We hear it in the news nearly every day—Murder!
Yet no one asks What’s so bad about murder? because it doesn’t take a genius to realize murder is wrong.
No society can thrive while allowing people to murder each other, so murder is prohibited in practically every law code ever developed. It features in the Ten Commandments found in Exodus chapter 20, but it is certainly not unique there. Even murderers know that murder is wrong.
Jesus also addresses murder but, as we have seen, Jesus is no legalist. He doesn’t just tell us murder is wrong; he digs deeper into the issue.
You Have Heard ‘You Shall Not Murder’–But I Say…
In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus told his followers:
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.
Jesus deals with the commandment against murder by providing a contrast between the Law and the principle of love. He goes beyond the Law: not only is a murderer subject to judgment, but anyone who is angry with another, says Raca, or calls someone a fool is subject to judgment.
The judgment Jesus refers to is not God’s judgment but the judgment of the courts. Jesus gives an escalating set of consequences for behaviors that hurt other people. The ‘fire of hell’ does not mean eternal damnation but refers to the imagery of destruction from an Old Testament passage, as we have discussed before.
This passage is an example of Jesus’ use of the rhetorical device of hyperbole (exaggeration) to make a point. But the point is a serious one.
Love and Reconciliation
We know what murder is, but what are these other terms? Anger is a brooding, seething anger or grudge. Raca is an insulting word of arrogant contempt, as we might call a person an ‘idiot’ in a pejorative way. Fool is a term of slander that disparages a person’s reputation such as ‘crook’, ‘liar’, or ‘slut’.
Jesus does not say the commandment against murder is wrong, but he indicates that one has not achieved the purpose of the commandment simply because he has not murdered anyone. If one is angry at someone, disparages them, or damages their reputation, they are guilty of violating the principle of love for others.
Jesus demonstrates the seriousness of such actions:
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.
Here Jesus focuses on the very heart of the good news—Reconciliation! Jesus came so that we can overcome our feelings of alienation from the Father as we realize his love for us and are reconciled; he also tells us to seek reconciliation with others. Love and reconciliation are the essence of following Jesus.
These words, of course, were spoken at a time when followers of Jesus still offered sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem, before its destruction in 70 AD. But it has the same application today; when we, as followers of Jesus, realize we are alienated from someone we should seek reconciliation to resolve the hurt and restore peace.
Then Jesus introduces a different angle:
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.
Instead of stubbornly maintaining our position against those with whom we have disagreement, we should try to reconcile and settle our differences.
A Higher Guide to Behavior; Not a More Demanding Legalism
My grandfather, a Baptist deacon, used to refer sometimes to people as ‘that fool’, and because of this passage I was concerned about his going to hell—I was a legalist.
When legalists encounter the group of Jesus’ teachings from which this is taken, they sometimes come to similar conclusions. They think Jesus is demanding of us a stricter legalism than even the Old Testament Law does. This misses the point, though. Jesus does not intensify legalism; he defeats it.
Other legalist conclude that the teaching of Jesus in these passages are impossible for anyone to achieve, so they must describe the standard of Law for the future kingdom of God.
A healthier and more appropriate view is that Jesus does not point us to legalism at all, instead he points us to loving others with a genuine love and concern for their good. Jesus continues his contrast of Law and love by discussing another of the Ten Commandments—Adultery. We will talk about it next time.
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