Preached July 15, 2012
St. Matthew 5:20–26
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Our Gospel lesson for today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, the great teaching session our Lord held on the mountain side near the Sea of Galilee. It is in the fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel and follows shortly after the Beatitudes. Jesus takes the people up on the mountain side, in part, because this is a natural amphitheater in which to speak to them. But it is also the kind of setting in which God has spoken to His people in the past, and in this situation, Jesus, the Son of God, is teaching His people for their eternal edification.
As our lesson begins, Jesus is speaking of righteousness, and by righteousness He means the entirety of an upright life. He says, Matthew 5:20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Now remember that St. Matthew is writing this letter to Jewish convert Christians, so they will understand that the scribes and the Pharisees represent the highest known form of righteousness under the Law of Moses. The Pharisees were scrupulous about keeping all 613 points of the Law everyday, and in their understanding, this was what it meant to be righteous. Jesus is saying that His followers are required to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, a truly frightening prospect to the Jewish mind!
At first it sounds like Jesus is going to advocate some extreme form of works righteousness, but we know that this is not so. It sounds like He is going to tighten the old Law, and in a sense He is. He does not say that there is anything wrong with the old Law, but only that it is not enough, and He goes on to give us a new interpretation of the Law.
Jesus says, Matthew 5:21–22a You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: Now Jesus is speaking of murder here, not the killing of the enemy on the field of battle or the execution of evil doers by the proper judgement of society. He begins by reminding his listeners that this is the Law of God, given to Moses on Mount Sinai during the Exodus many generations before, a law the Jews have lived with for a very long time. This is well established in their culture.
But Christ extends the Commandment, saying that anyone who is angry with his brother without cause is guilty of murder of a different sort, heart murder, that is, murdering his brother in his own heart. How do we look at this in our modern society? We have to consider this, because these words are spoken to us as well. I would suggest that this is one of the most frequently violated Commandments of all. Modern society tends to say that if there is no material damage done, no physical death, then there is no harm and you can do whatever you want to do, including hating your brother. This is exactly what Jesus is forbidding here.
In our modern, civilized, Western society, we are not very prone to overt violence. It is rare for one of our own to seize a weapon and physically murder another person in cold blood. That does not at all, however, prevent us from hating. We are quite susceptible to it. If we hate someone, even if we do not act upon it, the love that we should have had for that person does not grow and flourish. We do not do the acts of charity that we should have done toward that other person. The cooperation with that other person that we might have had that might have been to our benefit and the advancement of God’s Kingdom is forestalled.
The rest of verse 22 requires a bit of interpretation; it reads Matthew 5:22b and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, You fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. This looks like a reference to a bit of name calling, something else that we take rather lightly in modern, Western society, and yet Jesus Christ says that the penalty is the ever–burning fires of Gehenna, the city dump of Jerusalem. First of all, we must remember that these words, as they are, were spoken to first century Jewish converts to Christianity, people who had a rather different mind set about many things than we do, and about religion in particular. The word Raca means “empty head,” meaning a witless person or what we today would call a fool. The word fool as used in the Scripture passage refers to a reprobate, a wicked person. Thus these words have somewhat changed their meanings in the time since the Authorized Version was created, and we have to search a little in order to have the proper understandings.
For calling a person a fool, by today’s understanding, one is in danger of being called before the council which means the Sanhedrin. For calling someone a wicked person, the punishment may be eternal punishment in Gehenna. This is a matter of establishing degrees of punishment. The lesser offense only merits temporal punishment from the Sanhedrin, while the more serious offense receives the greater punishment in the fires of Gehenna, thought by the Jews to be the place of those in eternal torment.
The idea in verse 22b is a continuation of that which had gone before, namely heart murder. If we call our brother a fool by today’s understanding, or a wicked person, we are cutting ourselves off from them and thereby murdering them in our hearts. This is slippery ground here, because Christ does not ask us to shy away from honest judgements about the truth. We are always called upon to fairly and correctly evaluate people and events as we encounter them, and to render an honest judgement. But we are never to do so in anger, and that is the key here.
Jesus then turns His attention to our worship of Him when He says, Matthew 5:23–24 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you; 24 Leave there your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Jesus knows that we must bring our gifts to worship Him, but He also knows that we cannot rightly worship Him when we are cross ways with our brother. Our reconciliation with our brother is also a sacrifice that must be made, and it must be the first sacrifice, before our other sacrifice will be acceptable to Christ our Lord. In making whatever sacrifice is required in order to first achieve reconciliation with our brother, we are extending the Kingdom of God and bringing about peace on the earth.
Jesus goes on, saying Matthew 5:25 Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. 26 Verily I say unto you, you shall by no means come out of there, till you have paid the last penny. At first glance, we might be inclined to say, well it means what it says, and says what it means, but I suggest that is not how we should take this passage. Let us think of it in an allegorical sense. Who is the adversary? Well, the adversary is anyone who has a claim against us. In the sense of this world, that may be many of the people around us every day, but in the allegorical sense, consider that we are sinners and God Himself has a claim against us. We are rather in the position of the unforgiving servant, the one who was forgiven much but who had his fellow servant cast into prison over a much smaller debt (St. Matthew 18:23–34). We really must be reconciled with our brothers, and we must do it now, quickly, without delay. If we do not, we are apt to fall into the final judgement and eternal condemnation, for which we cannot pay the last penny, which is to say from which there is no release. Jesus is pointing to the urgency for us to act, to make amends and be reconciled, not delaying until another day, but to do it now, before the day of grace is ended.
Perhaps some of our most serious disputes today are within families. Many families have members that are not speaking to each other. In some cases, they have not spoken to each other in years. The parties involved may have thought about reconciliation, may have given it much thought over the years, but it just has not happened yet. In the mind of one party, or sometimes both parties, the misunderstanding or hurt that caused the original rupture goes on and on, unresolved and unhealed. What our Saviour is saying to us in this lesson is that we must not let these problems linger at all. They must be resolved quickly, so that mutual love and affection can be restored.
All of this has particular significance for us as we gather to celebrate the Mass here in our parish. Our Saviour is telling us that none may come to His Table who are not reconciled. Thus reconciliation with our brothers is a prerequisite to coming to Communion, to the Lord’s Supper. If we are not reconciled, we may go through the motions, but we receive not the Body and Blood of our Saviour; He comes only to those who are fully prepared to receive Him. May our Lord Jesus Christ give us the wisdom and strength to follow His direction for our lives.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.