5 May 2013
21 "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother (without a cause) shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire. 23 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer and you be thrown into prison. 26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:21-26)
This week we continue with Jesus commentary on the law, that we began last week. He will address six subjects found in every day life: Anger, Adultery, Divorce, Lying, etc.
Before we discuss the passage before us, let us briefly see the context in which these verses are placed. In Matthew 5:17 We saw that Jesus was claiming to fulfill the Law in His teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven. That Kingdom is inaccessible to anyone who does not have a righteousness greater than that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Ultimately, as we saw, the only way to obtain that righteousness is through Jesus himself.
We could look at previous verses just by themselves and be quite satisfied. However, they are placed in the Sermon at this point as an introduction to what is to come. Jesus is about to redefine for His Jewish audience what the Law really means. In the following passages we have a similar grammatical construct of "You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . ." This construct presents a part of the Law as God intended. In other words he will destroy the Pharisees feelings of self-righteousness, while illustrating the holiness of God that should be reflected in the Law. When Jesus claims He has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets he is prefacing the teaching that is about to come in the Sermon. It is to say, "You know the words of the Law but I am about teach you the heart of the Law." What follows are some difficult passages and Jesus is making it clear clear that His teaching is in accordance with the Old Testament, with God's Law, over against the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees.
So what is important to see in these passages over the next few weeks are issues of the heart. God is not solely concerned about our external actions; but the motivation and temptation that drive those actions.
The Heart is where Anger is Harbored
For most of us we were introduced to the Law of God through the Ten Commandments. In them we find the command to not murder, or kill (Exod 20:13). This seems basic not only to good Christian behavior but it is basic to society at large. For the most part society looks upon murder as a very bad thing (though the growth of abortion and euthanasia are troubling trends). So the introduction of the passage in the Sermon is not seen as Jesus' means of affirming that murder is bad. He knows it is bad, his disciples know it is bad, even the Scribes and Pharisees he is correcting know that murder is bad. But murder is an intentional act fed by anger and hatred; before you learn to kill your heart and mind must first learn to rage, to burn in anger until it explodes into violence.
The soon to be familiar phrase of "you have beard it said…" sets off the beginning of this passage. Verse 21 presents to the topic of concern: murder. This is the topic taught by the Scribes and Pharisees who say that all murderers will be "liable to judgment." However, it is not until verse 22 that we are introduced to what Jesus wants to say about murder. Taking up the theme of liability of judgment, Jesus presents to us two scenarios, or pictures, of what it looks like to be truly liable of judgment. He is not saying the Scribes and Pharisees are completely wrong, rather He is bringing greater clarification to the phrase, "liable to judgment."
The first scenario he presents to us is the case of anger, But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. It is always best in reading the Bible to begin with the simplest reading of the text before trying to find an alternate interpretation. It is ever true here. Those who are angry with a brother (sister, cousin, etc.) will be liable for judgment. That is the simple reading. It is placed within the context of what the audience has heard, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' Therefore the simple reading says, "one who is angry with his brother is liable to the judgment that a murderer should receive." (Some versions of the Bible add in "without cause" after "angry with his brother." This is a variant text that most versions now omit.)
The second scenario presents something similar, whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of hell fire. Here we are presented with the case of an insult, a case of abuse, wherein the result is judgment, but this time it shows it as eternal judgment—hell fire.
With these simple, and perhaps shocking, readings of the text we must then ask the question: what does it mean here to be angry or to insult someone? Concerning anger we must keep in mind that it in itself is not unrighteous, that means, there is a time for anger and, as such, an anger that is not liable to judgment. We know this because God himself has anger, "Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day." (Deut 29:27-28) This is just one example of God showing His anger. The Bible also speaks of Christians being angry, "Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Eph 4:26). There seems to be a possibility for man to have sinless anger, like God's. There are times when it is ok to be angry, but in those times we must remain sinless in our anger and we must rid ourselves of that anger quickly, for the Bible also says, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice." (Eph 4:31) and "for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God." (James 1:20). The anger in mind here is of a different sort.
Ephesians 4 give us a good hint, "put away malice", malice is evil intent to where you want to do harm to someone. Likewise it says anger must be short lived. What do you do with your anger?
In a similar way, this passage is not inferring that every insult that we make has the liability of judgment attached to it. Though it is definitely unwise to be flippant with our words and call people "morons" and "idiots." The simple recitation of those words or phrases does not bring about the fires of hell. There is a connection of those words to our hearts.
The anger and insults mentioned here are those thoughts of the heart that manifest into hate. For every murder has some motive attached to it. It has some level of hatred for the person that is murdered. So the judgment is not only in the activity of the murderer but in the murder already committed in his heart. For the conclusion that we can come to from Jesus' teaching is that when we harbor hatred towards someone else we are in effect learning to murder. This thought is no less difficult now to comprehend than it was for the first century followers of Jesus who soon turned away after hearing his teaching (see John 6:66-68). However, we must remember that the kingdom of heaven is offered to those whose righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, so we must be aware of the condemnation as murderers coming to all who harbor hate for a brother in their hearts. This is an interpretation of the Law that reflects the holiness of God.
The Heart must Seek Reconciliation
There is no doubt that the point Jesus is making here is difficult to confront since it cuts at the heart of everyone and highlights the perpetual problem of sin we all have. However, this passage does not leave us without a word of hope and grace. We must not walk away feeling completely down by this affirmation of the sin in our heart, rather Jesus' purpose in all His preaching is to bring us to repentance and fellowship with God, under the promise that Jesus himself will fulfill the LAW. So it is in this passage as well.
Moreover here we are offered a model of reconciliation; Jesus says, "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." Though the reality of our sin is an encumbrance to all aspects of our life; this knowledge of sin reminds of our duty to seek repentance. In this passage that is exactly what is occurring. The person, who has not repented, is hindered from worship and left with only one true choice: reconciliation. Jesus tells us that we are to leave what we are doing immediately and find reconciliation. We are to seek out the person we have offended, and ask for their forgiveness.
This is the teaching of Jesus throughout the Bible. In John 20:23 we come across a similar statement: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." As Christians we have been given forgiveness for all our sins and in the practice of the Christian Life we are to live a life of forgiveness to others. 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 highlight this connection well.
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)
The message is quite simple: ask for forgiveness. Yet for many of us this may be a harder message than "we may become murders because of the anger we harbor in our hearts." It is hard because of our sinful pride; because we do not want to admit to others we are wrong, especially if they have no idea of our anger. But grace only comes through humility; forgiveness only is offered through repentance. Most of all, God treasures reconciliation so much that Jesus died for it.
The Reconciled Heart is the one Who truly Worships
The final part of this section of the Sermon on the Mount contains an image of the unrepentant heart: 25 Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny. The image is of the one who waited too late to find reconciliation and is truly liable to judgment. It is the picture of one who did not see that anger affected every area of life. For what we must not miss is that our anger and bitterness keeps us from truly living life, in particular it keeps us from worship.
In verse 24 we are told to leave our gift at the altar and seek reconciliation. Implicitly we can see that Jesus is saying, "unless you find reconciliation with your brother you cannot worship." Week in and week out Christians gather at churches for the purpose of worshiping God. Too often these buildings and meeting places have persons who cannot worship. Their hindrance to worship is not because the music is not right; it is not because the sound was too soft or too loud; it is not because the temperature in the building was too cold or too hot. None of these keep these people from worshiping. What keeps them from worshiping is the anger and bitterness they harbor in their hearts. They may think, what do my relationships, have to do with me being able to worship? The answer is everything.
There is a direct correlation between how we live our life with God and how we live our life with others. We cannot be two faced lest we be like the man in James 1:8, "he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways." Our faith in God must change us from the inside out so that as we are salt and light in this world the world God is glorified. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matt 5:16)
In conclusion, we must live out lives that are constantly seeking the grace of reconciliation that is available through repentance. We need to repent to God for our sins and repent to others we have offended usually because of pride. Many can testify to the truth in this practice for once where anger and bitterness were harbored and consuming, now the grace and joy of the Lord takes up residence and true worship of God occurs. We must be people who put away all anger and insults and constantly seek repentance and reconciliation.