We are in the section of the Sermon which I titled Righteousness Affects Your Obedience. One reason that I like that title is many think that obedience precedes, or causes, righteousness while the biblical approach has righteousness first and this is the first cause which affects behavior.
There are several sections here starting with “you have heard …” each one containing “but I say to you …” Clearly, Jesus is speaking with some authority as none of the Rabbis would start such a teaching with “I say to you”. Some commentators go too far, however, by saying that Jesus was “adding to” the Law or making the Law stronger (some I have heard made it sound almost like the Law was getting too easy so Jesus had to make it harder). More to the point is that it was the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees which made the Law easier and Jesus was correcting their teaching that which condemned them as something which justified them. Even though most are direct quotes from the Law, verse 43 has more than the Law quoted “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ Love your neighbor was in the Law, hate your enemy was not. This shows that Jesus was addressing how the Law was taught, not the Law itself. Also arguing for this take is Jesus not using his typical way of quoting Scripture, “It stands written …” (e.g. Matthew 4:4,7,10).
“You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell. So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift. Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny! (Matthew 5:21-26)
Jesus quotes teaching from two parts of the Law, Exodus 20:13, You shall not murder, and Numbers 35:29-31, which regulates the trying of a person accused of murder, So these things must be a statutory ordinance for you throughout your generations, in all the places where you live. “Whoever kills any person, the murderer must be put to death by the testimony of witnesses; but one witness cannot testify against any person to cause him to be put to death. Moreover, you must not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death; he must surely be put to death. This teaching is abbreviated into “whoever murders will be subjected to judgment”. This abbreviation seems to take some of the gravity from the original. Also, as given it seems the teaching keys on outward actions only. Jesus’ correction turns things inward. As he says later, it is from the heart that murder comes. But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)
Jesus’ correction also has grades of offense and punishment. Interestingly, the lightest offense has the punishment which the Pharisees taught for the act of murder.
But I say to you, anyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be subject to punishment. The first thing Jesus mentions is anger, “without cause” say some translations. The word translated “anger” means “rage” or “to be furious”. This brings to mind the passage in James I have quoted before, With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in God’s likeness. (James 3:9) How we treat the Image reflects how we view the reality. God takes seriously our interactions with his image. Anger, which is so easy to feel towards others, is a concern for God because it concerns his image. Anger is asserting yourself to judgment on the other person. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, says Paul, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
And whoever says to his brother ‘Raka!’ will be subject to the Council. The word “Raka” has been left untranslated. It is an Arabic word which translates as “empty-head”. We have many such insults in English – “airhead”, obviously – but the point is not the specific word used but the fact of insult. When we insult we are essentially judging the value of a person.
And whoever says ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hell fire. The third grade of offense is linguistically like a common insult found today – the word translated “fool” is where we get our word “moron” from. Biblically, however, the word has far more impact. Fools say to themselves, “There is no God.” (Psalms 14:1; also consider the use of the “fool” in Proverbs, a man without moral sense) “Fool” is ultimately a judgment of a man’s moral character. In Jesus’ gradation, the step from the second to the third is a step from snobbery and insults to character assassination.
Jesus follows this teaching with a couple of examples. They essentially come out of failures to keep the Law as Jesus taught it. The first is with a Brother (I take “brother” to mean a fellow member of the Kingdom of God) and the second is with an opponent in a legal case. The teaching in both cases is to make peace with him, a peace from humility, consideration and respect rather than the responses of grudge, arrogance and character attacks. In the heart of the righteous, failure to live out righteousness results in a desire to rectify it
The first example says that the relationship with the image takes precedence over the performance of religious ritual. The worship of God is negated by the animosity between brothers (again, James 3:9 comes to mind). So, restoration of the division precedes the worship.
The second example strikes me as very pragmatic. Do what you can to restore peace. If it goes before the judge, it is in someone else’s power to rectify the breach. Actions have consequences and the Judge will decide what those consequences are. His ruling will be binding.
What we see from this section is that people were being taught the Law in a way that divides external from internal. As long as those who can see the outside don’t see anything, then the Law is satisfied. However, the problem of sin is far deeper than the externals. Crimes against fellow image-bearers start with a heart which asserts itself as judge of others, which then leads to rage and insults and character assassination, which the teaching of the Law at that time said were okay.
We can also see that these guys were not so different from us. Our first commitment is so often to justify ourselves rather than see ourselves. You may have to just take my word for this, but I have never killed anybody. Yet, my heart gets angry and my tongue gets sharp. I dwell on things incessantly. Jesus tells us that Righteousness reaches deep. Righteousness which God works in his people does not stop at the external.