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In last week’s post, I talked about the steps to take if someone has done something against you, and more specifically against God’s principles, but isn’t willing to admit he’s wrong. But what if he does realize he is wrong? What if he is sorry and asks forgiveness? What if he has asked for forgiveness a dozen times before, but he keeps asking for forgiveness for similar things? At what point do you stop being patient? At what point do you stop forgiving?

Peter asked Jesus that question in Matthew 18:21. Peter also suggested a possible answer. He suggested that seven would be a good number of times to be willing to forgive someone who has sinned against you. This was actually quite generous on Peter’s part, since Rabbinic teaching held that you should forgive three times, and you needn’t forgive the fourth. So Peter was doing his best to be loving, but Jesus wanted more from him—and from us. Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Now, do you think Jesus meant that Peter should get out his scroll (or shard of pottery since they were easier to come by) and keep track of each time he forgave someone? Then stop when he got to 78? I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. I think the number Jesus gave was significantly larger than the one Peter gave, and even more significantly larger than what the rabbis taught, that His listeners would get the idea: keep on forgiving.

Jesus followed this answer with a parable to reinforce His teaching. (Matthew 18:23-35) Jesus tells the story of a servant who owed a great debt to his master. The master said it was time to collect, but the servant couldn’t pay so he begged for more time. Now, the servant owed 10,000 talents. A talent was the largest unit of money, and ten thousand was the largest number for which the Greek language had a specific word. Jesus’ use of these huge amounts would have had the desired effect on his listeners. There was not enough time in his lifetime for the servant to ever be able to completely repay this debt. His master had mercy on him, and forgave the debt. One would think the servant would be grateful for mercy in the place of justice. He justly deserved, according to the laws of the time, to be sold into slavery, along with his family so that at least some of his debt could be repaid. Instead, he was free to go and owe nothing. But he wasn’t so kind to a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii. A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wage for a labourer, and 100 days’ worth of income--27.4 percent of a year’s income--was not an insignificant amount. It would have taken some time for that servant to pay back such a debt also. However, since a talent was worth 6,000 times more than a denarius, and the first servant owed 10,000 talents compared to the second servant’s 100 denarii, the amount of debt relief received by the first servant would make up for what was owed by the second servant many, many times.

The debt that was cancelled by the master to the first servant was an enormous act of mercy, and represents God’s act of mercy in giving up His own son to pay the debt that we could never possibly pay. All he asks from us in return is that we forgive the small things that our fellow disciples do to us. Significant, perhaps, but nothing compared to the mercy we have received from God. And he wants us to keep on forgiving them, without keeping a count.

After my last two posts on hyperbole, one of my regular readers asked me to do one more. Matthew 23:24. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, and He points out that they avoid swallowing a gnat, but they gulp down a camel. Yes, the verb swallow is a tame rendering of the word used in the original language. Jesus painted quite a dramatic picture of them carefully straining out the smallest creature and carelessly, perhaps even enthusiastically, chugging down the largest. It was not uncommon for a camel to be used metaphorically because of its size, but in this case it was also a bit of a word play, since in Aramaic the word for gnat (galma) and the word for camel (gamla) were so similar. Both were considered to be unclean animals under the law, so the Pharisees would not want to take either into their bodies. They truly did strain their wine through a cloth to avoid swallowing the gnats that would be attracted to it.

Of course, they didn’t really swallow a camel. Obviously, this is hyperbole, but what does it mean? Let’s take a look at the context. Earlier in the conversation (Matthew 22:34-40), the Pharisees asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment. You are probably aware that the Pharisees were pretty attentive to the commandments, making sure that everyone followed them diligently, so they had probably often discussed among themselves which was the most important. Now they were testing Jesus with the question. Jesus answered them by telling them to love God and to love their neighbour. Then He took a turn asking the questions. (Matthew 22:41-46)

Jesus, unlike the crowd, could see that the Pharisees were only religious on the surface, and He tells the people that the Pharisees are hypocrites. (Matthew 23:1-12) By the time we get to Matthew 23:24, He has called them blind guides a couple of times. You see, they were the teachers of the law. They were the example for all the people to follow. It wasn’t just themselves that they were leading down the wrong path. If a blind person is leading a blind person, chances are that they won’t end up at their desired destination. Matthew 15:14 says that they will both fall into a pit. This is so much more important when the destination is your eternal home.

Jesus tells the Pharisees where they have gone wrong. (Matthew 23:13-32) This section is known as The Seven Woes. The gnat and the camel come in at the fourth woe. (Matthew 23:23-24) Jesus points out that the Pharisees very strictly obey the law of tithing, to the point of tithing even the smallest herbs. And Jesus doesn’t have anything against that. After all, the Levites depended on the tithe for their livelihood. Jesus doesn’t have a problem with straining out the gnats, but He also wants them to strain out the camel. He wants them to go beyond the external, visible rule-following. He wants them to get the bigger picture, and work on the internal components too. He desires the same for us. Yes, it is good to give financially to our churches; the ministries depend on our giving to keep them going. But God wants more than that from us. In Micah 6:6-7, the prophet asks, as a worshipper might, what the Lord would like as a sacrifice. The answer is found in Micah 6:8. He wants us to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before our God. Many translations say to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. In Matthew 23:23, that is also what Jesus says is the most important. Justice, mercy and faithfulness. Love God. Love your neighbour.


In my post last week, I discussed Jesus’ use of hyperbole. This was a literary device that Jesus used on more than one occasion, and one that was fairly common among the Hebrews of the time. Sometimes, today’s readers interpret Jesus’ words according to our own culture rather than His, and we either take His words literally, or we try to explain them in ways that are more palatable to us. One case of hyperbole that I have often heard explained in a way that attempts to soften it, is the case of the camel going through the eye of a needle. (Luke 18:25) Obviously, if we take that literally, it would be impossible, so Jesus must have meant something else, right?

There are two common explanations for the camel/needle expression. One is that is was a scribal error. The word for camel in the original language was very close to the word for rope. Maybe Jesus really said rope, but the scribes got it wrong. That’s very unlikely, because archaeological evidence shows a very high rate of accuracy in subsequent copies of Biblical texts. But even if it were the case, have you ever tried to get a rope through the eye of a needle? I don’t think that would be any more possible.

The second, and probably more common, explanation is that the “eye of the needle” was the name of a narrow gate leading into Jerusalem—one that was only large enough for a pedestrian to go through. Camels, wagons and the like would have to go through the larger gate. There is no evidence that at the time when Jesus said these words, any gates had been referred to in that way. This is evidently a later explanation which means it wouldn’t be impossible, just very difficult, for the rich man to get into heaven. After all, we want to give him a fighting chance, don’t we?

If you look at the context in which Jesus made this shocking statement—and it would have been shocking to his listeners who were convinced that material wealth was a blessing from God—you will see why He said it. He had just had a conversation with a rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-24) who seemed to think that he was blameless and sin-free. He told Jesus that he had kept all the commandments since childhood. The very fact that he had asked about eternal life indicated that he was a Pharisee, and therefore would have been very intent on following the rules. But the Pharisees always seemed to miss the point, and so did this young man. Through the conversation, Jesus pointed out that he was not keeping the commandments as well as he thought he was. The ones that Jesus mentioned were all commandments that refer to our relationship with others, ones that could be summed up as “love your neighbour”. But this rich young man was not willing to give up his wealth to help the poor, and he was not willing to give it up to follow Jesus either, thereby also breaking the first commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3) You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24) Again, we have to make a choice.

It is just as difficult for a poor man to enter the Kingdom of God if he tries to do it in his own strength or by his own means. The difference is that the poor don’t have quite so much to lose by giving up everything for Jesus, so they are more likely to be willing. A rich man has something else to depend on, a competing offer that he may find more appealing. In either case, it is only by the grace of God that we can be granted eternal life. (Ephesians 2:8-9) In the very next chapter of Luke, wealthy Zacchaeus chose Jesus over his riches. He promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he had cheated four times what he had taken. Jesus rewarded him with eternal salvation. (Luke 19:8-10) What is impossible for us, is possible for God. (Luke 18:27) That was the whole point of the camel and the needle. It was impossible. Except for God.
One more thought on the needle. In the parallel passages in Matthew and Mark, the Greek word that is translated needle represents a sewing needle. Doctor Luke uses a physician’s term that represents the needle that is used for stitching up wounds.


What kind of personality do you think Jesus had while He was on Earth? It is interesting to see the way that people portray Him in movies and such. Sometimes I think they make Him out to be more one-dimensional than He really was. Yes, He was peaceful and loving. He protected the woman caught in adultery from being stoned. (John 8:3-7) He healed many. He spent time with people that others would have ignored or judged unfairly. But Jesus wasn’t wishy-washy. He overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. (Matthew 21:12) He called the Pharisees hypocrites. (Matthew 23:13-29) He didn’t back down from a debate. He must have been an excellent public speaker because crowds would follow Him and go without food just to listen to His words. (Matthew 14:13-21) He didn’t always speak in simple declarative sentences either. He spoke in parables and used other literary devices such as hyperbole.

One example of Jesus’ use of hyperbole is found in Mark 9:43-48. He is speaking to the twelve disciples, those who would be charged with the task of spreading the gospel to the rest of the world. Just before this passage, Jesus had rebuked them for arguing about who was the greatest. (Mark 9:33-35) He then went on to explain what was really important. In these verses He tells them that it would be better for them to cut off an arm or a leg, or pluck out an eye, if it caused them to sin. I assure you He didn’t mean that literally. If He had, we would all be hopping around on one foot, balancing with one arm and going in circles because we could only see out of one side of our head. For we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) No, Jesus most certainly believed in the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14, Luke 1:76-77, Matthew 6:14-15) Not long before this, He had also explained that sin comes not from outside a person, (Mark 7:15) but from the heart. (Mark 7:21-23) The answer to changing your heart is to allow Jesus to transform you.

So, why did Jesus suggest cutting off limbs? By this time Jesus was used to boiling things down to the basics for His disciples, but He still wanted to emphasize the seriousness of His point. And His point was that eternal life with Christ was so much more valuable than any temporal pleasure we could be lured into. We have a choice to make between what we see as valuable or enjoyable on this Earth and following Jesus. He wanted His disciples, and us, to know, that whatever suffering we have to endure for His sake now is temporary, and it will be worth it. In Mark 8:35, Jesus told the disciples, along with the crowd, that they must deny themselves in order to follow Him—that if they are willing to forfeit their life for His sake, they would save it. If we are not willing to deny ourselves and our earthly desires for His sake, if we choose the world instead of Him, we will be exchanging those small pleasures for eternal suffering. That’s important news, and it is worth a little hyperbole.