Distinct in My Approach to Conflict

| Matthew 5:21-26

The Point:  Take the lead in resolving conflict.

Avoiding Anger:  Matthew 5:21-26.

[21]  "You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ [22]  But 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. [23]  So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, [24]  leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. [25]  Come 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. [26]  Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.  [ESV]

“The idea that our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees [20] requires some clarification. We tend to think that it is a simple matter to exceed the scribes and Pharisees, since they were misdirected and hypocritical. But Jesus’ initial audience considered scribes to be the most accurate interpreters of Scripture and Pharisees to be the most devout practitioners of Scripture. Today, Jesus might say, “Unless your righteousness is greater than that of pastors, missionaries, and seminary professors …” As the sermon progresses, we realize that Jesus did not expect His disciples to surpass the scribes and Pharisees at their own game; rather, He redefined righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees sought to codify righteousness, prescribing proper behavior in minute detail for every foreseeable situation. For example, they specified proper Sabbath rest by setting precise limits on work. They codified how far one might walk, how much one might write, and how much food one could take out of storage without breaking the Sabbath. Jesus protested this view of righteousness, which was legalistic. Jesus’ disciples cannot exceed the scribes and Pharisees in achieving their form of righteousness, and they must not attempt to do so. Jesus refused to offer minute prescriptions of behavior that make righteousness a relationship to the law, rather than to God. He knew that no moral net is fine enough to catch every moral question that swims. Therefore, He addressed the heart and mind, the motives of obedience. Jesus demands much of His disciples, but His demands are not essentially legal. They specify goals and attitudes more than particular deeds for particular situations. No law is comprehensive enough to cordon off all sin; regulations cannot control the sinful heart. Jesus’ instructions are far too brief to form a legal code. Rather, they illustrate the ways of an obedient heart. We surpass the scribes and Pharisees by having a heart for God. Since motivation is as vital as external obedience, the actual instructions in Matthew 5-7 are quite brief, compared to the volumes of Jewish religious commentary on the law. Jesus does not propound exhaustive specifications of moral behavior. He illustrates the thoughts and deeds that characterize a disciple. Ideally, these disciples find a perfect harmony between behavior and thought. Too many people perform good deeds from craven fear, resentful duty, or selfish calculation. Jesus wants His disciples to obey from the heart. Jesus begins his description of righteousness by restating the law against murder [21]. The prohibition of murder is well liked. Very few people commit murder, and the law against it offers a certain protection. But Jesus probes the depths of our affinity for this law by exploring the premurderous dispositions that lie behind the act. People do not murder at random. Whether they have white-hot rage or cool hatred, and whether they hate one person, a race, or all mankind, murderers are angry. If hatred leads to murder, then hatred is culpable too, even if it never leads to action. Therefore Jesus says, everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment [22]. Someone will ask, “Is anger always wrong, then? Surely there is a place for righteous moral indignation.” Indeed, there is. Jesus Himself showed righteous anger. He threw money changers out of the temple, since their trade made it impossible for Gentiles to pray and their rates made it a den of thieves [21:12-13]. He became angry at hypocrites [Mark 3:1-5] and even grew exasperated with His disciples [Mark 7:18; 9:19]. But mark the nature of Jesus’ anger. He was slow to anger [James 1:19]. His anger was mingled with grief over such sins as hypocrisy, willful misunderstanding, fruitlessness, and unbelief. Unlike us, He did not become angry at personal mistreatment. When arrested, mocked, beaten, and crucified, He was as quiet as a lamb led to the slaughter. He did not rebuke His tormentors or offer a self-defense. Jesus was silent, except to say Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do [Luke 23:34]. Peter says, When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly [1 Peter 2:23]. Jesus became angry for the sake of others. There is an anger that is loving, that wishes no one any evil. Our anger is typically just the opposite. We burn with anger at petty offenses to our honor. We become offended at minor snubs, minor acts of disrespect. We rage at people who cut us off in traffic. We are quick to anger at personal offenses, but slow to anger over sins that offend God and mankind. When someone else is upset, we urge calm. When someone offends God, perhaps by taking His name in vain, we say, “What do you expect of sinners?” Of course, it is good to stay calm. But there is a place for righteous anger, for grief over sin [see Psalms 11:4-6; 119:136; 139:21-22]. Besides anger, Jesus also prohibits casual insults and contempt. The terms “raca” and “fool” are not quite identical. Raca expresses contempt for someone’s mind. It means “Stupid idiot! Dummy! Moron!” Fool expresses contempt for someone’s heart and character. It means “Scoundrel!” If raca insults the brain, fool insults the heart. Together, they imply that someone is worthless, good for nothing. At a literal level, we should avoid contemptuous words, but we should shun every whiff of condescension. We should treat no one, whether young or old, whether weak in mind or weak in body, as if he has no value. Whoever violates this principle, Jesus says, is liable to judgment before the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the highest court in Israel. More than that, contempt makes us liable to the very court of God and the fires of hell. Jesus does not mean that one insult gets one level of punishment and another earns a more severe penalty. Rather, He says that anger and contempt are interior states that can lead to murder. Indeed, they are forms of murder, and deserve murder’s punishment. As John says, Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer [1 John 3:15]. Behind murder lies the judgment that someone who has failed us or wronged us deserves to die. So far, Jesus has forbidden murder itself and the hatred and contempt that both kill the spirit of others and potentially lead to murder. Next, He says, we must not simply refrain from violence ourselves, but must make peace with others, so as to assuage their anger and contempt. The word So indicates that verse 23 draws a conclusion from verses 21-22. The reasoning goes this way: If it is good for us to refrain from murder and murderous attitudes, then it is also good to prevent murderous attitudes in others, if possible. That is, we should love our brothers enough to act to remove their murderous dispositions toward us. Jesus says that this duty is so important that a worshiper should interrupt the sacred duty of presenting and offering to God on the altar in order to make peace. Today, it is more important to be reconciled to a brother than to go to church, since worship is a sham if anyone hates his brother and fellow worshiper. Notice that Jesus does not even say that the brother is right to be offended. The anger may be just or reasonable, or it may not. We may have offended him, or he may have taken offense when none was given. But even if we believe ourselves innocent or consider the problem trivial, if enough tension exists that we remember it and it troubles us, we should stop and seek reconciliation. The final verses take us to the apex of Jesus’ teaching. First, Jesus forbids the act of murder [21]. Second, He prohibits the attitudes that lead us to murder a brother [22]. Third, He commands us to seek peace with an angry brother [23-24]. The brother includes relatives, siblings, parents, and other family members, as well as fellow believers. Finally, He commands us to remove anger in an adversary. We are responsible even to prevent murder in our enemies. In His illustration, in 5:25-26, Jesus envisions a foe taking a disciple to court over a monetary problem. There is an unpaid debt, or at least the adversary thinks so. As angry as two people usually are when they invoke legal authorities against one another, disciples must try to make peace, even on the steps of the courthouse at the last minute. Make peace, Jesus says, lest greater grief come. This is something our litigious society needs to hear. We ought to be careful about the way we insist on our rights. We must watch ourselves, to see if we are harboring anger, licking our wounds, or plotting revenge. This applies to everyone we meet, whether a beloved brother or a sworn foe. Make peace if you can, Jesus says, if you offended someone or if he foolishly took offense. Of course, one party cannot make peace alone. Paul says, If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all [Rom. 12:18]. He concedes that it may be impossible, if someone refuses your plea for peace. But we must try. In order to make peace, we must know how to take responsibility for mistakes. In a conflict, we can always take responsibility for our part of the problem. If most of the fault lies with others, our confession may free them to confess their faults. Even if another party refuses to join our quest for peace, we can still apologize and make amends for our part. As a practical matter, peacemaking usually works best face-to-face. Written correspondence is easily misunderstood. In person, face and voice can convey love, hope, and sincerity. The Heart of the Matter.  The command Do not murder seems so simple. It is familiar, it protects us, and, externally at least, it is easy to observe. But Jesus comes to fulfill the law, to disclose its complete meaning, which is this: We must give up rage and contempt. We must be peaceful and make peace, with both brothers and enemies, with those whom we offend and with those who wrongly take offense. But now, Jesus’ will is quite clear. Indeed, His clarity becomes a problem because we cannot follow His will. We do grow angry; we are reluctant to heal broken relationships. In short, Jesus’ word exceeds our capacity. But there is good news. The same Jesus who issues these commands also blesses the poor in spirit – those who know they cannot obey. The same Jesus who issues these commands gave His life as a ransom for disciples who cannot obey them. Jesus also gives empowering grace; He sends His Spirit to give us the capacity to begin, at least, to obey Him. Yes, our obedience is always imperfect, but we can make progress.”  [Doriani, pp. 141-149]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Contrast the teaching of Jesus on righteousness with that of the scribes and Pharisees. According to Jesus, what are the essential characteristics of an obedient heart?

2.         How does Jesus apply His teaching on righteousness to the sixth commandment forbidding murder? (Note how Jesus extends the prohibition against the external act of murder to the attitude of the heart.) What do we learn here concerning the proper understanding and application of the Ten Commandments?

3.         What is the difference between sinful anger and righteous anger?

References:

Matthew, Daniel Doriani, REC, P&R Publishing.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott, Inter Varsity.