These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” 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. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.’
At first blush the world into which Jesus was preaching seems vastly different from our own. They were deeply and devoutly religious, we are not. They were Law-keepers, we are moral relativists. They were living under the expectation of future judgment, we prefer not to think about God (if we believe in him) as a judge.
And yet, I do not think that our worlds are that far apart. Even 21st Century Londoners are keepers of some law, even if they’ve concocted it for themselves by mixing tradition and preference. Most people also seem to believe in some kind of cosmic justice, a mix of our Christian heritage and the eastern doctrine of karma. And most crucially of all, most people think, within a moral universe, that they are basically good.
This means that, while the profile of a typical Jew in the crowd the day that Jesus preached might look quite a bit different from a typical Londoner, the message is exactly the same. They were suffering from the same disease: the tendency within every person to be a self-justifier.
This is where we must begin; by understanding that we’re all basically self-justifying legalists at heart. That is why Jesus has to expound the Law, not because he’s critical of it, but because all humans follow certain patterns in the way they treat moral laws, and all as an effort to self-justify. What patterns?
1. We read the rules negatively. When we hear a ‘Do not…’ we assume that we fulfil the law by avoiding certain things. But an ethic that’s simply negative could never come close to making you righteous. A person who follows the rule ‘Do no harm’ may still be a selfish, evil person.
2. We try to find ways around the rules. When you compare tax avoidance and tax evasion what is the difference? Simply some arbitrary regulations. The impulse to find a way around those regulations demonstrates that people have an endlessly inventive ability to bypass laws when they can.
3. We tiptoe to the edge of what’s permissible. When young people want to know about how they should behave when dating the most common question is always ‘How far is too far?’ This betrays a wrong mindset, a desire to get away with as much as possible.
4. We externalise the rules. We make rule-keeping purely about outer behaviour and not heart-engagement. So many of us have given to charities in a cold detached way out of a sense of ‘ought’ with no heart engagement in love for the needy.
5. We deny the rules. Sometimes we do this inventively, sometimes blatantly, but none of us are above the attempt to simply deny a particular law.
Why? What’s going on? All of this is a symptom of our disease of self-justification. To put it another way, we always try to make the law conform to us rather than us to the law.
Into this condition Jesus speaks with penetrating power. His aim is to destroy our self-righteousness. I love the fact that he begins with the commandment against murder because I’ve so often heard people say, ‘Yea, I think I’m a good person! It’s not like I’ve ever killed anybody.’ Jesus goes after the clearest most black-and-white command to show that we’ve failed even that.
‘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.’
What does he mean here?
He certainly doesn’t mean that anger or insults are exactly the same as murder. If we believed that we’d have to imprison people for losing their temper or calling us names. The Bible allows for gradations of sin, of the consequences of sin, and of the punishments for sin. So without a doubt, murder is a lot worse than getting angry.
He also doesn’t mean that all anger and insults are sinful. Jesus himself got angry on occasion and elsewhere used the same word ‘fool’ of his opponents (see Matthew 23.17). The apostles also endorsed anger in the right ways at the right times. ‘Be angry and do not sin…’ (Ephesians 4.26). Paul sometimes calls the churches ‘foolish’ (see Galatians 3.1), recorded in Scripture for all time. The Bible says atheists are fools (Psalm 14) and who am I to argue with that?
So what does Jesus mean then? Basically this: that while the fruit may differ from person to person, the root is the same. So, the fruit of one man’s hatred of another is anger, but the fruit from another man is murder. Both the anger and the murder come from the same root.
Consider this. What is the difference between murder and manslaughter? It is not necessarily a difference in the act—killing another person—but rather a difference in the motive. The jury have to seek to discern what the intent was behind the act, and it is that motive that makes the act morally blameworthy. That is exactly what Jesus is pointing to here. Two men can have the same hatred in their hearts, and while only one of them may act out in murder, both have the morally blameworthy motivation settled in their spirit.
That means that we need to acknowledge the crushing verdict, that before a holy God we are all murderous people with hearts that are so often blackened by hatred and anger and a desire to harm.
Think about the ways we avoid this particular law, ‘Do not murder’. (1) We read it negatively. We think that if we have avoided directly killing another we haven’t murdered, when the laws of God (such as this) are meant to be understood positively; do all in your power to bless those around you! (2) We try to find ways around it. We find ways to harm and hurt people. We attempt to assassinate their character by subtle insinuations to listening ears. (3) We tiptoe to the edge. You can make a person’s life miserable without ever touching them. (4) We externalise. We think ‘I haven’t killed! I’m a good person!’ The reality is that your heart condemns you. (5) We deny the law. How do we deny this law? It’s happening constantly in our state-sponsored hospitals at the hands of our secular saviours, the doctors. Sure, there may not be any anger against those unborn babies we are slaughtering, but in a way that’s an even worse indictment since it reveals a cold, heartless loathing for our own children.
We are forced to this painful conclusion: that before God we are all murderers. The two short parables Jesus tells underline this.
‘So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.’
Jesus is saying: Don’t think that your worship covers up your heart. God doesn’t want hypocrites. He wants us to be changed.
‘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. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.’
Now Jesus is saying: This is urgent! In a very real sense we are all walking in the direction of the courtroom, and none of us knows when we will arrive. It may be very soon. But the only time we have to deal with the problem of sin in the heart is right now.
Jesus is driving us back to that first beatitude—that we are to be poor in spirit, humbled by a sense of our sin.
But he doesn’t leave us there. Jesus was pushing us towards the salvation he alone could offer through the cross. At the cross Jesus literally took the place of a murderer when Barabbas was released and Jesus crucified. At the cross Jesus felt the full weight of our hatred when the crowd cried for his murder, and yet he still said ‘Father forgive them…’ At the cross Jesus ‘paid the last penny’ by draining away the Father’s wrath against sin by taking it upon himself.