“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.”
Matthew 5:21-26 (NRSV)
Like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, we must keep in mind the immediate historical issues that make these teachings so relevant to Jesus’ audience.
Jesus addresses faithful Israel (or potentially faithful Israel) who stands on the brink of a huge work of God for which they have been waiting for centuries. The kingdom has arrived and is among them. Israel is repenting and being reformed. The judgement against the powers faithful Israel is under is at hand. How ought the faithful community behave now that the end of the ages has come upon them?
We have looked at how those who are miserable under the current conditions are about to have their fortunes reversed. Good things they have been longing for are at hand. We have also looked at how important it is for this community to remain faithful to see those blessings and not give in to pressures to conform to the world system that is about to be judged, especially since persecution is sure to increase.
Having addressed the threat that comes from without, Jesus turns his instruction to the threat that comes from within – that disputes within the faithful community will destroy it, especially at the hands of the powers that currently exist.
Jesus does a light contrast with Moses, here, not to counter Moses’ words, but to point out that the stakes are higher. In Moses’ day, if an Israelite murdered another Israelite (their brother or sister), they would face judgement. In Jesus’ day, merely disputing with another Israelite, creating some kind of stir or conflict, was enough to invite the potential judgement of the powers that be – both from Rome and the Sanhedrin.
The political situation in first century Judea was a powder keg. It was breeding grounds for revolution and conflict. The seeds were always there and everybody knew it. It just would not take much to bring the attention of the Roman machine to quash a potential insurrection. The Sanhedrin, easily the wealthiest Jews in Jerusalem, had a vested interest in keeping this from happening as well and served in many ways as Rome’s “first responders” to troubles with the Judeans. They were Jews, themselves, and had power and influence, and their courts were often a prelude to Roman intervention.
When the faithful are under the thumb of such powers, it is vital that they do not pursue divisions and disputes among themselves. This will draw the intervention of these powers, and that will not go well for the individuals involved and may impact the survivability of the early Jesus movement, itself. The allusion Jesus makes to the “fiery Gehenna” makes this painfully clear – if you begin a dispute with your brother (fellow Israelite), you may very well end up being a corpse burned in the valley next door – killed by the authorities and, ultimately, cursed by God.
It is because of this threat that it was important for the believers to pull together and handle their own disputes without things getting out of hand. To get Rome or the Sanhedrin involved was to invite the enemy right into your house. Not only would this be bad news for your brother, but it would make you a de facto accomplice to their oppression. Look at what the Lord tells us at the end of our passage – a trip to prison for your brother or sister is probably a life sentence. At the very least, they will be completely impoverished, their lives and their family’s utterly destroyed by the time they get out.
Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians before Matthew wrote his gospel, and he included very similar instructions for very similar reasons:
When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?
In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.
1 Corinthians 6:1-8 (NRSV)
We see the same concern. Settle your disputes among yourselves without getting the powers of this world involved, because when you do, you become participants. You join the wrongdoers. It is better to be wronged and defrauded than to wrong and defraud a brother by bringing the powers that be against him.
And so, we see this need for unity is actually very practical in the first century. It isn’t just a spiritual ideal, although it is that. Dissension in the ranks invites the intervention of the very power structure God is judging, and even if you are found to be in “the right,” you have brought that power structure to bear on your brother.
So, we see the urgency in Jesus’ tone. Settling a dispute is more important than offering a sacrifice, which would of course have been hugely important. Settle a dispute while you are on the way to court before you even get there. Nip this stuff in the bud. Handle it now. Do not let Roman soldiers or the Sanhedrin “handle” it for you – it is bad for the safety of your brother, it is bad for the safety of the community, and it is bad for you in the imminent judgement. Don’t end up on their side; side with your brother, even if you are wronged in the course of it.
As I have noted many times, we are not in the same situation as the people listening to Jesus or even the community of Christ-followers at Corinth, although for some countries, there may be some very direct applications in the sense of the terrible things that could happen if you brought the government against your brother or sister in the Lord.
But for most countries, our police and legal system will not use your dispute as a precursor to killing both of you to put down an insurrection or putting your entire church in prison to keep the peace. Nor are our police and judges in immediate danger (near as we can tell) of being overthrown by God Himself. They are not, at least in many countries, oppressive jail-keepers keeping the people of God under their thumb, although, granted, there are some countries where that is in fact the case.
But even if that is not the case in our country, we still have to acknowledge that there are powers and tools in this world that are just not going to make it into the new creation – corruption, greed, violence, haughtiness, wealth – these are all things that are passing away. What damage might we do to a brother or sister, or to the people of God, or to ourselves to use them against one another? To ally with those things so that we might get our way or be “right?” Would it not be better to be wronged? Would it not be better to be defrauded?
I don’t know if we can look at these passages and make an airtight case that a Christian should never go to court against another Christian under any circumstances. There are many situations of injustice, abuse, violence, actual crimes – all kinds of things that happen between “believers” where true justice and healing may require the civil authorities, especially if the offending believer is unwilling to turn themselves in and/or whatever needs to happen for justice to be achieved. The widespread, fragmented nature of “the Church” is not really something Paul had in mind, and it most certainly did not describe the community of people listening to Jesus’ sermon, and it is possible that a certain scope of “dispute” isn’t even what they were thinking of – certainly the scenarios described in Jesus’ examples seem more on the mundane conflicts between people side of disputes and not so much on actual, serious crimes.
At the same time, we must be honest with the fact that, especially in America, we like our rights, and if we perceive our rights have been infringed or we have been treated unfairly, we will spend all kinds of money, pull all kinds of strings, and wreak all kinds of havoc to be compensated or even just be right. It’s an option to work things out among ourselves. It’s an option to decide to be wronged for the sake of the person who sinned against you and/or the community. It’s always worth thinking about the kinds of forces we might be allying with to bring to bear against a brother or sister in the Lord.
- How important is it for you to be right? What would it take for you to allow yourself to be wronged, or at the very least, give up the right to be right? How much damage to the other person would you be willing to see?
- If you do have a dispute with another Christian, what are some avenues you could pursue before getting civil authorities involved?