You Have Heard It Said
Matthew 5:21-22 NASB
"You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU
SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the
court.' (22) "But
I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before
the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be
guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the
A frequent misunderstanding of our Lord’s teaching is that
he somehow brought to the world a new form of morality. This is not the case;
he is the author of the Old Testament in the final sense, and he cannot
contradict himself. We may see this here by his opening remark: “You have heard
that the ancients were told.” He is, of course, quoting from the Ten
Commandments. In so doing he acknowledges the authority of the Old Testament.
It is important to note that Christ came to complete and fulfill the law of the
Old Testament, not to set aside. For example, homosexuality is condemned in the
Old Testament; it is therefore logical that it would be condemned in the New
Testament as well.
What would’ve been surprising to the listeners, however, is
the phrase, “But I say to you…” They would be accustomed to hearing rabbinical
teaching in which the Rabbi would comment on the Old Testament law, rendering
his opinion as to how it would be applied in a particular circumstance. But
Jesus speaks as one with authority. You cannot accept his sayings without
accepting his authority — though this has often been done. What he is doing is
extending the Old Testament. The Old Testament law looked upon the actual
actions of the sinner and passed judgment on them. But even in the Old
Testament it was clear that God looked upon the heart (as he mentioned the
Samuel in connection with selecting David as the king.) Jesus is making the
logical extension that the thought is what gives birth to the action. Therefore,
it is the thought that God (and God alone) will judge.
It is interesting in this connection to note that this is
the first mention of hell in the gospel of Matthew. It is characteristic of the
New Testament that hell is almost always reserved as a subject for the teaching
of Christ himself. Apostolic teaching does not extend what Christ taught, it
merely repeats it. Considering the role anger plays in so much sin, it is
perhaps fitting that the first time we hear of hell from the lips of Jesus is
in the context of anger.
Most of us are accustomed to thinking of anger purely in the
emotional sense. It is often justified on the grounds that it is an emotion and
there is nothing we can do about it. What your grandmother used to call “self
control” is now referred to as psychological repression. This, we all know,
will warp your little psyche. But to this we may raise two objections:
First, the idea that self-control is a negative thing is a
product of our time. Most Christians of most places and most times would have
been shocked at the idea. They would have assumed that self-control was a
normal part of growing up.
Second, anger as emotion is the father of action — and the action
in question is usually vengeance. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. Thou shalt not
We do make the distinction between anger as an emotion, and
anger as an action. It’s just that we need to note that both of them are
condemned the sinful. But we should also note that there is a degree of
judgment involved here. Christ gives us three levels of punishment. The first
is referred to simply as “the court.” That was a local court composed of three
judges at the time — and it had the authority to issue capital punishment, by
strangling or hanging. The Supreme Court was identical with the Sanhedrin; they
could have you stoned to death. Hell — well I assume you know something about
that. It teaches us that there are degrees of punishment; this also teaches us
that things get worse as the sin gets worse. In short, curb your anger as
quickly as possible before things get worse.
There is one word of caution we must bring in here. We have
often heard of “righteous anger.” I would submit to you that righteous anger
has within it some subtle temptations.
Righteous anger is best reserved for anger against an offense
committed on someone else. It is very difficult to be both righteous and angry
when the person who is offended is you.
We must always remember to be angry about the offense — but not
the offender. Your kindergarten teacher taught you to love the sinner and hate
the sin; she was right.
It is interesting to note that the phrase translated “you
good for nothing” in the passage above can also be translated “blockhead.” The
original meeting is something like “empty headed.” The accusation means that
the person is worthless. But remember that that worthless person is a child of
God (recall that Jesus is talking about what you say to your brother) and is
not empty, but filled with the Holy Spirit. We sometimes forget who we are.
The concept that we should not be angry with our brothers
should have been fairly obvious from the Beatitudes; for in them we are
commanded to pray for those who persecute us. If you pray for those who
persecute you, how much more should you care for those who are your Christian
brothers? So why do we have such problems with this? I submit that the apostle
James tells us the answer:
James 3:4-8 NASB
Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong
winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of
the pilot desires. (5) So also the tongue is
a small part of the body, and yet it
boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small
fire! (6) And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among
our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course
of our life, and is set on fire by hell.
(7) For every species of beasts and birds, of
reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human
race. (8) But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and
full of deadly poison.
If You Remember
Matthew 5:23-24 NASB
"Therefore if you are presenting your offering at
the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,
(24) leave your
offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother,
and then come and present your offering.
At the Altar
Christ assumed that his hearers would know what it was like
to present a gift at the altar. It would be a normal part of Jewish worship.
It’s something you would do on a regular basis, and I think that’s why he
selected. It’s like a pop-up reminder on your computer’s calendar; it’s going
to come up. For most Christians today this does not seem to apply; after all,
we pass an offering basket rather than approaching an altar. But I would submit
that a similar opportunity still does exist — at communion. The apostle
commands us to examine ourselves at communion, and certainly we should remember
such things at that time. Is it unreasonable to seek reconciliation before you
What you may have missed about this is that Christ is asking
you about your memory. Anger is one thing; the memory of anger is entirely
another. The memory of anger is something that can be pulled up and chewed like
a cud. Do you not see that this is a greater sin? You can be angry once; you
can chew on it for the rest of your life. So if your brother has anything
against you, reconcile as quickly and completely as possible. If you cannot
reconcile, at least forgive what ever offense they may have made against you –
and ask God to forgive those offenses you have made against them. Blessed are
the peacemakers – and that includes you making peace with your brother.
How God Sees It
We must take it is obvious that God desires harmony in his
church. This is clear from his innate character; God is one. Anything that he
creates, therefore, has integrity (oneness.) He desires that his church has
that same integrity and oneness, which implies complete harmony.
The fascinating fact is that God prefers the harmony of his
church to his own glory. For certainly it is clear that bringing an offering to
the altar of God is to bring glory to God, and if he prefers that we don’t do
that but should rather reconcile with our brother we understand his priorities.
The harmony of his church comes before the offerings which bring him glory.
But there’s more to it than that. You can also look at it
this way: if he will not accept an offering from you at his altar because you
are not in fellowship with your brothers, how great an evil it must be to have
strife in the church! If you present your gift anyway and let the strife go on,
do you think God will look upon your gift with favor? God’s requirement for the
church is that we be one, just as he is one.
Why Should I Reconcile?
Sometimes we need to be a little blunt about this. Anger consumes
people, and they tend to justify themselves as not needing reconciliation. But
here’s why you need to do it:
If love of your Christian brother is not enough, consider that
your failure to reconcile hinders the perfection of your work in the church.
If love is not enough, consider that you are breaking fellowship
with God and with man. Your worship will not be acceptable to him.
Finally, if love is not enough, there exist hell and judgment.
Make Friends Quickly
Matthew 5:25-26 NASB
"Make friends quickly with your opponent at law
while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over
to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.
(26) "Truly I say
to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.
Facts of the Time
Christ now changes his point of view from that of your
Christian brother to that of your opponent at law. We may assume that he is not
talking about your Christian brother, as the Scripture does forbid us to go to
law with each other (and often forgotten point.) We need to understand some
facts about the time which explain why this verse would be so clear to the
The ancient world was rather strict about the collecting of
debts. Indeed, the institution of debtor’s prison was a fact of life up through
the 18th-century at least. If you couldn’t pay your debts when call
for, the man who made the loan at the right to have you thrown in prison until
you did. This seems counterproductive to the modern mind, but remember that the
institution of the family was much stronger then. The likelihood was that some
of your family would get together and cover your debt. This, of course, had its
complications within the family as well.
If the simple fact of being imprisoned was not sufficient, it was
also permissible to torture the debtor. Again, the idea was to get the man’s
family to pony up the money. Most of us would react to this with horror, but
remember that in the ancient world torture was considered a legitimate form of
treatment for witnesses, debtors and criminals. Crucifixion, for example, was
just as fatal as the electric chair — but a great deal more painful.
In fact, the advice that Christ is giving here is something
which is repeated in Jewish lore. It would’ve struck his listeners as being
pretty obvious advice. Perhaps he intended it for the rest of us.
Who Is the Opponent?
This particular passage has been spiritualized in a number
of ways. Some view the opponent here as being God himself; in that instance you
are to agree with him in this life before the “court” — that is, the judgment.
Another view holds that the opponent is the devil — and that baptism we agreed
not to follow him. Following this type of interpretation, this passage has been
used as proof positive of the existence of purgatory and (on the other hand)
proof positive of universal salvation.
All of this is interesting historically, but the plain sense
the passage is quite enough. This passage talks about an opponent who is a man,
but not a brother. It refers to the people who persecute us; the people who
think us stupid and silly; the people who think they are mentally much better
than we are because we have this silly belief. In all these instances we are to
make friends; to be the people of peace. We are the salt of the earth, and we
should act like it.
What to Do
So if we think about it, we see our duty clearly. Remember
that the judge in accord is an agent of the government. Governments are
instituted by God for his purposes. For example, governments bring peace during
which the gospel of Christ spreads more easily. The judge in particular is
there to punish the criminal and resolve civil disputes. In this particular
instance we are talking about a civil dispute.
So what should we do? The phrase given here is, “make
friends.” The original in the Greek has as its root word the Greek word for
“benevolent.” This is difficult for the Christian, particularly if you happen
to be the person who thinks that you have the right side of this case. But
Christ prizes peace and harmony above justice. Why? Because peace and harmony
lead to eternal things; you winning a civil suit is a matter for this life
only. He wants you focused on eternal things.
We are the ambassadors of reconciliation. We ought to act
the part. Let our first concern when disputing with our neighbors be that of
reconciliation and peacemaking, rather than squeezing the last penny out of the
man who has offended us. We should not simply fold our arms and glare at our
opponent, demanding the last ounce of justice. For one thing, the civil judge
is not perfect — you could be the one being squeezed. Secondly at issue here
might be the salvation of your opponent versus the pennies in your pockets. Let
us be peacemakers while we can.