Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: Murder and Reconciliation

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July 10, 2012 by jmar198013

[5.21-26: On reconciliation] “You know that the command not to murder has been passed down through previous generations, and that a murderer is liable to judgment. Well, I have this to say to you: anyone who nurses a grudge against his brother is liable to judgment. Anyone who picks a fight with his brother by calling him out is liable to end up in court. Anyone who provokes his brother by slandering him is liable to be thrown into hell. So if you show up to worship God with unresolved tensions between you and your brother on your mind, put down your hymnal and get out of there. Go make peace with your brother first, then come back and worship. When someone is taking you to court, agree to a settlement with them before it ever goes to trial. Otherwise, they can hand you over to the judge, who will hand you over to the bailiff to be thrown into jail. I promise you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid every last penny you owe.”

In Matt. 5.1-2, Jesus forms the church as a community of disciples around himself, and begins to teach them publicly. This establishes the identity of the church as the people called from the world to heed the words of Jesus. In the Beatitudes (Matt. 5.3-12), Jesus names the people he has chosen and extends to them God’s welcome. Jesus then provides his people with a vocation and a task: to be salt, light, and a city on a hill, so that others might see their good deeds and honor God (5.13-16). Even though Jesus is forming a new community, a new people, in the church, they will not establish themselves by tearing down the old order. Rather, the church builds upon a foundation laid by the Torah and Prophets (5.17-20). The church, rather than providing a contrast to Torah, is to be the faithful embodiment of it. In Matt. 5.21-48, Jesus interprets Torah for his people, describing what a faithful embodiment might look like.

The first interpretation is found in Matt. 5.21-26, and is Jesus’ commentary on the command, “Thou shalt not kill.” Biblical scholars since at least the second century have been fond of calling these interpretations “antitheses,” as if to pit Jesus’ comments against the Torah. But this cannot be the case. The antithesis to “thou shalt not kill” would be “kill anyone who is inconvenient.” Nor does Jesus say, as many are wont to interpret this passage, “Moses said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I say, ‘Thou shalt not even be angry.'” Rather, Jesus assumes that human beings in the act of being human will be angry. He then goes on to note how unresolved anger leads to hateful words that often escalate into violence. Jesus illustrates this observation by upping the ante at every turn, so that every hateful response brings with it a greater danger of judgment. Jesus’ point is not that we should never get angry. Rather, he is making the observation that unresolved conflicts become violent and can lead to murder.

Jesus’ answer to this scenario is one that injects grace into conflict. Jesus argues that the reconciliation of conflicted parties is a higher value even than acts of worship to God. The message of this passage is not that murder is wrong (we know that already), nor is it that anger is wrong, nor is it that it is sinful to call someone a fool (if the latter two were what was meant, Jesus failed on both accounts in his confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees in Matt. 23). Rather, Jesus’ point is that the command not to murder represents a fundamental respect for other humans created in God’s image. That we are in conflict with them does not make them any less image-bearers. Thus, Jesus argues that it is always right to seek to be reconciled to those with whom we are angry, rather than seeking to destroy them. In initiating reconciliation rather than destroying our enemies, we image God (Rom. 5.10; 2 Cor. 5.17-20; Col. 1.19-20) and we fulfill the Torah and prophets.


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