Matthew 5:21-26 (6)
We continue to follow Jesus` preaching on the characteristics of the citizens of the kingdom, we see Him expounding on what He means regarding our righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees. He introduces six examples with, “You have heard that it was said” followed by “But I tell you”. Who had said long ago? If He meant Moses, was He at odds with what Moses had said? Definitely not! Jesus had just said, “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices them and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (v19) Had Jesus been referring to the Mosaic Law He would have said ‘It is written!’ not “You have heard that it was said”.
Since the exile very few people spoke or could read Hebrew and so they relied on the Scribes and Pharisees to interpret the Mosaic Law for them. So although the people thought they were hearing the Law, what they were actually hearing was the Pharisees spin on it. The Pharisees diminished the Law but Jesus, as we will see, transcended it, lifting the Law above negative restrictions to positive action.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in the danger of the fire of hell.” (Matt 5:21-22)
“You shall not murder.” “Human life is emphatically declared to be sacred. It is a divine creation, mysterious and magnificent in its genesis and possibility, utterly beyond the control or comprehension of any human being. It is, therefore, never to be taken at the will of one who can by no means know the full meaning of its being. This command not to take life is, therefore, based on the truths that God alone gives human life and God alone has the right to take human life.” (G Campbell Morgan). The punishment for breaking this Commandment was far greater than the Jews were willing to admit. … By the time of Jesus, the Commandment had been greatly perverted by the Jewish rabbinical tradition. This perversion took two forms. First, the Commandment was limited to actual murder. The Law of God was thus reduced from a principle governing all of life to a legal statute in Israel. Second, the punishment for murder was restricted to the temporal courts. (Wisdom of the kingdom. J Stewart)
The Pharisees, saw themselves “as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil 3:6) but Christ`s declaration elevates the requirement far above their legalism. Rather than be content with judgment of murder, Jesus shows that the steps that lead to it; anger, insults, and calling someone a ‘fool’ also deserve judgment. Remember the children`s rhyme, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but calling will not hurt me.’ We see from Jesus words that the one who calls his brother is in danger of hell fire. There is some uncertainty about the precise meaning of these terms of abuse as Jesus was applying them. The Greek word ‘Raca’ means to insult a persons intelligence calling them empty-headed or a numbskull. The word for fool, ‘mõ re’, scholars suggest refers to a Hebrew word that means a ‘rebel, an apostate or outcast’.
Jesus is raising the bar to, what some would say is, an impossible level, especially in a fallen world. We, however, must remember that these citizens of the kingdom are in this world but not of it and as they are born again, from above, they are enabled to live different lives and do that, which for the unregenerate, is impossible.
Jesus next gives two mini-parables to illustrate how, rather than be satisfied with the negative, not murdering, not being angry with, not insulting, or not writing someone off, we should actually be seeking to bring reconciliation and healing any rift.
“Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Mat 5:23,24)
This first illustration is set in the temple and shows how our relationship to a ‘brother’ affects our giving to God. The ‘righteous’ Pharisee says, “I`ve not committed murder, I have kept the sixth Commandment, I am OK”, then makes a big show of his offerings to impress men. Jesus is saying God is not impressed if you have not sorted out your differences with your brother. In fact I think the implication is that God will not accept your offering. Notice, He doesn`t say that you have something against your brother but that he has something against you. Nor does He say meet him half way, He says ‘go, be reconciled’. The kingdom citizen desires not only to fulfil the letter but also the spirit of the Law and so examines his relationship towards his brother. Has he been the cause of any offence by his actions, words or attitude? If he has then he desires to put it right before he draws near to God.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny”. (Mat 5:25,26)
The setting of the second illustration is that of a law court and an enemy. This shows the urgency that we should employ to put right our differences. Unfortunately many Christians feel they should fight for ‘their rights’ and are not prepared to back down especially if there was provocation from their accuser. It was said of some Christians, in Corinth, that they only met in the law courts to settle their differences. Jesus says put it right quickly, you may not have a tomorrow and would you want to face eternity with an unresolved accusation in your heart? Get rid of all self-defence and self-justification and acknowledge and confess your sin. Then the Judge, God Himself, will freely pardon us.
Let me try to draw together what Jesus has shown us, through this commandment, how our righteousness should and can exceed that of the Pharisee. Man is made in the image of God and we, the kingdom citizens, are born of the Spirit of God. We see murder and all that leads to it, including every word of contempt that is spoken casually against our brother, as deserving the judgment of God. We get rid of all hatred in our heart knowing that he “who hates his brother is a murderer”. We put away all anger and bitterness, and we forgive as God has, in Christ, forgiven us, and having our minds renewed, by the Spirit of God, we bring all our actions into submission so that they are pleasing to God. Having “eternal life abiding in him”, rather than take life, the Christian would rather “lay down his life for his brothers” (1John 3:15,16).