Today’s Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:20-26 – 1st WEEK OF LENT: Friday, 15 March 2019
The first of Jesus’s six contrasts with the old law begins with a quotation from Exodus 20:13, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:17, forbidding murder. The second part of the statement, about judgment, is not a direct quotation from the Old Testament but may be inferred from Exodus 21:12 and Deuteronomy 16:18. Jesus does not revoke the Old Testament law but deepens it. In His eyes, anger is murder in the heart.
This text has often been misinterpreted to create guilt for any feeling of anger. Surely it is not aimed at the kind of indignation against social injustice we often in Jesus and of which Matthew himself give us an extended example in chapter 23. The key to understanding what anger means here lies in the word “brother”. While the term could conceivably apply to any other human being, the context here suggests that it means another member of the Christian community, to whom one is bound in the intimate covenant ties of the new family of Jesus (12:46-50). This is the community whose mutual relationships are to be the light of the world (5:14). To allow anger to wound or destroy those relationships is serious indeed, as Jesus indicates by tightening the judgments. What to the scribes was the most severe, the “judgment” or “little Sanhedrin” or local council, is with Jesus the first and most lenient measure. Whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council (Sanhedrin), and whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the fire of Gehenna, symbol of final judgment and perdition.
Of course the anger envisaged here is anger that chooses either aggression or repression rather than confrontation and reconciliation (see 18:15-17). This is evident from the attached saying about reconciliation with a brother before worship, for there is no reconciliation with God (the purpose of sacrifice) without reconciliation with the neighbor.
In verses 25 and 26 we have a beautiful example of Matthean composition. What was originally a detached saying of Jesus about the wisdom of settling disputes out of court is attached here to the theme about reconciliation with the brother, and in so doing the fraternal reconciliation is placed in the context of the final judgment (as it is also in 18:21-35). For both parties are on their way to the court of God’s final judgment, and it is much better to settle grievances with a brother here in this life than to leave it to God’ final judgment, which will be painfully exacting. In Paul’s words, “If we judged ourselves, we would not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31).
Jakarta, 15 March 2019
A Christian Pilgrim