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Matthew 18 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Go After the Straying Sheep

Compare Luke 15:3-7. The similar parable in the context of Luke 15:1-32 emphasizes Christ's pursuit of the lost sheep (see also Mt 9:36; 10:6); in this context, however, the parable summons those who share God's concerns to pursue the lost sheep (Jeremias 1972:39-40). By his ingenious arrangement of the material, Matthew demonstrates that overbearing leaders unwilling to forgive the repentant fall into the same category as those who caused the stumbling to begin with. Matthew opposes leaders in the religious community who are more concerned with their own reputation and position than with the needs of the people (20:25-28; 23:5-12; 24:45-51).

God cares for each believer, even the weakest. This paragraph begins and ends with God's care for his sheep (18:10, 13-14). Although scholars have proposed various interpretations for verse 10 (for example, that angels simply means the spirits of the little ones after death, Acts 12:15; Mt 22:30; 2 Baruch 51:5, 12; Carson 1984:401), the majority view-and the most satisfactory interpretation of this passage in light of ancient Jewish ways of speaking-is that it refers to guardian angels (see Davies and Allison 1991:770-72). The guardian angels of these children were of the highest rank, indicating their special place before God (compare Jeremias 1971:182; Meier 1980:203-4). In view of the full Palestinian Jewish background, verse 14 even more clearly reiterates that "it is not God's will for even the very least to be lost" (see Jeremias 1971:10, 39 and 1972:39-40; compare 2 Pet 3:9).

This text summons those who share God's agendas to go after those who stray. It is not enough not to cause stumbling; we must also actively seek to prevent anyone from stumbling. Higher-status urban people generally looked down on shepherds (b. Sanhedrin 25b; Jeremias 1972:132-33; MacMullen 1974:1-2, 15), but biblical heroes like Moses, David and Amos had been shepherds (Ex 3:1; 1 Sam 16:11; 17:15, 28, 34-37; Amos 1:1; 7:14-15), and the Bible especially portrayed God in these terms (for example, Ps 23:1; 78:52; Is 40:11). A hundred represents an average-size flock (Jeremias 1972:133). Contemporary evidence indicates that shepherds and cowherds did leave their flocks or herds to search for lost animals (1 Sam 9:3; Diog. Laert. 1.109; Hock 1988:139); often shepherds would leave sheep with other shepherds (compare Lk 2:8; Bailey 1976:149). Like God, a true shepherd for God will search for the straying sheep (Ezek 34:4, 11).

When I returned from college, I went to visit a friend who had always been faithful in church attendance and witnessing. He had left the church a year before, yet no one from the church had so much as called to see how he was doing. Whether it was because he was single or because his income was minimal I do not know, but he became one of many examples I saw of wounded Christians neglected by our churches. We cannot ultimately make people's decisions for them, but we can certainly help them. Former members who no longer attend church and the people who pray for salvation at our altars and then leave remain our responsibility as Christ's church. God does not send them just to improve our statistics and self-esteem.

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