Last week I said that Matthew 5:20 is the key to understanding Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. In that verse Jesus told His disciples that unless their righteousness exceeds or surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees they would not enter the Kingdom of heaven. I also explained that like some believers today, the scribes and the Pharisees bragged that they were the more loyal observers and custodians of the Law. In verses 21-48, Jesus is going to expand what He means by true righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. In these verses Jesus deals with issues such as murder, offerings or sacrifices, adultery, divorce, vows, and revenge. These are all themes that are prominent in the law. By virtue of the length of the verses we are going to deal with them paragraph by paragraph. I have always stated that when you are dealing with a passage deal with it in context, because a text out of context is a pretext. Therefore, in your private reading of the text, read the entire verses 21-48 and you can grasp fully what Jesus is teaching regarding the law. Now let us deal with the text before us.
I. THE ROOT OF MURDER VV. 21-22
In verse 21 Jesus says, “You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” The Ten Commandments forbid murder. That is one of God's moral laws for His people. To be precise it is the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13). Every Jew was aware of the implications of the infringement of this moral law. Like Moses, Jesus condemns murder. Then in verse 22 Jesus adds, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the Sanhedrin or supreme court; and whoever says to his brother Raca shall be guilty before the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be in danger of the fire of hell.” In some of your translations, like King James and New King James Versions the translators of the Bible use “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause” to tone down the harshness of Jesus' statement. That qualification is uncalled for. When Jesus said, “But I say to you,” He was not setting aside or doing away with the law or adding His own beliefs. The rabbis of Jesus' day restricted this commandment only to the deed or act alone. The Pharisees and the scribes thought that they had kept the commandment if they did not physically murder a person. Jesus on the other hand, knows that God had much more in mind when He said, “Thou shall not murder.” Jesus knows that God cares about our attitudes, intents, and words. So Jesus is giving a fuller understanding of why God made that law in the first place.
For example, Moses said, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Jesus is teaching that we should not even become angry enough to murder, for then we have already committed murder in our heart. So Jesus is saying that the root of murder is anger, and anger is murderous in principle (v. 22). Jesus is saying that you and I have not conformed to true righteousness of the kingdom simply by refraining from murder. The angry person will be accosted or liable to judgment. Therefore, murder is not limited to the act, but also the thought and the seething anger that is welling up in the heart.
A boy once asked, “Dad, how do wars begin?” “Well, take the World War I,” said his father. “That got started when Germany invaded Belgium.” Immediately his wife interrupted him: “Tell the boy the truth. It began because somebody was murdered.” The husband drew himself up with an air of superiority and snapped back, “Are you answering the question, or am I?” Turning her back upon him in a huff, the wife walked out of the room and slammed the door as hard as she could.
When the dishes stopped rattling in the cupboard, an uneasy silence followed, broken at length by the son when he said, “Daddy, you don't have to tell me anymore, I know now!” Anger produces resentment, resentment gives birth to bitterness, bitterness produces malice, and malice gives birth to hate and hate results in murder. Jesus is saying that murder is a terrible sin, but anger is sin too because it violates God's command to love. Anger in this verse refers to a seething, brooding bitterness against someone. It is a dangerous emotion that always threatens to leap out of control, leading to violence, emotional hurt, increase mental stress, and spiritual damage. Anger will keep you from developing a spirit pleasing to God. It is good to practice self-control, but it is better to practice thought-control, because even in spiritual warfare the major battle is fought in the mind or the thought processes. So Jesus is saying don't brag because you have not committed murder, for you shall be held accountable even for your attitudes. The danger of a seething anger is that it can be hidden from people but not God, who is the righteous Judge. The reason human anger is dangerous and should be prevented is that more often than not it erupts out of personal affronts or resentment.
Jesus expands His teaching by saying that anger that results in insults and name-calling will make one guilty before the Sanhedrin. Jesus uses the word Raca. The term means “imbecile,” “blockhead,” “empty head,” or “stupid idiot.” The insulting words do not end here. The angry person continues the abusive and insulting words and says, “You fool.” The word “fool” is the Greek word mōrōs, from which we get the English moron. The word moron or fool connotes the idea of rebellion, wickedness, immorality, or one who lacks godly morals. These are epithets of angry contempt against a person created in the image of God. Do you see the progression of sin which anger has caused? Jesus is saying that if you come to have such contempt of hatred for another human being that you call him or her “fool,” then you are in danger of a Gehenna of fire. Gehenna is the Greek word for hell. So Jesus is saying that while murder will bring you before human court like the Supreme Court, your lifestyle of insulting others will land you in the fire of hell. Jesus condemns totally the spirit behind such insulting words. Jesus knows that such angry thoughts and insulting words reveal a sinful inner person and can lead to murder. But even if they do not lead to an overt act, it is spiritual murder and thus violates God's intents as expressed in the sixth commandment. There are some of you who curse your children more than you bless them. Words are powerful; they carry both life and death. We are rather to use words more to bless than to curse. When you curse people with your words, you become an enemy of God. Do you know why? It is simple. God made those that you curse. Therefore, when you curse them you are cursing God who made them. Use your words to bless; use your words to encourage; use your words to edify, to build up; use your words positively. Let not anger rule your life so that you become like a rabid dog that bites its owner.
II. THE SERIOUSNESS OF BROKEN RELATIONS VV. 23-24
To reveal the seriousness of seething anger and contempt for others, Jesus gives two illustrations. The first one concerns offering or sacrifice to God. To bring Jesus' illustration home let me tell you a story. Young Danny was praying at Mother's knee. “If I should die before I wake . . . If I should die. . . .” “Go on, go on, Danny,” said his mother. “You know the rest of the prayer.” “Wait a minute,” interrupted the small boy. Scrambling to his feet, he hurried downstairs. In a short time, he was back. Dropping to his knees once again, he took up the petition where he had left off.
Finally, his mother questioned him about the episode and issued a loving rebuke. Danny explained: “Mom, I did think about what I was saying, but I had to stop and put all of Ted's wooden soldiers on their feet. I had turned them on their heads just to see how mad he would be in the morning. If I should die before I awake, I wouldn't want him to find them like that. Lots of things seem fun if you are gonna keep on living, but you don't want them that way if you should die before you wake.”
“You're right, dear,” said his mother with a quiver in her voice. She thought of herself and many other grown-ups who should have stopped in the middle of their prayers to undo some wrong against another before proceeding.” What that boy did is exactly what Jesus is teaching us to do before we come to worship God. God is more interested in our maintaining better relationships than our outward expression of worship.
Jesus is saying that if you are to escape the judgment of God you have to deal decisively with sin. The essence of Jesus' first illustration is that you are to place interpersonal reconciliation above correct ritual. Perhaps there are some of you who are sitting closer to one another but you are not in speaking terms. There may be some of you worshiping in the same church but do not speak to one another. You cannot worship God with grudges unsettled. I have observed this very issue among African Christians for some time. Africans love the Lord. Africans are more religious. But the problem with Africans including Christians is that we are unforgiving. Africans like to nurse grudges. I remember what some of my Caucasian Christian friends told me. They said that African Christians are a praying people, but why is it that there is no improvement in many parts of Africa. I think I know the answer. The answer lies in this illustration that Jesus gives here. African Christians prefer religious rituals to interpersonal reconciliation. I believe the African churches that are growing and prospering are the ones that have moved beyond rituals to interpersonal reconciliation. There are many cliques in African churches. We allow tribes, languages and dialects to divide us. He is not an Ashanti therefore I have nothing to do with him or her. He is not a Fante, he is not an Ewe, and he is not a Ga. He is not a Yoruba, he is not an Ibo; he is not from Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, and South Africa so he cannot be my friend. He does not speak my language so I have nothing to do with him/her. When there is an interpersonal friction instead of taking decisive measures to bring about reconciliation, we move to another church and another community. So many African Christians are nursing emotional wounds and yet they are so religious. When you listen to how they pray you cannot believe your ears and yet they are nursing grudges. There is no wonder we pray more and yet many do not receive answers to their prayers. If you are to experience the blessings of God, please pay heed to what Jesus is teaching here. If you are going to receive answers to your prayers do what Jesus is teaching here. For if you refuse to do you are just like the Pharisees. Religious ritual without interpersonal reconciliation is pharisaical attitude (Luke 18:9-14). Broken human relationships can hinder your relationship with God. Broken human relationships will make your worship and sacrifices unacceptable to God. Interpersonal grudges become stumbling blocks to your prayer life. That is why in Africa many are flocking to churches but there are no positive changes in our economies and social life. The only country in Africa where the Christian community is integrating the Bible with social life is Uganda. God demands better interpersonal relationships than correct rituals and eloquent prayers. The Bible says, “He who says he loves God but hates his brother is a liar.” If you have a grievance with a friend, you should resolve the problem as soon as possible. Jesus says, “If you are presenting your offering at the altar and then remember your brother has something against you”; I take that remembrance to mean the conviction of the Holy Spirit. How many Christians have grieved and quenched the Holy Spirit because they would not obey His voice when He speaks to them. Their ego and personal hurts are more important to them than the word of God and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. There is no wonder we pray and pray but we do not see the power and presence of God in our lives. You are a hypocrite if you claim to love God while you hate others. Your attitude toward others reflects your relationship with God. First John 4:20 states, "If someone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen." Therefore, there cannot be harmony in the vertical relationship without love in the horizontal realm.
III. THE IMPERATIVE OF RECONCILIATION VV. 25-26
Jesus offers us another illustration of the urgency of reconciliation. It pictures an out of court settlement between two litigants. Jesus is saying that if a person is so angry that he is not willing to seek reconciliation, he will not avert God's wrath on Judgment Day and it may be too late to change his/her eternal destiny. In other words, a so-called disciple who harbors a seething anger like some of the Pharisees would not see the Kingdom of heaven.
In human terms a grievance unsettled can lead to court and to prison. Neglected grievances can have irrevocable consequences, and time may be short. In Jesus' day some who could not pay their debts were thrown in jail until the debt was paid. Unless someone came to pay the debt for the prisoner, he/she would probably die there. It is practical advice to resolve our differences with our enemies before their anger causes more trouble (Proverbs 25:8-10). You may not be involved in a disagreement that ends in a court of law, but even small conflicts can be settled more easily if you deal with them right away. Do you want to stand before God with grudges unsettled? Do you want to appear before God's throne of judgment while you are full of anger and hatred towards others? The reason why interpersonal reconciliation is very crucial is that you and I do not know when Jesus is coming back. Besides, if you withhold forgiveness from others God will not answer your prayers no matter how much or long you continue to pray. Therefore, take decisive steps to deal with your angry thoughts, bitterness, resentment, and insulting speech that come out of your lips. God is as much concerned with the attitude of our heart as He is about our actions or deeds. Seek true righteousness and not religious rituals, because rituals will not get you anywhere without God's kind of righteousness.