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 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes

“Presenting a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction.”

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad,because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Sermon on the Mount runs Matthew 5:1-7:29 and is loaded with teachings and subcontexts.  I am going to be breaking it down a little further than my normal chapter-by-chapter discussion, because I don’t want to gloss over anything. As Wikipedia says, “The Sermon is the longest continuous discourse of Jesus found in the New Testament, and has been one of the most widely quoted elements of the Canonical Gospels. It includes some of the best known teachings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes, and the widely recited Lord’s Prayer. The Sermon on the Mount is generally considered to contain the central tenets of Christian discipleship.”  In other words, The Sermon on the Mount is a BFD.

The Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes, or “blessings.”  There’s some varying schools of thought as to whom these Beatitudes address (especially the rather vague “poor in spirit”) and what they mean.  Most hold that these mostly undesirable positions (mourning, meek, etc) are rendered desirable because that very condition described allows us access to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Others hold that Jesus was indicating that the Kingdom of Heaven is accessible to everyone regardless of their station in life or what they had or had not suffered.

As I mentioned a few posts back, I think the Beatitudes offer dual blessings on those who suffer and those who help the suffering, as they have close parallels.  There are eight total blessings, and the first four can be paired with the last four: “poor in spirit” with “those who are merciful;” “those who mourn” with “the pure of heart;” “the meek” with “the peacemakers,” and “those that hunger and thirst for righteousness” with “those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”  Again, I have no theological training so this is just personal opinion, but let’s start with that “poor in spirit” phrase.

I take “poor in spirit” to mean anyone struggling with any sort of mental or emotional duress, whether that be PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or even temporary, sub-diagnosable anxiety and stress just brought on by difficult times in life.  This would make sense as a group recognized in Jesus’ blessings:  with today’s understanding of mental health, many of Jesus’ healings and casting of out demons is actually thought to be for people with clinical psychiatric disorders.  They weren’t “crazy” or “demonic,” but sick.  Jesus recognized that at a time when many did not.

The parallel blessing to “the poor in spirit” is “those who are merciful.”  Remember, during Jesus’ time there was a huge stigma against those suffering many illnesses, whether physical or mental.  So, to be merciful to the sick or “demon-possessed” really took some courage.  We’ve come a long way, but the stigma around “invisible illnesses” still exists. Invisible illnesses include mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression, but also things like food allergies and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  The “but you don’t look sick” mentality is actively hurting people in today’s society – not to mention our crap health care system in general – so we still have a way to go as a society to being worthy of the merciful blessing.

Going back to the blessings of those who suffer is “those who mourn.”  I think readers throughout history have agreed this is the most straightforward blessing.  It is easy to identify those who mourn, and it certainly doesn’t feel “blessed” to be the one mourning, but through the Beatitudes, Jesus reminds those who are mourning that God sees them, and cares for them, and that in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more tears.

Following our pairing structure, “those who mourn” is coupled to “the pure of heart,” and I’ll admit it’s probably the most clunky pairing.  But taken in the context of mourning, I think it can be seen as a blessing for those whose faith is strong enough to see themselves (and maybe even others) through times of mourning.  Many people lose faith after the death of a child, or during war-time, or from suffering abuse.  And God doesn’t love those people any less, but perhaps Jesus just wanted to acknowledge the special faith of those who mourn and don’t lose faith.  They may suffer sorrow just as everyone does, but their hearts are pure enough (i.e., faithful enough) to not let it dissuade their following God.

Next up: the meek.  This one has been contentious throughout history, some claiming it promotes a slave morality.  Certainly it has been used to promote that: a good slave submits to his master, a good wife submits to her husband, etc, etc.  But I think anyone wielding this verse in that way is working off a misinformed reading.  I think Jesus is recognizing those without agency in society.  The shut-ins, the forgottens, the cast-offs.  Jesus sees the slave, the abused wife, the ones who have no voice, and says as much with this line.

Just a few verses later, Jesus blessed those that speak out for the meek: the peacemakers.  True peace cannot be achieved through the oppression of others, so the peacemakers may not always be the pacifists one might immediately picture.  In fact, some peacemakers are downright strident.  Jesus himself has some stern rebukes for those who may harm the weak.  Telling off the crowd about to stone a prostitute to death is one example that comes to mind.

Last of the “suffering” blessed: those that hunger and thirst for righteousness.  This group could be lumped in with the meek, but I think it implies more of a pervasive societal context.  For example, a victim of elder abuse might be one of the meek, but a black man wrongfully imprisoned would be one of those that hunger and thirst for righteousness.  “The system,” if you will, isn’t prejudiced against the victim of elder abuse – perhaps they are in late stages of dementia and truly unable to make decisions for themselves.  Their family put them in a home without knowing what was going to happen to their loved one, and that, while a very sad story, is not one of systemic injustice.  A black man wrongfully imprisoned, however, is.  This country’s judicial system is set up in a way that ensures higher and longer incarceration rates for black men than their white counterparts.  Righteousness is nowhere to be found, and those that fall victim to the biases of the system do, indeed, hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Finally, blessed are those that are persecuted because of righteousness.  Anyone who has ever been arrested for participating in a civil rights march, for defending sacred grounds against pipelines, or for standing up for the rights of others has received Jesus’ blessing, regardless of their own religion.

I really liked the Wikipedia article on the Beatitudes.  It summed them up nicely saying “Together, the Beatitudes present a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction.”  Just as Jesus time in the desert shows us what kind of Messiah he will be (a relatable one with a humanity just like ours), the very first message of his first big discourse shows us what he (and God) values: love above all else.  Jesus sees the unseen, as made clear by the first four blessings.  He also sees those of us that act out of love, as made clear by the second four blessings.  I pray that you do not have to suffer the misfortunes of the first four blessings, but rather that you can be an agent of the last four.  But know this: no matter what side of the coin you fall upon, Jesus sees you, and Jesus loves you.  The Beatitudes give us the proof.