"The Priority of Relationships and Reconciliation"
Matthew 5:21-26 May 18, 2008
The Deadliness of Contempt
Love and respect can be life-giving; but contempt can be murderous, deadly. This past week, the death toll from the cyclone in Myanmar continued to mount, while projections put more than a hundred thousand lives at risk, with millions homeless. Yet the military government was reluctant to grant visas to representatives from international aid agencies. When foreign experts WERE allowed in, they found themselves confined to the capital city; police actually forced them out of flooded areas. The government apparently is suspicious of foreigners; they persist in an attitude of "we can handle it ourselves" - which shows blind disrespect for the proficiency of international emergency agencies to respond. Pride, suspicion, and contempt combine to keep help for citizens away. Meanwhile there were reports and evidence that the military was confiscating aid as it arrived, and substituting cheap local products for high-energy imported biscuits. Rotting graying rice was being distributed instead of the higher-quality relief supplies that had been flown in by other countries. All in all, such contempt for genuine outside offers of help was increasing the death toll and risk for further outbreaks of disease. Murderous!
Meanwhile, a massive earthquake struck a province in China, causing widespread devastation. Unlike Burma, the Chinese government was more willing to accept outside help. Japan got involved. Then even arch-rival Taiwan was allowed to contribute as well. Here, respect and co-operation instead of contempt improved the prospects that more lives would be saved.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautions us against contempt for others in personal relations. Anger, rudeness, and keeping enemies at a distance can be deadly. But reconciliation and grace toward others make new beginnings possible.
Law, Torah, and Teaching: Restrictive or Supportive?
First a few words by way of review as we resume our look at this pivotal passage from a couple of weeks ago. We talked about how Jesus' focus was on fostering a Kingdom - not an earthly political system, but a network or community of followers who were completely committed to obeying God's ways and living out the Lord's will in their lives. Jesus calls us to act on God's priorities, to be salt and light flavouring and illuminating society with saving effect, in such a way that God's goodness and power be seen and acknowledged by others. It's not about outward show or lip-service, as was typical of some Pharisees and hypocrites (5:20), but living out what's in the heart with obedience; Jesus warned in 7:21, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." We're to be seeking first God's Kingdom and righteousness, rather than chasing after material consumables as priorities (6:33).
As we come to the Sermon on the Mount, we need to prepare our attitude to be receptive. When we hear talk of Old Testament "Law", we may think of that as restrictive. The posted speed reflects traffic law that limits how fast we can drive. There are other laws about not parking at the side of the road wherever and whenever you like; laws about smoking; laws about taxes. Laws seem to be about what you can't do.
But in the Hebrew way of thinking, "Law" as in "The Law and the Prophets" was much more positive. "Torah" is the Hebrew word which refers to the first 5 books of the Bible; 'torah' means 'instruction'. When you get a new kitchen appliance or electronic gadget, you don't view the 'instruction manual' as something burdensome or restrictive, but helpful. It's there to assist you, to provide useful information. The little motto "Call BEFORE you dig" is 'torah' from the utility companies that's not restrictive, but designed to help people like me not cut their phone lines when they go digging holes in their front yard - and consequently have to pay a lineman to come repair it after-the-fact!
So in the Bible, Law or 'Torah' is viewed positively, not limiting. The Ten Commandments provide fences to the corral or ranch within which God's people can roam freely without danger from predators or the Enemy. The first four chapters of Proverbs emphasize that wisdom sayings are handed down so that people can save themselves a lot of grief by heeding them; they are a 'way' to walk in. "My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you...Thus you will walk in the ways of good men and keep to the paths of the righteous. For the upright will live in the land, and the blameless will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the unfaithful will be torn from it." (Pr 2:1,20-22)
Coming to the New Testament, Matthew as an early church editor frames Jesus' teaching in 5 discourses or large blocks of teaching, reminiscent of the 5 books of the law of Moses. The Sermon on the Mount is revelation disclosed on a new mountain other than Sinai; Jesus is a new Moses; the church is the faith-community of the New Israel. Here too Jesus' teaching is supportive 'torah' or instruction rather than limiting 'law'. At the end of chapter 7, He closes the Sermon on the Mount with a parable comparing those who hear and obey His teaching to those who build on rock rather than sand, whose house doesn't collapse when the storms come. This teaching is meant to help, not hinder.
Yet Jesus goes beyond the revelation handed down by Moses, and all the rabbinic interpretations that had grown up around it over the years. In chapter 5 He looks at 6 topics in which something was said under the old covenant, yet Jesus pushes further by extending it; to "You have heard that it was said" He adds, "But I tell you..." For Jesus to go beyond what was said showed a breathtaking presumption of authority that could only be vouched for or established by His miracles, prophecy-fulfilling death, and unique resurrection. He goes beyond minimum requirements and surface obedience to deal with underlying heart issues. Living in God's Kingdom involves living above the bare minimum; it's life in the Holy Spirit that changes our inner being to share the Lord's own attitudes and motivation.
Today's section falls into headings of A-B-C: Abusive Remarks; Be Reconciled; and, Conciliatory Measures - or Captivity.
Abusive Remarks: The Priority of Respect
Who here has not been the target at some time or other of words that could be classed as abusive - remarks that cut and stung beyond what was called for? Jesus says in 21-22, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca', is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell."
Here the prohibition is not against killing in general (including things like war or self-defence), but murder specifically. In Old Testament times in Israel, each city had its court of 7 judges, which could declare crimes a capital offense and even hand down a death sentence. Apparently people could be charged before the Sanhedrin for calling someone 'Raca' meaning 'empty' or 'blockhead'. But Jesus says even just being angry or provoked with someone can make us liable to judgment; if we call someone "fool" or "idiot" (literally moros from which we get 'moron' - dull, stupid) - if we call someone such derogatory names, we'll be 'in danger of the fire of hell'. That's serious!
Failure to esteem or value someone is at the root of destructive actions. God's concerned with (and weighs) the heart and spirit, not just outward actions; remember Jesus emphasizing in 5:20 that our righteousness needs to surpass that of the Pharisees and religious 'experts' if we hope to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Elsewhere the New Testament warns against being angry, which tends to make us lash out and be abusive toward others. Colossians 3:8(NASV), "But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth." Commentator Myron Augsburger observes, "Anger is a temporary madness and its expression has no place in the community of disciples." When you feel anger rising, deal with it quickly and inwardly, rather than venting destructively.
I was reading through the book of James recently and was struck by how much of it echoed themes from the Sermon on the Mount. On the subject of abusive remarks James wrote, "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be." And, "Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. [referring to the 'royal law' of loving our neighbour] But you-- who are you to judge your neighbour?" (Jas 3:9f; 4:11f)
Just because we feel we have a right to be angry doesn't mean we should go shooting off at the mouth. The most recent issue of Faith Today featured an interview with JI Packer, who has been called one of the most important evangelical theologians of the late 20th century. His 1973 book Knowing God has sold over a million copies. Yet at age 81, besides being a professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Packer is honorary assistant in the largest congregation in the Anglican Church of Canada, a church that due to the same-sex blessing controversy voted to leave the ACC and realign with a more orthodox branch of Anglicanism based in South America. In response, the local bishop sent Packer and other clergy a 'notice of presumption of abandonment of the exercise of ministry' (similar to 'defrocking'). Packer would have every right to rant and say nasty things. Yet he responds with restraint, saying: "I feel it's simply grotesque because Canon 19 doesn't apply to my situation and for the bishop to act as if it did...I said grotesque. I think I'll say it again. I could have said ridiculous. I could have said fantastic. I could have used other adjectives but I'll stick with grotesque...So I'm not losing sleep over it." Hear the restraint and carefulness with which he chooses his words, and resists saying others? He avoids anger and abusive remarks.
Be Reconciled: The Priority of Relationships
In vv23-24 Jesus goes on to point out the priority of relationships, and urgency of repairing them by means of being reconciled. "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." Notice the priority, making things right takes precedence over religious offerings: if offering and remember, leave it there, first go be reconciled, THEN come and present your offering. Apparently God's not interested in our offering if we've got unresolved debts owing relationally. To the Lord, how we treat others is a more reliable indicator of our spiritual state than plain religious observance is.
Remember, Jesus linked love for God and love for others: the greatest command is to love God with your whole being, the second is 'like it', to love your neighbour as yourself; "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Mt 22:37ff) Similarly, James urged the early church to keep "the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbour as yourself'"; then added, "...judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not BEEN merciful." (Jas 2:8,13) The Lord responds to us when we respond to others. James says it's no good, it's 'dead faith', to say to someone, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but then to do nothing about the physical needs. You can't compartmentalize or separate the spiritual and humanitarian spheres.
Being reconciled is something that should especially characterize Christians. God took pains to reconcile us to Himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us; he has given us the ministry of reconciliation, Paul says (2Cor 5:18ff).
So, when we come to church seeking a vertical communion, we need to have been looking after the horizontal 'stuff' during the week. Myron Augsburger recalls: "At a communion service in the South Pacific islands, a man kneeling at the altar to receive the emblems suddenly got up and moved to the back of the auditorium with an agitated expression. Later he rejoined the communicants and participated in the sacrament. When asked, following the service, about his action, he revealed that he had seen the man kneeling at the other end of the altar rail who had killed his father. He was so angry in his spirit that he could not partake of [communion] until God enabled him to experience a forgiving spirit. Reconciliation is a priority.
Conciliatory Measures or Captivity
Jesus closes this section warning of the captivity that can occur if we don't keep short accounts. Vv25-26, "Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny." Settle matters QUICKLY, do it while still with him on the way - there's an URGENCY about it. If you ignore it, there are dire consequences, an unpleasant unstoppable chain of repercussion - the opponent hands you to the judge, who hands you to the officer or sheriff, who lands you in prison - and you won't get out until the last insignificant copper coin is paid. Our penal system is quite different from that in Palestine at the time: Brenda Martin was out on parole in time for Mother's Day, her 2 years already served in Mexico counted toward her sentence. But the Life Application Bible notes, "In Jesus' day, someone who couldn't pay a debt was thrown into prison until the debt was paid. Unless someone came to pay the debt for the prisoner, he or she would probably die there."
There is danger "of the fire of hell" in the afterlife; there is also danger of imprisonment to bitterness and resentment in this life. Jesus wants us to experience freedom in our relationships, but that won't happen where we haven't taken conciliatory measures, steps to 'patch things up' where wrongs have driven us apart from others.
Do you start to get some sense of the DEPTH of life Jesus wants us to enjoy? Below the surface to things that matter. His teaching is counter-cultural, bringing a perspective more profound than that of the so-called 'happy pagan' chasing after food and clothes (6:31f). Wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, Jesus warned, and many enter through it (Mt 7:13f). Don't be held captive to conflict; be reconciled.
The story is told of two unmarried sisters who had so bitter a ruckus they stopped speaking to each other. Unable or unwilling to separate, the pair lived in a large single room with 2 beds. A chalk line divided the sleeping area into two halves, separating doorway and fireplace, so that each could come and go and get her own meals without trespassing on her sister's domain. In the black of night each could hear the breathing of her foe. For years they coexisted in spiteful silence. Neither was willing to take the first step to reconciliation. What a calloused captivity!
Already Out of Prison
A pastor named Walter Everett answered the phone, but was unprepared for the words he heard: "Scott was murdered last night." Walter's anger toward his son's killer raged through him like a violent riptide, growing even worse when a plea bargain resulted in a reduced sentence for the attacker. Later Everett wrote...
My rage was affecting my entire life. "How am I going to let go of this anger?" I wondered. The answer came the first time I saw Mike, almost a year after Scott's death. Mike stood in court prior to his sentencing and said he was truly sorry for what he had done.
3 ½ weeks later, on the first anniversary of Scott's death, I wrote to Mike. I told him about my anger and asked some pointed questions. Then I wrote, "Having said all that, I want to thank you for what you said in court, and as hard as these words are for me to write, I forgive you." I wrote of God's love in Christ and invited Mike to write to me if he wished.
3 weeks later his letter arrived. He said that when he had read my letter, he couldn't believe it. No one had ever said to him, "I forgive you." That night he had knelt beside his bunk and prayed for, and received, the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Additional correspondence led to regular visits during which we spoke often of Mike's (and my) growing relationship with Christ. Later I spoke on Mike's behalf before a parole board, and he was given an early release. In November 1994, I was the officiating minister at his wedding.
When asked about his early release, Mike says, "It felt good, but I was already out of prison. God had set me free when I asked for His forgiveness."
[Pastor Everett concludes]...I've discovered the meaning of the Apostle Paul's words: "For freedom Christ has set us free." (Gal 5:1) [Let's pray.]