Not up to Seven Times

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Ser...
Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Image via Wikipedia)

The interchange in Matt 18:21–22 looks back to Jesus’ immediately preceding comments on handling a community member (ἀδελφός) who sins (Matt 18:15–20; Chrysostom, Hom. Matt., 61.1 [NPNF1 10:357]; cf. Matt 18:21; 19:1). Read within this context, Peter’s question ποσάκις ἁμαρτήσει εἰς ἐμὲ ὁ ἀδελφός μου καὶ ἀφήσω αὐτῷ; (Matt 18:21a; How many times* shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?) addresses a very plausible ambiguity in Jesus’ preceding comments. Judging from this question, Peter presumably thinks it inappropriate for a community member endlessly to sin and repent, but as long as some repentance was involved, Jesus’ instructions could seem never to allow further action to be taken. As many times as the community member would sin and repent, this member would also be restored (Matt 18:15b; Chrysostom, Hom. Matt., 61.1 [NPNF1 10:357]).

Other things may be in view also, but someone who might try to “work the system” could certainly fall within the range of Peter’s concern here. Doubtless, Peter’s ἕως ἑπτάκις; (Matt 18:21b; Up to seven times?) was, to him, a generous number of repetitions for this situation (cf. Lightfoot, Commentary, 2:259), but following on Jesus’ previous comments (Matt 18:15–20), Peter’s essential question remains quite understandable (Chrysostom, Hom. Matt., 61.1 [NPNF1 10:357]). Yet, Jesus’ response of ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά (Matt 18:22; “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven times”) expands Peter’s proposal to almost unimaginable proportions and certainly to ones impractical to count (Chrysostom, Hom. Matt., 61.1 [NPNF1 10:357–58]; Snodgrass, Stories, 67).

Despite questions about Matthew’s composition history at this point (see Blomberg, Parables, 240–41; Snodgrass, Stories, 67), if one reads with the narrative of Matt 18 as it stands, the immediately following parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23–35) can play a meaningful role in further responding to Peter’s question. In particular, the parable’s concluding interpretation urges the practice of forgiveness on the part of each community member in the face dire consequences if this instruction is not followed (Matt 18:35). In this connection, the parable develops Jesus’ earlier comment (Matt 18:22) and suggests that Peter’s inquiry about forgiveness is simply the wrong question. Forgiveness per se is an essential, constitutive feature of Jesus’ community (Augustine, Civ., 15.6 [NPNF1 2:287]), and it is the presupposition rather than the goal of the procedure that Jesus outlines in Matt 18:15–18, which focuses on the related but distinct issue of restoring damaged fellowship (see Matt 18:15b; cf. Phil 3:8; Augustine, Serm., 32.4 [NPNF1 6:358]). Thus, in Matthew’s narrative, rather than directly answering Peter’s question, Jesus highlights Peter’s misunderstanding in order to stress the importance of forgiveness as a prerequisite for how the community approaches resolving its own internal offenses when they occur (Augustine, Serm., 32.4, 7 [NPNF1 6:358–59]).

ΖΩΗ ΕΚ ΝΕΚΡΩΝ (Romans 11:15)

In Rom 11:15, Paul’s reference to ζωὴ ἐκ νεκρῶν (life from the dead) may refer to bodily resurrection, but it may also be read as metaphorically referring to the restoration of the then hardened portion of Israel into participation in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant that Paul regards as having come to fruition in Jesus:

I am the apostle to you Gentiles, [Paul] says (11.13); and I make a big fuss of this task to which I’ve been assigned, because, in line with what Deuteronomy said about Israel being made jealous by non-Jewish people coming in to share their privileges, my aim is to make my fellow Jews jealous, and so save some of them (11.13–14). Actually, the word [Paul] uses for ‘my fellow Jews’ is, more literally, ‘my flesh’, in other words ‘my kinsmen according to the flesh’, as in 9.3; but the idea of making the ‘flesh’ jealous, and so saving it, presents to his mind the entire sweep of what he had already said in Romans 5–8 about what God does in the ‘flesh’, about the ultimate importance of no longer being ‘in the flesh’, defined by flesh, but of being in the Spirit and thereby being given resurrection life. This enables him to speak of the restoration of ethnic Jews to membership in the renewed covenant, using the metaphorical language traceable at least as far back as [the valley of dry bones vision in] Ezekiel 37:

For if their casting away means reconciliation for the world, what will their receiving back again be if not life from the dead [Rom 11:15]?

Many have argued that zoe ek nekron here means literal resurrection, suggesting that the restoration of Jews to membership will come all in a rush on the last day, when they will all be raised to life. I am persuaded, however, that Paul does indeed mean it metaphorically, and that what he has in mind here and throughout the passage, is ethnic Jews abandoning their unbelief in the gospel (11.22) and coming to membership in the polemically redefined ‘all Israel’ (Wright 262).

Though apparently unique to this text in Paul among early Christian writings (Wright 263), understanding Ezek 37 as a subtext for Paul’s declaration that the unbelieving Israelites’ restoration would mean ζωὴ ἐκ νεκρῶν (life from the dead) would itself also put the one whom Paul recognized as the new, Davidic shepherd (cf. Rom 1:3; 8:31–39) into the place of the Davidic ruler whom Ezekiel had expected (Ezek 37:24–28).

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N. T. Wright
N. T. Wright