NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 13: Then the people brought their little children to Jesus so that He could lay His hands on them to bless them and pray for them. When the followers saw this, they told the people to stop bringing their children to Him.
With the confrontation by the Pharisees now over with, the crowds were free to approach Jesus. This is the first occasion where children were brought to Him so He could lay His hands on them and bless them. We are told that in the domestic life of the ancient Hebrews the mutual respect existing between parents and children was very obvious. While prominent among other Semitic peoples, it was of first importance with the Hebrews, as is evident from the frequent mention of the duties children have toward parents.1
Traditionally the Sabbath includes special blessings said over the children at the beginning on Friday after sunset. How these blessings are said varies from home to home. Customarily it is the father who blesses the children by laying his hands on their heads and reciting the blessings. Taking time to bless the children on the Sabbath is a great way to reinforce the fact that they are loved, accepted, and supported by their families. The traditional blessing said for a son asks God to make him like Ephraim or Manasseh, two sons of Joseph in the Bible.2 Based on this, we may rightly assume that this blessing of the children by Jesus took place on a Friday because the Pharisees had left earlier in order to get back to Jerusalem before the Sabbath began.
But one early church writer saw another factor here that might seem confusing to anyone who just heard Jesus talk about those who are most likely to enter the kingdom of heaven and those who try to get in their own way. He writes: “Only a little before, when receiving a child, Christ had said, ‘Unless you become like this child here, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ But now look at how the disciples had immediately forgotten the innocence of children and had kept them back as though they were not worthy to come to Christ, even though the disciples themselves had been invited to be like children. Who would merit to approach Christ if innocent children are kept back from Him? The disciples thought they were doing honor to Christ, while actually they were diminishing His glory. For just as it is a loss to a physician if the sick are kept away from him, so it is a loss to Christ not to have those He may save.”3
Verse 14: But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me. Don’t stop them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people who are like these children.”
We might assume that the disciples wanted to save their Lord the stress of dealing with so many children, so that’s why they were turning them back so they wouldn’t interrupt their Master’s ministry. But Jesus interrupts their misplaced protection for Him and invites the parents and their children to approach Him for a blessing. Again, Jesus uses the openness and innocence of the children as an example of the attitude that all should have who come into the kingdom of God. Even the Jews believed that innocent children were bound for the future world.4 What Jesus was doing here, struck a chord with what we find in Isaiah: “Like a good shepherd, He takes care of His people. He gathers them like lambs in His arms. He holds them close, while their mothers walk beside Him.”5 The moral of the story here is that we should never assume that Jesus is bothered when anyone comes to Him at any hour of any day for any reason.
As Epiphanius looked at this text he had some questions: “Why did the disciples keep the children back? Not because of the children’s sinfulness but because it was not the right time. They did not want the Lord to be tired by the great crowd. But had He not said to them, ‘Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ For children are ignorant of wickedness. They do not know how to return evil for evil or how to do someone an injury. They do not know how to be lustful or to fornicate or to rob. What they hear, they believe. They love their parents with complete affection. Therefore, beloved, the Lord instructs us that what they are by the gift of nature, we should become by the fear of God, a holy way of life and love of the heavenly kingdom; for unless we are alien to all sin just like children, we cannot come to the Savior.”6
Verse 15: After Jesus blessed the children, He departed from there.
We don’t know how far away Jesus and His disciples moved, but it must not have been too far because the next location given is Jericho,7 which was just across the river. We know that when John the Baptizer was ministering there in this area, Jesus had a place to stay.8 So this is where they may have gone for the evening. Then after the Sabbath was over, Jesus had another visitor, perhaps on the first day of the week.
Apollinaris had some interesting things to say about this. First of all, when an elder or prophet blessed someone, they laid their hand upon their head. So here when Jesus blessed the children, we can envision Him having each one of them pass by as He put His precious hand on their little heads. And another thing Apollinaris notes it this: “Only the wickedness and corruption of the creature stands in the way of our approaching the Creator. Lack of wisdom should not prevent it. He seeks completeness, and your approach is welcome to Him for this completeness. Therefore, the words ‘For to such belongs the kingdom of heaven’ are accurate. He did not say ‘of these’ but ‘to such,’ since lack of wisdom is a property of children. For the same reason the apostle said, ‘Do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil.’9 And Mark also examines the cause, speaking and interpreting as follows: To such belongs the kingdom of heaven’ and ‘Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’10 Luke also said the same as Matthew above: ‘Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’11 For those qualities which the child has by nature, God wishes us to have by choice: simplicity, forgetfulness of wrongs done to us, love of our parents, even if disciplined by them. He laid His hands on the children because the laying on of hands signifies the arming of God’s power.”12
It is obvious that Apollinaris is speaking of believers wanting to approach their Savior for any reason, whether it be to pray to Him, worship Him, or enjoy His company. But he says it should only be done in the greatest of piety and caution. I believe that this too is being very protective of our Master. Any child of God should not feel threatened when approaching their Lord and Master even after being disciplined, but do so with humility and respect.
Verse 16: A man came up to Jesus and asked, “Good Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?”
It would be safe to say that this man may have witnessed Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish religious leaders and saw how He invited the little children to come to Him without reservation. This could have been what motivated him to approach the Messiah with his request. The Jews had a verbal teaching that applauded anyone who acknowledges that they need to confess so they could guarantee their eternal reward.13 They point to Judah who confessed his wrong with Tamar,14 and Reuben who acknowledged his wrong doing with Joseph.15 So Jesus took this man’s request to heart but wanted to teach him nuances of being good. Apparently this man used an Aramaic word for “good” that Jesus understood as being a reference to perfection.
But some scholars believe that Jesus was using a bit of satire here because up until now none of the leading Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, or other religious leaders in Galilee had said anything good about Him. At the same time, it may have been that Jesus was still cautioning those He healed about referring to Him as the Messiah because His time to suffer for that had not yet come. Then again, it may be that Jesus wanted the young man to concentrate on God as the source of salvation, not Himself, because He only came to speak for His heavenly Father, not to replace Him.
Chrysostom gives us this to consider: “Some criticize this young man as insincere and purposely, approaching Jesus to put Him to the test. I would not hesitate to say that he is covetous and greedy since Christ also showed him to be such. Yet I would by no means call him a pretender because it is not safe to venture on things uncertain and especially in a case of blame. Such is also true because Mark has taken away the suspicion of disguise. For Mark says, ‘A man ran up and kneeling before Him he asked Him’ and ‘Jesus looking upon him loved him.’16 The tyranny of money is a powerful thing, as is clear here. Though we are practiced in the other virtues, greed brings the others to ruin.”17
I also agree that his young man was not pretending to be interested in the Kingdom of God, but it is clear that he was not seeking what he could add to the mission of the kingdom, but what the kingdom could do for him. As soon as he found out the price of admission, he quickly lost interest because the dividends did not seem worthy of his time and investment.
Verse 17: Jesus answered, “Why do you ask me about what is good? Only God is good. But if you want to have eternal life, obey the law’s commands.”
Now our Lord explains that the level of goodness this man referred to can only be reached with God’s help. A respected Jewish Rabbi stated, “When we are worthy and have good actions to our credit, then God gives us our reward, but when we have nothing of our own, then God blesses us for the sake of His love for He is good.”18 As a matter of fact, David wrote the entire 145th Psalm in praise of God’s goodness. So our Lord’s message to this man was: don’t try to be a good as God, that’s impossible.
Here our Lord echoes the teaching of the Rabbis, for we find that one Rabbi said: “Israel has thrown away that which is good, and the enemy will pursue him.’19 And ‘good’ means only Torah. As it is written, ‘For a good doctrine I have given unto you, my Torah, do not forsake it.’20”21 It is obvious that Jesus was aware of this teaching because He directs the young man’s attention to the Torah.
One venerated Jewish commentator has an extensive treatment on the good in the Torah and how it will grant you access to the world to come. In one place he writes: “He will grant us all the good which will reinforce our performance of the Torah, such as plenty, peace, an abundance of silver and gold in order that we not be involved throughout all our days in matters required by the body, but rather, will sit unburdened and thus, have the opportunity to study wisdom and perform the laws in order that we will merit the life of the world to come.”22
Another well thought of Rabbi says: “If Moses had not commanded us the Torah it would never have become the collective inheritance of the community of Jacob. Ultimately, only God decides who will be rich and who will be poor. Possession of the Torah, observing its commandments, is the best way to encourage God to bless us with the blessings needed to lead a satisfying life on earth.”23 So it shouldn’t have surprised this young inquirer that Jesus directed him to the Torah.
But there is another subtle indication here in Jesus’ answer. Let’s put it this way: this young man comes up to One who is going about everywhere doing good things. He shows his respect to Jesus by bowing down before Him, and then asks, “Lord I want to be good, what do I have to do to be good?” I don’t think it would be a stretch to add, “What do I have to do to be good like You?”
Our Lord’s quick and to the point answer indicates that He too saw this young man’s intentions. Did this fellow think that Jesus went around healing the sick on His own? Didn’t he understand that all that He was doing was by the authority of God in heaven? In other words, according to Jewish thinking, people who did the things Jesus did were always thought of being righteous, which is another word for being good. And all who did such good things were destined for everlasting life with the Father in heaven. It was the classic way of asking: How can I work my way into heaven? Since Jesus had not yet died on the cross to establish the new agreement with God, He directed the young man to the old agreement way of attaining eternal life through good deeds.
That is what then led to the Master telling this young man that if he too wanted to be righteous and go around doing good so he could inherit eternal life, then just follow what the commandments given by Moses said to do. But no doubt this young man had been very devout in keeping the commandments, but it never led to anyone being healed and miracles being performed. So it appears he immediately thought that he had missed those commandments that would give him the power to do such things and led to everlasting joy in the world to come.
So it is with many believers today. They think that by following the teachings of the Bible and the church it will earn them the right to be called “good.” As Jesus said, only God is good. By showing the world what God is and what God is able to do for them makes God good. That in turn, makes the believer good for God’s sake. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Good for nothing.” What every believer should strive for is to be, “Good for God.” Jesus said it best: “You should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.”24
1 See Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19:3, Deuteronomy 27:16; Proverbs 1:8; 3:12; 10:1
2 Genesis 48:20
3 Incomplete Work on Matthew: Homily 32
4 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 110b
5 Isaiah 40:11
6 Epiphanius the Latin: Interpretation of the Gospels 25.
7 Matthew 19:20
8 See John 1:39
9 1 Corinthians 14:20
10 Mark 10:14
11 Matthew 18:4
12 Apollinaris: Commentary fragment 96
13 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nashim, Masekhet Sotah, folio 7b
14 Genesis 38:26
15 Jewish Encyclopedia, “Reuben” – In Rabbinical and Apocryphal Literature, paragraph 2
16 Mark 10:17, 21
17 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 63.1
18 Rabbi Judah Ha’Levi ben Shalom, Midrash Tehillim, Psalm 72
19 Hosea 8:3
20 Proverbs 4:2
21 Rabbi Judah bar Pazzi in the Jerusalem Talmud, op., cit., Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Ch. 3:8, [I:1 F]
22 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Madda, Tractate Teshuvah, Ch. 9, Halacha 1
23 Abraham Saba, Tzror Hamor, op., cit., Genesis 33:3-4, Vezut hab’rachah, p. 2188
24 Matthew 5:16