulen, R. Kendall. Handbook of Biblical Criticism: Third Edition, Revised and Expanded. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Thompson, William G. Matthew’s Advice to a Divided Community: Mt. 17,22-18,35. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970.

Vermes, Geza. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York: Penguin Press, 1997.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. “Jesus and Forgiveness.” Translated by Josephine Koeppel. Communio: International Catholic Review 11.4 (1984): 322-334.

Williams, Rowan. “The Forgiveness of Sins: Hosea 11:1-9; Matthew 18:23-35.” Pages 214-218 in Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ. Edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007.

Wright, David P. “Day of Atonement/” Pages II: 72-76 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2 (D-G). New York/London: Doubleday: 1992.

Implications for Matthew’s Theology of Forgiveness

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

But what are the implications and applications of this theology of forgiveness? Ulrich Luz rightly reminds us that, “Biblical texts are meaningful only when they become a part of our life.”[1] While Matthew’s Gospel has been read and interpreted in a variety of ways in the nearly 2,000 years since its composition,[2] the ethical, ecclesiological, Christological, and eschatological ramifications outlined here focus specifically on the messages evident from the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the connected insights on forgiveness.

Matthew 18:21-35 offers the ethical basis for interacting with other members of the Christian community by calling members to recognize that strict justice cannot govern human affairs[3] and instead live out reconciliation and forgiveness among their fellow believers. Following the principle of imitatio Dei, “as God freely forgives those who have sinned against him, so are disciples to freely forgive those who sin against them…. The community must treat its members as God treats them.”[4] In one sense, there are no limits to this forgiveness, although in the context of Matthew 18 there are clear steps available for the community in instances where correction is not accepted (vv. 15-20).[5] To not forgive another person remains nothing short of extreme hubris, arrogance which will result in dire consequences in the end. The ethical implication of Matthew’s call to forgiveness is that true disciples must always forgive their fellow disciples, no matter how often they have sinned, because of God’s merciful forgiveness granted through the blood of Christ.

Matthew 18:21-35 offers important ecclesiological insights as well, namely that community and mercy are to stand as the fundamental characteristics of the Christian Church. Not only does the context of the parable emphasize the importance of community,[6] but the parable itself also highlights the role of other believers in promoting forgiveness. The fellow servants play an important role in the parable by holding the unforgiving servant accountable for his lack of mercy and by petitioning the king.[7] It is only through the community that accountability is accomplished (18:19-20, 31), wrongs are righted (18:15-17), and forgiveness is granted (18:18-20). Even when an unremitting sinner leaves the community, they are to be viewed by the community as one worthy of continuing pastoral care, not—it seems—on a strictly individual level, but on a corporate level.[8] The ecclesiology offered through Matthew’s theology of forgiveness is community-centered, using the mechanisms of Christian forgiveness to make love and mercy the governing principles of the new covenant.

Although Christ is not an immediately identifiable character in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (apart from his delivery of the parable itself), this parable does offer insights into Christology. Obviously, a central message of 18:21-35 speaks to the merciful character of God, who in Trinitarian perspective allows us to understand Christ one who extends mercy. Yet to stop there would be to miss how Matthew situates the historical reality of God’s forgiveness. For it is in Christ’s death on the cross that God’s loving mercy becomes personified and concrete.[9] As Hilary of Poitiers reminds us, “all pardon comes from [Jesus]” and the forgiving power of his blood.[10] Without Jesus’ bringing God’s mercy into the reality of this world, forgiveness remains an abstract concept.[11]

Matthean forgiveness expects an incarnation of God’s forgiving mercy, an embodiment which Jesus provides. Christ thus stands as the true forgiver, the one who brings God’s mercy into the world and offers it to those who belong to the community of the new covenant of his blood. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant ends on an unmistakably eschatological note (v. 35), warning Jesus’ hearers and Matthew’s readers of the impending judgment for not living out true forgiveness. As Buckley notes, this message connects with Matthew’s overarching vision of final judgment wherein men and women answer for how they followed Jesus’ imperative of love.[12] The parable itself, which leads readers to repent for failures in the past and to work to forgive more fully in the future, ultimately makes sense only in light of the cross, where truly significant forgiveness begins. While the main eschatology of the parable is set off in the future, there are inaugurated aspects as well.[13] For it is through forgiveness that the church participates in the reign of God in the here and now, serving all those around us as agents of God’s grace. Christians are thus called to forgive with the end in mind, not only to avoid final condemnation, but also to reveal the kingdom of God now.

[1] Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 13.

[2] For an outline of the Wirkungsgeschicthe of Matthew, see Dale C. Allison, “Matthew and the History of its Interpretation,” Expository Times 120.1 (2008): 1-7.

[3] Thomas W. Buckley, Seventy Times Seven: Sin, Judgment, and Forgiveness in Matthew (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 86.

[4] Hagner, 540-541.

[5] As Illian notes, “Forgiveness in this part of the Gospel of Matthew is conditional; it can be repeated endlessly, but not without repentance.” (449)

[6] Luz, 479-481. Ascough, 115. On the connections between Matthew 16 and 18 regarding the authority of the disciples, see Ernest R. Martinez, “The Interpretation of ‘Oi Mathetai in Matthew 18,” CBQ 23.3 (1961): 281-92.

[7] Hylen, 147, 155.

[8] Although a widely neglected viewpoint, Senior correctly notes that, “If radical action must be taken for the sake of the community, then the expelled member is to be treated as ‘a Gentile and a tax collector’ (18:17)—an intriguing suggestion that may, in fact, be a call for continuing pastoral care even toward the expelled member. In this Gospel, tax collectors are enumerated among the apostles and called the friends of Jesus (9:9-13; 10:3; 11:19), and Gentiles are praised for their faith (8:5-13; 15:28) and become the object of the community’s mission (28:19).” (Senior, 404.)

[9] Deiden, 211.

[10] Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew 18.10. Simonetti, 82.

[11] Rowan Williams, “The Forgiveness of Sins: Hosea 11:1-9; Matthew 18:23-35,” 214-18 in Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (ed. Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007), 216. Lambrecht, 63-4. Additionally, there are concerns about the nature of God which Scott (440-1) and others have suggested this parable raises. In its simplest form, this query takes the form of, “Can a God of judgment be the same God who forgives humanity?” The king’s reversal of mercy and enaction of wrath are particularly troublesome for many contemporary readers of the parable. In response to such concerns, warnings of over-examining parables and the consideration of a fully canonical God (that is, one capable of just punishment and undeserved grace) remain the most suitable starting points.

[12] Buckley, 87.

[13] Hylen, 156.

The Parable and the Theology

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant reminds us that the final word on sin and debt in the church must be forgiveness. For if God has forgiven his servants in such magnificence, who are they to not extend that merciful forgiveness to others? This imperative of mercy is not only intimately connected with the second greatest commandment—to love your neighbor as yourself—but is wrapped up in the character of God. Since God grants forgiveness because He is mercy, so also His followers are called to embody and manifest forgiveness to others. As Daniel Doriani writes, “God has forgiven us a vast debt. As a result, we owe him our mind, our heart, our will. [This] passage summons us to give ourselves to the Lord not through an act of obedience or service, but by letting his mercy sink into our mind and heart. God has forgiven you ‘all that debt,’ not by a mere word, but by the life and blood of his Son. Since the Lord had such mercy on us we must have mercy and forgive others.”[1]

Other insights into forgiveness are gleaned in the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel. Perhaps most importantly, Matthew reveals that it is Jesus’ blood which brings forgiveness of sins. In this view, Jesus came into the world with the purpose of saving people from their sins, a reality which was inaugurated by forgiving death on the cross. From Matthew’s wider narrative, we saw that God possesses the power of forgiveness and that Jesus participated in that power while on earth. Further, there exists an “unforgivable sin,” which in the context of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant seems to be the failure to forgive others as one has been forgiven by God. The Parables of the Lost Sheep and Two Sons reveal that God wishes none from the community be lost and that obedient action rather than lip service constitutes true righteousness. Following the parabolic paradigms, we learned that even a sin as heinous as denying Jesus is a forgivable offense, provided you properly request forgiveness and extend forgiveness to others. Finally, Matthew demonstrates that the blood of Jesus forgives and saves, even to the Jews who seemingly have rejected him.

[1] Doriani, 31.

The Narrative of Matthew and Forgiveness (Part 2)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

The second narrative insight into Matthew’s theology of forgiveness centers around the interactions between Pilate, Jesus, Barabbas, and the crowd in Matthew 27:15-26. Although the events surrounding Jesus’ death took place around Passover, the scene before Pilate would have reminded Matthew’s Jewish readers of a different Jewish feast: Yom Kippur, the Festival of Atonement. During this festival, two goats would be brought before the assembly, one of which was released and the other which was killed for the sins of the people.[1]

When the crowd chooses to release Jesus Barabbas and crucify Jesus Son of the Father, they unwittingly elect to sacrifice the one whose blood would actually supplant the blood of sheep and cattle. 27:24-25 are verses long abused by Christians with anti-Semitic tendencies who desire to punish the Jewish people for their role in crucifying Jesus.[2] And, on a face-value reading of the passage, these verses do seem to absolve Rome of any guilt for Jesus’ death while laying blame solely at the feet of the Jews.

Yet in light of Matthew’s theology of forgiveness—especially the fact that Jesus’ blood grants forgiveness of sins (26:28)—there is more to this passage than first meets the eye. For when Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ blood (another event recorded only in Matthew), he actually washes off that which forgives sin. And when the people—presumably in bloodlust—cry out for Jesus’ death, they actually ask to receive that which grants forgiveness and salvation. Through a theological reading of this passage, therefore, Matthew simultaneously subverts Roman power—now sanitized from the saving blood—and offers redemption to the Jews—who are covered in Jesus’ forgiving blood. Matthew, who wrestled with how to forgive his Jewish neighbors for their willingness to crucify Jesus, urges his community do recognize that the Jews are already forgiven in Jesus. Lest they too become unforgiving servants, followers of Jesus are therefore urged to extend forgiveness to the Jews.

[1] David P. Wright, “Day of Atonement,” 72-76 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2 (D-G) (New York/London: Doubleday: 1992), 3. Lev. 16.20-22.

[2] Harrington, 20-21. Hagner, lxxii.

The Narrative of Matthew and Forgiveness (Part 1)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

It has often been suggested that the canonical gospels are passion stories with long introductions,[1] that the narrative of the crucifixion, death, and resurrections form the crux of the gospel message and is supplemented by what comes earlier in the gospels. Insofar as this is true of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, this principle also applies to Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, for it is during the passion narrative that Matthew’s dual theological emphases on forgiveness come to a head. The first stream involves Matthew’s perspective on the limitlessness of forgiveness applied to the actions of Peter and Judas; the second involves the climax of the gospel message—that forgiveness of sins comes through the blood of Jesus.

In chapters 26 and 27 Matthew casts Peter and Judas in the paradigm of the Parable of the Two Sons, two workers who say one thing and do another and are both in need of forgiveness. In 26:14-16, 47-50, Judas takes the place of the first son, the one who claims that he will follow Jesus but instead betrays him. In 26:31-35, Peter follows the example of the second son, saying that he will never betray Jesus. But then in 26:69-75 he fails to follow through and denies Jesus three times. Matthew portrays Peter as clearly contrite for his actions (26:75), but it does not take away from the fact that he has sinned by changing his mind.

What then of Judas? Again using material that no other evangelist provides, in 27:3-10 Matthew recounts Judas’s post-betrayal actions. 27:3 records that when Judas saw that Jesus was condemned, he “repented” (μεταμεληθεὶς), the same term used for the second son who “changed his mind” (μεταμεληθείς ) and did his father’s will in the Parable of the Two Sons (21:29). He then confessed his sin to the priests—at least part of the required atonement for sin (Lev. 4:27-35)—and paid thirty pieces of silver—the price of a slave’s life (Exodus 21:32). Since one can sin against the Son of Man and still receive forgiveness (12:32), until this point Judas stands as one capable of being forgiven by God, of being the son who did the will of his father.

Unfortunately, the priests then fail him by failing to forgive him and he goes off and hangs himself.[2] Although Peter’s post-denial repentance and Judas’s post-betrayal forgiveness add a twist, Matthew’s account of these two workers’ actions employs the Parable of the Two Sons paradigm. The message to his community is, quite shockingly, to be more like Judas than Peter, for it is better to ask for forgiveness for betraying Jesus than to say you will not deny him and disown him three times. In Matthew’s Gospel, even a sin as heinous as denying Jesus is a forgivable offense, provided you properly request forgiveness and extend forgiveness to others.

[1] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (trans. Carl E. Braaten, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 80n2.

[2] The failure of the priests could very well be interpreted as an anti-priesthood sentiment, perhaps influenced by the Sitz im Leben of Matthew’s community. Alternatively, it could simply be another indication of the consistent rejection of proper righteousness by this priests in particular. We leave aside questions of forgiveness for suicide, as this is beyond the scope of this paper.

The Parables of Matthew and Forgiveness

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

These general literary-theological insights concerning Matthew’s theology of forgiveness find additional explication in two additional parables of Jesus: the Parable of the Lost Sheep (18:10-14) and Parable of the Two Sons (21:28-32).

In the Parable of the Lost Sheep—which occurs only a few verses before the Parable of Unmerciful Servant and in the context of discussions about the nature of the community—a distinction is drawn between those who have gone astray (τὸ πλανώμενον) and those who are not lost. Verse 14 serves as the connection of this parable to its context, namely, that the Father desires that not one of His sheep, those who belong to him (τῶν μικρῶν τούτων), be lost.[1] In the context of the Jesus-community, this suggests that God desires none of His people ever be lost, and that if they do wander away for a time, He wants them back. This is the type of inclusion and forgiveness that the People of God are taught to show one another.

Like the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, the Parable of the Two Sons occurs only in Matthew’s Gospel. Placed within the context of Holy Week, the vineyard (ἀμπελών) of this parable and the immediately following Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-44) should be understood as references to the same thing: the land, specifically the places where father of vv. 28-31 and landowner of vv. 33-40 operates.[2] The basic message of this parable is that those who do the will of the Father—even after initially rejecting his commands—are closer to the way of righteousness than those who disobey after saying they will obey. Action trumps speech and constitutes true obedience. For Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, these parables reveal that God wishes none from the community be lost and that obedient action rather than lip service constitutes true righteousness. These parables and their teachings prove paradigmatic for properly understanding Matthew’s narrative of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus.

[1] On the motif of the People of God represented as sheep (πρόβατα), see Ez. 34.1-31, Ps. 23, and 1 Enoch 85-90.

[2] Harrington, 299.