Matthew 5:20-26

The Text

For I tell you, if your justice [with regard to the Law] does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “Do not murder,” and whoever murders will be liable to trial, but I myself tell you that anyone who is being angry with his brother or sister will be liable to trial, and whoever says to his or her brother or sister, “Fool!” will be liable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, “Fool” will be liable to the cursed place of the fire.

Therefore, if you are bringing your gift to the altar and there also you remember that your brother or sister holds something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, and first go and be reconciled to your bother or sister, and then come to bring your gift. Make peace with your opponent quickly until whoever is with him in the way might not hand you over to the judge, and from the judge to the officer, and you, cast into prison. Truly I tell you, you will certainly not get out until you paid the last coin.’

A Reading

Our setting in the narrative is stable still. As we said earlier, Jesus is addressing his appointed followers within the hearing of a larger cloud with his core, foundational teachings about the kingdom of God. Jesus gave his vision for the shape of the kingdom through the so-called ‘Beatitudes’ and its relationship to Israel’s constitution through his teaching on the Law. Jesus is continuing to weave those threads here. Having just reaffirmed the permanence of the Law and the imperative for Jesus’ followers to uphold it greater than its then-elite practitioners (the Pharisees), he now offers a commentary upon one of the cardinal commands as an illustration of that very point. That is, he says, it has always been the case for Israel that murder is worthy of judgement, but for the kingdom Jesus images, anger or contemptuous treatment against fellow Israelite will also fall under the judgment of the ruling assembly (here, “the Sanhedrin”).

However, lest the point seem understated and the hearer think, ‘Sure, the murderer found guilty will be subject to execution, and the one who calls a brother “fool” will be subject to a reprimand,’ Jesus makes a stunning elaboration. The same one who goes before the Sanhedrin for addressing another with contempt is in fact at risk of being sent to ‘the cursed place of the fire.’ The translation is difficult because it’s so laden with cultural meaning. The more literal translation might be something like, ‘the Gehenna of fire,’ not the more common, ‘fire of hell.’* Since Jesus is already directly accessing the Israelite imagination to its Scriptures, ‘Gehenna’ is a conscious reference to the history recorded in 2 Chronicles. There Gehenna,* a site outside of Jerusalem, is known as the location of Kings Ahaz’s and Manasseh’s pagan worship and child sacrifice. Jeremiah 19 echoes this, showing that it had become emblematic of apostasy on the one hand and destructive burning on the other. To that end, Jeremiah and the larger tradition turn the figure of Gehenna on its head, declaring that while it would yet be a place of burning destruction, it would be no more so for sacrificed children but for those who were did the kinds of things that were found there, for those who destroyed the moral fabric of Israel. This, remarkably, is where Jesus says the ‘Fool!’-sayers are liable to go. That is, by the sound of it, Jesus places them in the same camp (significantly, a camp outside the city) as idolators and child sacrificers; if only rhetorically,* he kicks them out of the community Israel in the most emphatic way possible.

Jesus then integrates this with the practical observances of life in Israel. With this urgency in mind, an Israelite taking an offering to the Temple ought to subordinate their act of traditional worship to their reconciling efforts. Keeping the communal fabric of the kingdom un-rent is prioritized while not removing the place of traditional, Law-oriented worship. Inasmuch as one is to leave their due Temple observance to make peace, one is to leave the peace brokered in order to perform their original Temple observance. The extremity of both ends of this picture should not be missed; this is not equivalent to saying that one should leave their church, drive 20 minutes to their friend’s house and be reconciled. Travel to Jerusalem was onerous and would take days if coming, say, from Galilee. One would incur the hazards and costs we can see suggested in the parable of the Good Samaritan, leaving aside the fact that one would have to take a loss on whatever livestock they may have purchased as an offering, only to have to buy another on the return. Let the implication be clear: one’s faithfulness as an Israelite under Jesus’ case study requires one to walk to Jerusalem, walk back to another region, walk again to Jerusalem and of course walk home again, in order to fulfill a single obligation. Convenience is no consideration here.

To reinforce the urgency, Jesus finally offers the picture of a debtor thrown into prison. And here especially is where, in my experience of teaching the passage, the oft-missed subtlety of this teaching becomes most radical. In my best estimation of the Greek, nothing in v. 23 mitigates the subjective basis of ‘brother or sister’s claim. At risk of reading too much into what is there, what is not there is something more plainly objective, like, ‘If you remember that you have wronged/sinned against your brother or sister,’ or something more directly under the control of the person, such as, ‘If you remember that you hold something against your brother or sister.’ In any case, the ambiguity of ‘holds something against you’ is unqualified by legitimacy. It is enough that he or she holds it. Thus it is enough to count it as a debt owed and, more, a debt that will be exacted, penny for penny, as a matter of justice.

Bringing It Home

I have just written about four times as many words as ‘Matthew’ records for Jesus. On the one hand, this is because Jesus is and always will be more concise than I am, but really this is because our cultural habit of separating out the private and the public can lead us to miss some of the radical and minutely radical nature of Jesus’ kingdom. What we see in a passage like this is that how we relate to our brother and sister is inseparable from how we participate in Jesus’ kingdom. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not easy, spillover benefits of belonging to the Kingdom of Gød; they are how we belong. Making every effort that depends upon us to forge reconciliation, as though (guilty or not) not to do so were itself a crime and a debt unpaid, is at least as fundamental duty as worship itself; it is, Jesus suggests, woven into worship and woven into our civic duty as kingdom subjects. How we love our neighbor, how we deal with them in anger and how we deal with them when they are angry with us, is as make-or-break as murder and idolatry.

To whom do we owe reconciliation? Let us leave out what we have done or not done, what is deserved or undeserved. Rather, we should ask, Who would make a claim on us to the ‘Sanhedrin’? These separations will not belong in the kingdom in which Jesus reigns. Let us repair them now while the King is still numbering his subjects.

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