To be honest as I was working with today’s passage (Matthew 5.21-26), I had some difficulty locating the focus. These six verses range over topics including murder, anger, name calling and being embroiled in a court case. What was the connection? And while I wasn’t initially sure what held these verses together, I knew it was something important. There is talk of “liability” in at least four places and two entire verses are about being drug into court and being thrown into prison…which is slightly better than being thrown into Gehenna or “the hell of fire” (verse 22). I am thinking, “There is some really important law being talked about here, I better get it right. There is a lot at stake.” However, the very last commentator I read, Douglas Hare, Matthew, p. 51, pointed out that this passage (and the next five passages) are not about Jesus making new laws; rather it is Jesus talking about a new life: the new life in the kingdom of heaven. It is Jesus beginning to unpacking how we live as salt and light in a world desperately needing alternatives to business as usual. The passage reads:
5.21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[g] with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5.21-26)
This unit and all the units in chapter five begin with something like “You have heard that it was said….” And then they refer to some Old Testament laws that Israel was not to violate. Those passages cover moral actions like murder, adultery, divorce, lying, retaliation and hating enemies. They are all specific boundaries not to be crossed by people who called themselves the “People of God.” Jesus says, in essence, in the old days people told you never, ever cross this or that line, and they happily allowed you to wander right up to it…so long as you didn’t cross it. But I want you to know, Jesus continues, that every specific boundary is merely a particular point on a dangerous trajectory. And, so you need to be careful about the trajectories upon which you find yourself.
What does that mean? Good question. Let’s put it this way. No one I know wakes up the first thing in the morning and suddenly thinks to themselves, “I believe I will commit adultery today…or maybe tomorrow.” Instead they were lying there yesterday or last week thinking, “That new person at work is kinda attractive. She was really kind to me. Or he went out of his way to be helpful. I wonder if s/he is interested in me. I could be interested in her/him.” Or no one I know wakes up the first thing in the morning and suddenly thinks to themselves, “I think I am going to lie to my colleague today.” Instead we are laying there thinking, “It was great Mary loaned me her car yesterday when mine was in the garage. I don’t know how to tell her I put a dent in it backing out of that parking space. I think I will tell her it was dented when I came out of the grocery store.” Jesus says when you start thinking along those lines you are already on a dangerous trajectory, which may end up breaking the law. But you have already started living out a pathway which doesn’t end up in the kingdom of heaven.
In the opening two verses (21-22) Jesus warns his followers about the trajectory which potentially ends in murder. Ultimately, murder is the end result of someone deciding that another person’s life has no worth. The victim is, in essence, disposable. And he or she can be done away with. Jesus says remember there are a number of steps you have to take before you arrive at that terrible point. The next-to-last step is being incredibly angry at someone. If you are angry enough, out of control enough, you could lash out and do serious harm to a person. But before that, you have to make a huge assumption about them, and that assumption is this: they are useless…at least to you they are. The word raca (v. 22, translated “if you insult”) is almost impossible to translate, but it is an abusive term of contempt. It means you have no time or respect for someone you see as hopelessly incompetent. It means you think the world would be better off without them in it. And the word moro (also in v. 22 and translated as “you fool”) is a slanderous term calling someone’s moral character into question. It is a way of assassinating someone’s character or ruining their reputation.
At the end of the day, when you are lying in bed you might be able to say, “Well, today I didn’t actually murder anyone and I feel good about that.” But Jesus says his followers also need to ask themselves, “Did I even wish someone was dead because I think they are useless?” Ask yourself, “Did I assassinate someone’s character?” We aren’t faithful only when we avoid the last stop on the murder trajectory, while casually moving through life creating interpersonal chaos and ill will. We are successful when we get off that destructive trajectory all together.
If that isn’t challenging enough, Jesus ends this passage by reminding us of something we’d rather not hear: sometimes, we are the raca or the moro. It is one thing to have to live with useless people or morally suspect people, but somedays we are another person’s loser, and Jesus reminds that this is a real possibility in verses 25-26. There Jesus creates a scene where you or I are the “offenders.” He depicts it as a court scene, where someone (me or you) has done something to upset another person enough to call in a third party to make a judgment about our bad behavior.
As much as I would like to deny this has ever happened, I must admit is has. I like to think I am an “average guy” which means I am not unique on this aspect of life. And that means you have probably found yourself in the same situation…having done something incredibly hurtful, intentionally or unintentionally, to another person. We don’t want to, but we must, admit to ourselves that some days we are the raca or the moro in another person’s life. And that reality should humble us, and remind us to be gentle with the racas and moros who cross our life paths. And don’t forget: when we looked at the Lord’s Prayer two weeks ago, Jesus reminded us that forgiveness was foundational to the kingdom of heaven. I assume it foundational in getting off the murder trajectory as well.
Now if you have been following closely, you will realize I skipped two verses: 23 and 24. And these verses are a subtle, but important, suggestion for how to get off the murder trajectory. On the face of it, Jesus’ advice looks simple: if you are going to worship and remember there may be “issues” between you and a “brother or sister” go home and take care of the conflict, the raca/moro “stuff,” and then go back to worship. We think, “Oh, our religious life with God should somehow connect to our lives with each other, and that is true. Jesus seems to be saying God isn’t especially interested in your worship if you are running around calling people names or giving people a reason to call you names.
But there is more to these verses than that. The context is making a sacrifice in Jerusalem…verse 23 says, “…when you are offering your gift at the alter….” But when Jesus said this he was in Galilee where he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Jerusalem, where the temple is located, is a three day walk from Galilee. Essentially, Jesus’ advice looks something like this: after you spend three days walking to Jerusalem, once you have changed your money to purchase your sacrifice, and then you remember you have a bad attitude toward someone at home, just let your sacrifice there, spend three days walking home, work out a reconciliation, and then walk three days back to Jerusalem to make that sacrifice. Of course, this will actually take a week, because there will be a Sabbath in that time span and you can’t walk very far on the Sabbath. I am sure your sacrifice will be waiting for you.
Admittedly, that advise is bizarre and overdrawn. I doubt Jesus expected anyone to do that. What he probably did expect was for people to be very careful about how they treated each other every day. And they certainly should never leave for Jerusalem without attempting to resolve conflict with fellow believers. In fact, his words at the beginning of verse 25 would reinforce this: “…Come to terms quickly with your accuser….” That expression looks like a legal term, doesn’t it, given the following context? It kinda looks like Jesus is suggesting we “settle out of court.” But the essence of the Greek text isn’t legal at all. In fact, Jesus is literally saying, “make friends with your accuser.” And that “make friends” advice also applies to the situation when you are tempted to accuse someone of being a raca or a moro. I suspect it is almost impossible to tell a friend that he or she is utterly and totally useless, and it is even more unlikely you will assassinate a friend’s character. Ultimately, working at being a friend to people is the first place where we get off the murder trajectory and on to the kingdom of heaven trajectory. Befriending people is one of the alternative hopes Jesus’ followers can offer to people who are unfamiliar with the kingdom of heaven.