The Pharisees believed they were righteous because no court could convict them of murder. But Jesus countered that if courts were in charge of judging righteousness, then responding to others with unloving anger would get you arrested; and calling people insulting names would get you thrown into the fires of judgment.
The Sermon on the Mount has 4 main sections:
- Matthew 5:1-16: Jesus describes those who have saving faith (the Beatitudes).
- Matthew 5:17-48: Jesus corrects the vision of holiness that the Pharisees have taught (the Antitheses).
- Matthew 6:1-7:14: Jesus warns his listeners to avoid the self-deception of the Pharisees.
- Matthew 7:15-29: Jesus concludes that it’s not enough to claim to believe, you must live out your beliefs.
Matthew 5:17-20 introduces to the second major section of this sermon where Jesus gives examples of how our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew 5:17-48 is called the Antithesis because Jesus quotes or paraphrases an Old Testament law and then makes an oppositional or antithetical statement. Each unit of this section has the structure: “your heard X but I say to you Y.”
What does it mean to have a righteousness that surpasses the scribes and the Pharisees? Here’s the first example: murder and anger.
20“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” – Matthew 5:20-26
A common understanding of this passage which I no longer hold is:
The Pharisees were dedicated to keeping the law. But our righteousness must go beyond the legal obedience which the Pharisees practiced. God requires us to be perfectly righteous at the deepest level of our hearts. It’s not enough that we refrain from committing murder. We can’t even get angry because anger is like committing murder in our hearts. Of course, since none of us can be righteous at this deep level, we must rely on the mercy and grace offered by the cross of Jesus Christ.
Instead, I think Jesus’ point is closer to this:
The typical Pharisee thinks that he is blameless and justified because no court can charge him with murder since he has not murdered anyone. But his behavior shows that he has missed the point of the law. The law calls for a more fundamental change in how we treat each other. The Pharisees have disobediently ignored that heart issue. In this way, your righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees.
21You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-21
- The commandment not to murder does not refer to killing in general. The issue is not taking the life of another human being under any circumstances. The issue is more narrowly focused on an individual acting out of hatred, vengeance or evil to take the life of another.
- Jesus says the ancients were told two things: 1) do not murder (Exodus 20:13) and 2) the penalty for committing murder is capital punishment (e.g. Genesis 9:6; Numbers 25:30-31).
- When the Pharisees explain what it means to be righteous, they teach that murder is wrong and there is a legal punishment against murderers. But righteousness consists of more than not being punished by the courts.
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” – NASB Matthew 5:22
- Jesus speaks in a poetic progression. The one who is angry is guilty before the lower court. Going one step further, the one who insults his brother calling him raca is guilty before the supreme court. Going one step farther still, the one who says you fool is liable to divine judgment.
- The word ‘raca” is a transliteration of an Aramaic word that means “empty-headed” or “stupid.” It’s a term of bitter contempt, an insult you would hurl at a worthless, foolish fellow.
- Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic. When Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek, he chose not to translate this Aramaic word but rather to transliterate it.
- The council or supreme court refers to the Sanhedrin, the political council that developed out of the civil authority of the high priests.
- This phrase “firey hell” is tricky to understand and translate. I’m reasonably sure it refers to the future judgment of God, where you are either accepted and granted eternal life or condemned and face God’s wrath.
- One way to understand being angry with your brother is to see a parallel with Matthew 5:27-28. In Matthew 5:27-28, Jesus contrasts the outward action of adultery with the inward attitude of lust. Similarly, Jesus could be comparing the outward action of murder with the inward action of anger.
- However, the other four examples Jesus gives in this section are outward actions; it’s seems more likely anger is also outward. Anger makes itself obvious by words or actions.
17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” – Leviticus 19:17-18
- Both “loving” or “hating” our neighbors deal primarily with how we choose to treat others, not how we feel about them. To “love” my brothers or sisters is to do good for them rather than evil.
- Leviticus 19 contrasts loving my brother with bearing a grudge and taking vengeance. The context is how to treat someone who has wronged you: You should not retaliate, you should not nurse a grudge, rather you should treat your neighbor the way you would want to be treated.
- Leviticus allows reproof and discussion, but not crossing the line into anger and hatred.
- Leviticus 19 is the moral principle that leads to the specific prohibition against murder and the civil pronouncement that capital punishment is the penalty for murder.
- Murder is the most extreme action of hatred you can take against your neighbor. You are so unwilling to treat your neighbor as you would wish you to be treated that you intend to take everything from him, including his life.
- Both anger and murder are expressions of hatred but they are on opposite ends of a “continuum.” This least end of the “continuum” (hatred) does not even worry the Pharisees.
- Jesus speaks in hyperbole to get their attention: The Pharisees tell you that you are righteous because no court can charge you with murder. But those who respond to their brother with anger should be charged by the court. Those who call their brother worthless should be judged guilty by the Sanhedrin. Those who call their brother a fool should be condemned to a firey hell.
- Your civil legal standing does not reflect of your moral character. Courts do not rule on moral issues.
23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. – Matthew 5:23-24
- Jesus applies this understanding to their religious context.
- Giving an offering at the temple was an expression of religious devotion to God. All Jews were expected to make such an offering at least once as part of their religious lives.
- Consider the situation where you wish to show your devotion and obedience to God (such as an offering), but you have violated the law of loving your neighbor. What’s more important? If you’re going to perform a religious act that you hope will make you pleasing to God, repentance is more important.
25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. – Matthew 5:25-26
- The point of the story in Matthew 5:25-26 is: make things right with your opponent before the judge hands down a sentence. You have an opportunity to make sure it doesn’t go really badly for you before you go to trial.
- Just like the accused in the story, we are guilty before our heavenly judge. One day the divine trial will start and our divine judge will pronounce our destiny. Then it will be too late.
- God’s judgment will include whether we have loved our neighbor as our ourselves. He’s not simply going to ask whether we’ve murdered anyone. He’s going to look at how well we’ve loved our neighbors.
When the Pharisees talk about what it means to be a righteous person, you have heard them say that you shall not murder and the law requires legal punishment for murderers. They say this as if righteousness consists only of not being caught and punished by the court.
But I’m telling you that if courts were in charge of judging righteousness, then responding to others with unloving anger would get you arrested; and calling people insulting names would get you thrown into the fires of judgment.
So, if you understand what I’m saying, be more concerned with repenting than giving God your offerings. Your repentance is what God really wants.
If you had financially defrauded someone, you would want to make amends before the judge throws you in jail. In the same way, you should make it right with your heavenly Judge while you still can. Repent of your unloving actions now before you face the judgement seat of God.
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