MATTHEW 5: 21
You have heard that God said to our first generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I say to you, that anyone who harbours anger against a brother will be subject to judgement; and anyone who calls his brother a waste of space will be subject to the council; and anyone who calls him a moron will be subject to the fires of the God’s Rubbish Tip. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go firstly to renew friendship with your brother, then come to offer your gift.
Make friends with your opponent while you are with him on the way to court, in case he hands you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer and you are thrown into detention. Amen I tell you, you will not get out of it, until you have paid your last penny.
Here Jesus begins to reveal what he has called a ‘more abundant right living.’ The law forbidding murder which is fundamental for community life is radicalised by its extension into the violent emotion which causes it. Anger is defined by its aim of subjecting another person to violent feeling, shown in verbal abuse. In a culture where everybody’s honour was important verbal abuse was even more destructive than it is in ours. The true meaning of the abusive words given here is not fully known, although they seem both to denigrate the abused person. In our current culture of social media the danger of abuse is very clearly seen. Jesus wants to drive out the anger which expresses contempt for others.
He emphasises its importance by the example of the person making a sacrificial gift in the temple. This is a holy duty, but it cannot be accomplished while the person is at odds with a brother. He must go and restore friendship before the gift can be offered to the holy God. This is not a dramatic instance of putting ethical before ritual matters, but rather an illustration of how God demands the heart. Jesus does not denigrate the sacrificial offering but insists on its true meaning.
As for the passage about settling with an opponent etc., this has puzzled many scholars. Is it a) practical wisdom about disputes over money; or b) parabolic language about out relationship with our neighbour and with God? The former is possible but it is a kind of commonplace advice that doesn’t need Jesus’ backing, especially in the context of his profound teaching in this sermon. I think he is making a parable:: “ You know what they say about settling a dispute out of court – that you should befriend your opponent rather than risk the penalties the judge may impose? Well, apply that principle to all occasions of anger and enmity, for in the end, we’re all “on the way to court”. I think that explains why Matthew put this teaching here.
1. The first generation: the Greek means the originals, the ancients, referring to the Jews under Moses who came out Egypt and received the Law.
2. Murder. The Greek like the original Hebrew means murder rather than simply kill.
3. Harbours anger. The participle of the verb to be angry indicates continuing action
4. Judgement, council, fires. Jesus suggests grades of punishment which are symbols of divine and human judgement. They are not to be taken literally, but they are not trivial.
5. Rubbish Tip: Gehenna was the council rubbish tip for Jerusalem in The Valley of Hinnom. Fires and smoke were so habitual that it became a symbol of God’s tip where rubbish humans would be consumed. Before we protest that Jesus didn’t really mean this we should remember the number of times he spoke about God’s rewards and punishments.
6. Last penny: this may be taken as a more realistic picture of divine judgement than Gehenna, because it emphasises God’s ruthless justice – the sinner will have to pay up, however that is conceived.
Excellent. I’ve been away from reading your posts for a long time, but I’m glad I read this. It reminds me of how insightful your comments on scripture are, and how you are able to draw obvious, but elusive to most of us, lessons for living from passages such as the going to court statement. You’re absolutely right!