Thoughts on Matthew 5:21-26
As discussed previously, I believe the intent of much of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is, like Romans chapters one and two, to convince us of our own depravity and need for a Savior. In the preceding verse, Jesus states that a person’s righteousness must exceed that of the Scribe and Pharisees if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven. I’m sure you’ve either heard someone say or have said yourself, “I’m pretty good. I’m not as bad as some people, like murderers and adulterers…” It’s quite likely there were those in the crowd that day who were thinking something similar. Jesus’ response in this passage is almost as if He were saying, “And in case anyone somehow thinks they are righteous enough, you have heard it said…” The major difference here is that Jesus addresses and cares about the heart of man, not necessarily what’s said or done (although those are evidences of what’s in the heart – see Matthew 15:10-20), whereas the Jews were focused on behavior that was informed and shaped by the Mosaic Law.
This behavior-focused rule keeping has been and is at the heart of religions and legal systems all over the world throughout history. We can learn how to act, how to speak and become very proficient at conforming to societal/cultural norms and expectations. However, as we are too keenly aware, the evil that’s in the heart will manifest itself someday in some way. Yet, this is how our society functions. We have laws and expected standards of behavior and all is well until someone deviates from them, and then we send them to correctional facilities in an attempt to reform their behavior. The trouble is, and as Jesus points out, the issue isn’t deviant behavior (or even the lack thereof), it’s our wicked hearts. Jeremiah tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (17:9).
Jesus starts this portion of his sermon with, “You have heard it said” – a prefacing phrase he’ll go on to repeat seven times, connecting each topic to the Law (in this case, Leviticus 19:17). His first point addresses murder – something of which probably everyone on the crowd could claim innocence … until Jesus drives to the heart. A few sentences were all it took for the crowd to go from likely 100 percent innocence to 100 percent guilt. Who has not been angry with someone at some point, and even gone so far as to wish them harm … or worse. According to Jesus, that’s on par with committing the act itself and makes us liable to judgment.
In many instances, our “horizontal relationships” with each other affect our “vertical relationship” with God. Jesus connects the two here in this passage quite clearly. The Apostle John must have been listening closely and been impacted by this because we read in his first letter that we cannot claim to love God whom we have not seen while hating our brother whom we have seen (1 John 4:20). What’s even more convicting about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t say “If you have something against your brother,” but rather, “if your brother has something against you.” This requires more than just an awareness of how I’ve been offended or wronged. That’s easy for us. We’re all too ready to point out wrongs done to us. That’s insufficient though. Jesus calls us to seek reconciliation if someone has something against us. That has implications. It means we need to be conscious of if and how we’ve hurt or offended someone. This requires looking out from ourselves and knowing each other enough to perceive when relationships are strained.
Regardless of the cause or severity of the troubled horizontal relationship, Jesus’ point here is that our interpersonal relationships affect our worship of God. God calls all of His children to be peacemakers, reconcilers and healers of relationships. After all, those are the examples He has given to us throughout the Old Testament and, now, through the life and death of Jesus Christ. We, who were enemies and haters of God, have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. As John also says in 1 John 4, “We love because He first loved us.” May the love of God be made evident in our lives and in our relationships with each other.