Lent Reflection #1: Matthew 5:21-26
Most people have not committed murder. This is a very good thing. It also means most people have fulfilled the 6th commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). However, when Jesus comes along, he challenges our understanding of what it means to actually fulfill the 6th commandment. He teaches this:
““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.’ 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.” (Matthew 5:21-22).
Before you read any further, take a moment and consider this teaching. Think about what he says. What do you think he means? How does it make you feel? Once you’ve really thought about this, then continue on.
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To understand what Jesus means and why his teaching seems so radical, we must carefully consider the Old Testament theology firmly ingrained in his thinking. The first time the Bible forbids murder takes place before God gives the ten commandments. God says: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9:6).
According to this verse, the problem with murder is ontological. God made humankind in his own image. This gives humans an intrinsic and indelible dignity. This means our worth as human beings goes beyond our race, ethnicity or family and goes beyond our intelligence, athleticism or talents. Our most significant value comes from bearing the image of God. This means that murder not only takes life, which is awful and tragic, but also attacks a person who embodies the image of God and is thus an attack upon God. That is what the above verse means. The reason that whoever sheds blood will have their blood shed is because God made people in his image.
Furthermore, a critical aspect of being created in God’s image is that our God is Triune. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God contains within himself community and relationship. These are part of his very nature. Thus, part of humankind’s creation in God’s image means that to rightly represent God, we too must be in community and in relationship. God quite literally made us to be connected to one another as part of our identity as his image bearers.
This is seen clearly in Genesis 2. The very first thing in all creation God labeled as “not good” was “the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God did not create human beings to be alone, to be in community and relationship just as God is with himself.
Jesus declares this very idea sits at the heart of the entire Old Testament:
“Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
We cannot escape the fundamental truth that God made us in his image and only in community and relationship can we most fully represent him (Lev 19:16-18; John 13:34-35; Acts 2:42-47; Romans 12:9-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; 25-31).
Before you read any further, consider this truth: you are made in the image of God. You have dignity based upon God’s imprint in your very creation. Nothing can take that from you. But also consider that if you want to fulfill what it means to be in God’s image, you can do that most fully in community and relationship. What would that mean for you?
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What does this have to do with understanding why Jesus defines fulfilling the 6th commandment in the way he does? How does it help explain his radical understanding of that commandment?
It hinges upon understanding that God made all human beings in his own image. When we are angry at other people, it creates a wall between us and them. Instead of building community, we tear down relationship. When we go further and begin to insult them, we attack the image of God. It becomes a form of blasphemy. It contradicts both the value God places upon the person whom he made in his image and God’s intent for humankind to build community and relationship.
The literal act of murder that the 6th commandment forbids is in many ways the end point of our rebellion against the creator. Murder often comes out of anger, hate and bitterness. Whereas most of us when we are angry with others might silently call them names in our heads, verbally assault them, or just start ignoring them, some people go much further and commit murder.
While murder is far worse than being angry, in the teaching of Jesus, it does not have to get to murder in order for it to be wrong. His extreme teaching comes out of a full consideration of what it means that God made all people in his image. It demands we treat people accordingly.
This does not mean we accept the terrible things people do sometimes. It also does not mean we never experience anger in our lives. Jesus once made a whip out of leather cords and drove people from the temple (John 2:13-15). He also publicly called out the religious leaders labeling them such things as “hypocrites” and “snakes” (Matthew 22:15; 33). Yet, in every case, the foundation of his anger and verbal assaults come not from something these people did to Jesus, but are rooted in the contempt they show for God. While the religious leaders treated Jesus poorly, he never denigrated who they were because of how they treated him. Their poor actions against Jesus never caused him to forget they were still made in the image of God and thus have dignity. However, he does call them out for “turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:17). If there is any doubt of Jesus’ motivation for doing what he did, the gospel writer supplies this explanation for what is happening: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). In the Matthew passages, every time Jesus calls the religious some name, he follows that up with an explanation about how they are disrespecting God and harming the people of God. This is not revenge. This is not Jesus getting his feelings hurt and lashing out. His actions come out of zeal for God and that alone.
Take a moment and think about how you view other people. Why can it be hard to see the value in others sometimes? What metric are we using? How might we do better at treating others as being made in the image of God?
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Following this teaching, Jesus explains how vital it is that we reconcile with others when we have wronged them. None of us will ever live perfect lives. We will all end up treating people poorly at times. What do we do?
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (5:23-24).
Jesus declares that a Galilean should leave his gift at the temple altar in Jerusalem and travel back the 2-3 day journey to Galilee in order to be reconciled to his brother. Only after doing this, should he offer his gift to God. In other words, one cannot offer a gift to God without first reconciling with a person made in the image of God. How can we have a broken, hateful, and angry relationship with someone made in the image of God and still offer gifts to God? It is hypocritical and shows contempt for God.
Jesus then goes on to clarify the danger in not appropriately dealing with anger and broken relationships.
“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. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (5:25-26).
Anger can take hold and cause us to do drastic things to one another, and these drastic, uncontrolled responses can escalate quickly. In these final verses, the person is so angry, he has the one he’s enraged at thrown into prison for life. The reason the last penny will never be paid is because there is no way to make money while in prison. That makes this a life sentence. Symbolically it reflects the truth about the destructive nature of a lasting grudge. It can create a permanent failure to fulfill our mandate to live in God’s image while also ruining lives.
Jesus calls his disciples to acknowledge and respect the intrinsic dignity in other people as image bearers as well as the design of God that we be in community and relationship. In light of that, we are not to be controlled by anger or allow our lips to exercise the destructive power of tearing down the dignity of others. We are to seek by every means possible to live in community and be reconciled with others even before we offer our gifts to God.
Final Questions To Ponder and Apply
What do you need to do in order to more faithfully fulfill your creation mandate? What relationship needs to be restored if possible? Who do you need to treat differently to honor God? What sacrifices might you need to make to build better community?