Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Instead of lightening the burden of God’s law, Jesus makes the laws more challenging. Introducing each of the next few passages with the words “you have heard it said…” Jesus takes the old law and shows that it doesn’t go far enough. Part of this is to show that love is better served by more self-restraint and not less.
In today’s verses, Jesus takes on the law against killing people.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
So, murder remains a crime, but attempted murder is also a crime. Not only are there different degrees of murder, but any hateful behavior toward another person is also a crime against God.
We are not in the habit of killing people, but we can easily fall into the habits of hatred, violence, and ridicule.
Anger is a feeling that God has felt, but God’s anger does not last forever. We may have understandable reasons for hating someone who has hurt us or often displays their hatred of us. But we are to be more like God; we are supposed to get over our hatred. We are also expected to love people even when we know them to be sinners. Since we are told to love our enemies and even pray for those who persecute us, we are constantly challenged by the need to love imperfect people.
It isn’t enough to restrain yourself from killing someone. It isn’t enough to restrain your violence to “an acceptable level.” If your interactions with people involve violence or the threat of violence, you are liable to judgment. If you harbor fantasies of “getting even,” you are poisoning yourself and rejecting God’s guidance. If you are calling someone a “fool” you are judging them. You can criticize bad behavior with a clear conscience, but to judge the person you are putting yourself in the place of God, who is our judge.
Jesus goes so far to say that you should reconcile with others you have hated or disrespected as quickly as possible. Jesus is clear that we should avoid taking people to court unless the cause is righteous. To take someone to court (or to defend yourself in court) out of spite, greed, anger, or another sin is wrong. “Settle matters quickly” Jesus says.
The main point is that uncontrolled anger can put you in prison or worse. Anger allowed to become violence makes you a danger to yourself and others. The love that Jesus wants us to express towards others is not easy. We must take the hatred and anger within us and melt it down and re-forge it. To use the biblical expression, we need to beat our swords into ploughshares.
These days, it is very easy to be led into hate. Many people resent the current political situation because it has made it easier to hate others. We are not called to love the deeds or the sinfulness of others, but we are expected to pray for our enemies and see that love wins the day inside of us.
We also tend to judge difference as evil. Many people blame their hatred on what they see as evil in others. We often label good things as being evil, so we can justify our anger and violence. People justify anger at others by citing skin color, national origin, differences in piety, culture, education, self-understanding, politics, and for being the people God has guided them to be. We don’t usually hate people for external reasons: We often explain the hatred within us by blaming it on things external to us. Some people have real grievances and must fight to survive, but we are always called to love our neighbors even as we hate their sins.
Right now, all sorts of us are displaying hatred with behaviors that threaten others. Governments are tempted to be violent with their people and the people are tempted to be violent with their governments and with each other. You can display aggression with what you wear and with what you refuse to wear.
Will we follow guidance from Jesus?
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
Reconciliation is hard, but making hell is worse.
Questions to Ponder: Do you ever intimidate or threaten people with your words or actions? Are there any grudges that you need to cast away?