In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus says the following:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (NRSV).
I read my usual E-Sword commentaries, and one thing I’ve noticed is that they don’t really tie the part about reconciliation with the part about hate. But I think that the two are connected, in at least two possible ways. Jesus could be saying that, if we offended someone by calling him a fool, we should try to reconcile with that person so that he won’t take us to court. Or he may mean that we should go out of our way not to do something that would make somebody hate us. After all, we don’t want to encourage that person to commit spiritual murder!
I have practical problems with the passage, or, more accurately, how it’s been used. Garner Ted Armstrong, who led the church of my childhood, affirmed that we should reconcile with our neighbors before we engage in an act of worship. At the charismatic Vineyard church, the person leading communion tells people not to partake of it if they’ve not reconciled with their neighbors. If a Christian feels that he may have even remotely hurt somebody else’s feelings, he tries to appease that person (at least if he’s in his Christian clique).
I have two problems with these approaches. First of all, I need God in order to reconcile with my neighbor. Approaching a person and apologizing is awkward, daunting, and intimidating for me, since I am a very shy person. I need God in order to feel good about my neighbor, and to possess the strength to approach him or her. And worship is a way to get that strength, as is reminding myself of Christ’s sacrifice through communion. The approach of Garner Ted and Vineyard church seems to be that we should be perfect before we approach God, and I just don’t buy that. I think that our imperfection is one reason that we come to God.
I understand why Jesus says what he does, though. He’s speaking in the prophetic tradition, which criticizes those who worship God yet go out and hurt their neighbors. They don’t bring their faith into their day-to-day lives. To his credit, God doesn’t only want us to focus on him. He cares about our neighbors as well, so he wants us to love them.
My second problem is that I cannot please everybody. What does reconciliation mean? That everyone has to like me? That’s not possible. I’m not going to make myself a slave to other people’s desires and expectations. I can’t give everyone what he or she wants. That’s just the way life is: We don’t get our own way all of the time, so offense is inevitable.
But something that gives me comfort is this: Matthew 5:21-26 may refer to legal charges, the sorts of things that can get us into court. Jesus refers to a debt, since he says that we should reconcile with our accuser to avoid debtor’s prison. We’re not talking here about someone not liking me because my stuttering gets on his nerves, or because I make a social faux pax. This passage presents clear, identifiable offenses that can bring about a legal punishment.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should go out of our way to offend others. Hebrews 12:14 tells us to “[p]ursue peace with everyone,” so we should try not to be jerks, and we should also be polite. I just don’t believe that we have to like everyone and everyone has to like us before we can enjoy God.
But I question even my own interpretation, which is based somewhat on the E-Sword commentaries. According to John Gill and others, Matthew 5:21-26 refers to rabbinic laws and institutions, such as the Sanhedrin and the three-man court. But a lot of scholars in rabbinics (particularly Jacob Neusner) have problems with projecting rabbinic customs onto New Testament times, since they may have emerged after 70 C.E.
But, aside from that, Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount is to offer people new commands that differ from what they’ve heard before. That’s why he says “You have heard that it’s been said…but I say to you.” Jesus is showing his authority (Matthew 7:29). But, if Jesus is teaching what the rabbis were already doing anyway (namely, punishing insults), then his contrast between what the Jews heard and what he says to them makes no sense.
But maybe Jesus is helping his audience to make connections that they did not make before. “You all know that murder is wrong,” Jesus says. “But hate is the same as murder. And it will not only get you in trouble with God. It can get you in trouble with human laws. So make sure you make amends for the wrong things you’ve done. It will keep you out of a lot of trouble!”