Matthew 5:21-26 – Murder

Or more accurately, “Peaceful Living.”

21 “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.’ 22 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.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

25 “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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Hello everyone, I’m back! I tell you what, trying to get over a cold while you have two kids who are also sick is no picnic.  But we’re doing OK.  Well enough for me to start getting up early, again!

And thank God for small blessings, this is a short and relatively uncontroversial passage -about all I feel I can handle today. I think we can all agree, at least in theory, that murder is bad.  For the sake of brevity we aren’t going to get into the nuances of what some might or might not consider “murder” today (wars, abortion, self defense, societal negligence or apathy that leads to death, etc).  But again, in theory, most people agree that murder is bad.

So what about this other stuff?  Calling your brother “Raca” and settling matters out of court quickly?  Why is that lumped into the “murder” category of this speech?  The larger thrust of this message, of indeed all of Jesus’ teachings, is to live in peace with our fellow man.  Murder is probably the greatest breach of that peace.  It is hate in our hearts turned into action, but so are these other matters.

First, the whole name-calling bit.  I did a bit of reading, and to summarize, using the language contemporary to Jesus, calling someone “Raca” is calling into question their intelligence.  Calling someone “a fool” is to call into question the salvation of their very soul, or to condemn them spiritually.  The best analogy I can think of is it’s almost like the difference between free speech and slander.  You’re allowed to say a lot of awful things about people, but at some point it crosses the line.  Language to degrade, debase, and defame a person out of malicious intent is hateful and can do real harm.  Just like murder, slanderous language is a breach of peaceful living with our fellow man.

Second, leaving your gift at the altar to make peace with your brother.  We literally do this in church (well, not all churches, but most church-goers are probably familiar with this practice) when we share the peace.  Saying “peace be with you” to the others in our pew, shaking their hands (or hugging, as often happens in my church) is a ritualistic embodiment of us making peace with our neighbors before coming to God’s table.  It is a symbolic act of reconciliation that allows us to take communion with a clear conscious, indicating we are at peace with our fellow man.

Finally, settling matters quickly and out of court.  So first off, this is just good life advice.  Why do you think so many companies want to settle accusations of harassment, union disputes, and other disagreements out of court?  Because it’s quicker and cheaper.  I’m not condemning the whole judicial system (though it has its flaws) and not recommending anyone try to settle serious legal matters without consulting a lawyer, but there is something to this “settling out of court,” both literally and figuratively.  Settling out of court usually means some sort of mediation: a sit-down face to face with your adversary, as Jesus calls them, where you negotiate an outcome that is acceptable to all parties.  Can you imagine how much better a world we would have if we could mediate all our disputes – legal, familial, workplace, you name it – by taking time for a rational mediation, maybe one that even included (gasp!) impartial mediators?  So much resentment and hurt feelings could be wiped away!

Most of the Bibles that provide intra-text headings to further delineate stories title this passage “Murder,” because that is what the passage starts with, but perhaps it would be more accurate to entitle it “Peaceful Living.”  How can we apply it today?  Next time you have something nasty to say about someone, think about how saying it might effect them, even if it’s not (maybe especially if it’s not) being said to their face.  When you share the peace at church, don’t just go through the motions, but actively engage your heart, letting go of any resentments you may have, at least for the moment.  I once read “forgiveness” is an ongoing act, so you haven’t failed if resentment creeps back in later, you’re just human.  You can always try again.  And finally, whenever possible, work out your disagreements.  Don’t let them fester into soured relationships and hurt feelings.  The more we work at this, the more we are free to live in peace with our fellow man, just as God intended and Jesus instructs.

Matthew 5:17-20 – The Fulfillment of the Law

Our inner hearts are more important than the external law.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Oh, what a tricky little bit of scripture.  Should we still be following Levitical law? Eschewing meat cooked with milk (bye-bye, cheeseburgers!) and not wearing cloth woven of two threads?  According to some, yes, and a surface reading of this passage would imply so.  But there are two important things to remember: One, Jesus tended to use hyperbole.  Two, in the same breath Jesus uses to reinforce the primacy of Old Testament law, he jabs at the Pharisees and their externalist approach to said law.

Is this an example of Jesus’ using hyperbole?  There’s no way to know for sure, but the use of absolutes hints at it.  A relatable example I found was when a teenager tells his parents that “everyone” is going to be at the party.  Is that true? Is the whole world going to be at that party? Of course not, but we understand that figure of speech.  So when Jesus speaks of the littlest letter and the least stroke of the pen, it’s a good hint that perhaps this is an example of hyperbole.

I love the tongue-in-cheek comment about the Pharisees.  The sarcasm is just dripping off that last verse.  Time and again Jesus comes after the Pharisees and their false piety – one that has them following the letter of the law (see what I did there???) but not the spirit of it.  The righteousness of the Pharisees was only for show.  Jesus knocks them again in a few verses for being overly dramatic with their fasting, walking through the streets purposely disheveled with ashes on their head, and urges his followers to instead “oil their beards” so that only God would know they are fasting, and thus reward their secret hearts.

I do believe that much of the Old Testament still holds true, but it’s application may change over time.  My favorite illustration of this is the cleansing of mold from houses.  This is a twenty verse discourse in Leviticus.  Mold was (and still is) a real problem in buildings, and can cause serious health problems.  People in the time of Moses, when this law was written, did not have access to modern-day chemicals and the mold-killing household cleaners that we do.  Hence intricate steps needed to be taken to isolate the mold, determine if it was dangerous or spreading, and then deal with it by literally removing parts of the house if necessary.  Then there was a cleansing ceremony involving a dead and live bird, some scarlet string, hyssop, and cedar.  Dealing with pervasive mold in houses can still be an ordeal today, but not many people would say it requires the use of a priest, a religious ceremony, and animal sacrifice.  Especially if the mold is on the outside, a good power-washing will usually do the trick.

Are we in violation of the law Jesus talks about because we power-washed the house instead of getting the local pastor to swing by and take a look?  I seriously doubt it.  God is most concerned with our inner hearts, and how the law informs our spirit.  Sitting in the same seat on the subway where a menstruating woman just sat won’t jeopardize your salvation. (Check out Leviticus 15:19-21) Also, we don’t need to cut off a woman’s hand to save her soul if she grabs an assailant’s genitals while defending herself or her family (Deuteronomy 25:11-12) What really matters is if we are kind to our neighbors, giving to the needy, and prayerful in our decisions.  The law, both that which Jesus gave us and the law of the Old Testament, when read with a discerning eye, can inform us in that.

Matthew 5:13-16 – Salt and Light

A call to help others fully realize their own best selves.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

In other words, we are to bring flavor and brightness to the world.  It’s not exactly “let your freak flag fly,” but I do think Jesus would appreciate the diversity of people in the world fully expressing themselves.  Can’t you just imagine Jesus hanging out at the local library for Drag Queen Story Hour, blessing all the children and those spreading love and acceptance?

But life isn’t one big Mardi Gras parade.  While I truly believe this passage is saying to not hide your light but to let it shine; to bring your own unique flavor to the world – this passage calls us to go far beyond just personal self expression.  It calls us to help others to fully realize their own best selves, too.  This can mean lots of things, but most of all it means activism.  It means supporting girls’ and womens’ education in places where they are not currently given those opportunities.  It means allowing refugees easier access to our country, so they can escape oppression and make safer and better lives for themselves.  It means Autism Acceptance, an Autistic-led movement to counter basic awareness, that allows for full expression of Autistic behavior (in a safe way) and participation in society.  Maybe it even means Universal Basic Income – a concept I’ll admit I have not researched much but one that does hold immediate appeal.

Yes, go be that City on the Hill.  Stand up for what you believe in, especially if you are in a place of privilege – because for many, it is too dangerous for them to go to school, express their love, or even just walk down the street.  We all need to work together to make this world as bright and flavorful as it can be.