Pastor Scott L. Harris
July 5, 1992; October 4, 1998
Hate & You Lose
Some years ago a member of the Missouri State Legislature accepted $25,000 for his vote in regard to a certain bill. Later he received $50,000 from the other side, so he returned the original $25,000. Eventually the corruption was discovered and the legislator, who had turned state’s evidence, related the story on the stand. The examining attorney asked him, “Why was it that you returned the $25,000?” The legislator drew himself up to his full height, and in a voice that showed his scorn of the lawyer for such a question, answered: “I’d have you know that I’m too conscientious to take money from both sides!”
Such is the nature of humans that even when caught in a sinful practice, they still can quickly justify themselves as being righteous. This is true today, as President Clinton demonstrates, and it was with many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.
Long before the time of Christ, the Scribes had departed from the meaning of the Mosaic Law even though their lives were devoted to the study of it. They, much like our own country’s Supreme Court, were so immersed in the minutia of interpretation of law according to the precedents set by those that had gone before them, that they neglected the plain reading of the law and the intent of its author. What man had said replaced what God had said. For all practical purposes, the writings of the ancient Rabbis had replaced the Scriptures.
Long before Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had also departed from the Mosaic Law even though their claim was that they carried out every nuance of practice demanded by the law. The Pharisees had made out long lists of “do’s and don’ts” by which they sought to live righteously. However, like any time man attempts to improve on what God has said, they lowered the standard to something they could keep with the result that the only righteousness they had was self-righteousness. And like the Missouri legislator who was caught red-handed, they still claimed to be good.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ great exposition of the nature of true righteousness. In Matthew 5:3-16 Jesus describes its characteristics in the Beatitudes. People who are truly righteous are poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. They are persecuted by those that are unrighteous. They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They do their good works in a way to bring glory to God. (See: Salt & Light).
In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus makes it plain that what He is teaching is in complete harmony with all of the Old Testament. This is in contrast with the scribes and Pharisees. Verse 20 is a condemnation of their self-righteousness because “unless you righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were not going into the kingdom of heaven unless something in them changed and they exchanged their self-righteousness for true righteousness. (See: Fulfilling the Law).
True Righteousness Illustrated
The rest of Matthew 5-7 are all illustrations of the teaching and practice of true righteousness as contrasted with that of the Scribes and Pharisees. In chapter 5 there are six teachings of the Scribes that Jesus refutes and then explains what true righteousness says about them. Each section begins with a similar phrase, “you have heard it said . . .”, and covering the topics of murderer (vs. 21-26), adultery (vs. 27-30), divorce (vs. 31-32), vows (vs. 33-37), revenge (vs. 38-42), and loving your neighbor (vs. 43-48).
In Matthew 6 Jesus condemns the way the Pharisees practiced certain things and tells how those things should be practiced. Each section starting with something like, “when you . . .”, and covers the practices of giving alms (vs. 1-4), praying (vs. 5-15), and fasting (vs. 16-18).
In the rest of chapter 6 and the first part of chapter 7 Jesus gives three prohibitions which contradicted the practice of the Jewish religious leaders. Do not lay up treasures on earth (6:19), do not be judgmental (7:1), do not give what is holy to dogs (7:6).
When I began this series on the Sermon on the Mount I said that much false teaching had come from this passages of Scripture because people fail to examine the context of what is being said. Too often people want to take one little section and turn it into a rule or new law. That should not be done for two reasons. First, it removes what Jesus says from its context resulting in using His words to support an idea He did not teach. Second, it repeats the very same error that the Scribes and Pharisees fell into of looking into the minutia of the letter of the law while failing to see and follow the principle of the law.
This morning we will begin our examination of these illustrations of true righteousness. The true teaching of the Mosaic law as compared with what the Scribes taught.
Legalism and Murder
Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty [enough to go] into the fiery hell. 23 “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 “Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent.
Notice that the section starts off with the phrase, “You have heard that the ancients were told . . .”. Jesus is not referring to what Moses was told by God. Notice it is “ancients” – plural. Jesus is referring to the Rabbis of past generations. They were often referred to as the “fathers of antiquity,” or “the men of long ago.” It is these men that Jesus is talking about. It is to their teaching that he is going to contrast His teaching. Jesus would not contrast His teaching with the Mosaic Law, because He has already said in 5:17-19 that He is in complete harmony with the Mosaic Law.
Notice as well that it says, “You have heard.” In many respects the common Jew of the day had become separated from the Scriptures. During and after the Exile most of them had lost the ability to read and converse in Hebrew, instead the common language was Aramaic and the trade language was Greek. Though the Old Testament had been translated into Greek, (the Septuagint), the scrolls (books) were bulky, expensive, and far out of the financial reach of the average person. The result was that the people relied on the religious leaders to read the Scriptures in the synagogue service and then explain it to them. Since the people did not understand the text they had no basis on which to judge the exposition given to them. In addition, their respect for the religious leaders led them to accept whatever they were told. Unfortunately most of the Scribes and rabbis no longer translated and explained the Scriptures themselves, but rather taught from the “Talmud”, an exhaustive codification of the rabbinic traditions. The traditions of men had replaced the word of God.
And so it is that Jesus begins the section by reminding the people what the Scribes told them, “‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.'” They had started off well by repeating the sixth commandment from the ten commandments of Exodus 20. But instead of explaining what that meant they reduced it to “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” But you say, “but that is true. Whoever commits murder is liable to the court, that even happens here. When someone kills someone else and they are caught, eventually their case is heard before a judge and jury to decide the proper punishment.” Do you see how that has reduced and confined what God says about murder to mere punishment at the hands of a civil magistrate. Yes, they are liable to the court Romans 13:3,4 states that the governmental authorities do “not bear the sword for nothing; for it s a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” But God’s teaching goes beyond human government. God defines the punishment in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” When a person intentionally kills another human for purely personal reasons, that is murder and they are to forfeit their life. The reason is that murder is an attack against God for man is made in God’s image. (Keep in mind that murder does not include capital punishment, just warfare, accidental homicide or self-defense). The shedding of innocent blood is one of the seven things God hates (Proverbs 6:16-19). Revelation 22:15 states that murderers will be among those that will be excluded from heaven, “outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone that loves and practices lying.”
The Scribes had reduced this commandment to “if you commit murder, you will be have to go before the local court.” They also did not deal with the cause of murder which God is concerned with. They felt confident in their innocence of this particular evil because they themselves had not actually taken the life of anyone. They defined the sin by the external action alone. They held to the letter of the law and not its spirit. In their self-righteous legalism they were confident that they were not liable for any punishment, but God looks at the heart (Psalm 51, 1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus now goes on to destroy their self-righteousness by teaching that things they thought were of no consequence such as anger, calling other people names, attacking other people’s character, brought about the same or greater danger of punishment.
Murder in the heart
Jesus strips away the legalistic interpretation of the law and brings back the spirit of it. Murder is not just a physical act. It is a matter of the heart. We tend to think we are pretty good if we compare ourselves to some blood thirst murderer, but 1 John 3:15 indicts all of us. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Do you think you are better than the those that are in jail because they killed someone else? Do you think you are better than those that have made the newspapers because of their gruesome and often seemingly senseless crimes? Don’t think that way, for if you have ever hated your brother, you are guilty of murder. Jesus explains the nature of murder in the heart in three stages with each increasing in its hatred and each deserving of greater punishment.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:22, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court;” Jesus says that anger with a brother brings about the same punishment as the Scribes said murder brought, and Jesus says that anger does not just make you guilty, not just liable before the court.
Is Jesus teaching here that all anger is sinful? No, for He Himself was angry and drove the money-changers out of the temple. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:6 to “be angry, and yet do not sin.” There is a righteous anger, and maybe sometimes we do not demonstrate the anger that we should over the sinfulness that is confronting us in this society. We should be righteously indignant over homosexuals and other perverts claiming themselves to be “normal.” We should be upset over a nation that continues to allow over 1.5 million unborn children to be slaughtered. We should be mad that school systems are willing to allow Planned Parenthood to come in and promote immorality while at the same time the name of God cannot even be invoked at a graduation ceremony.
But Jesus is not talking here about righteous indignation which is anger at and over sin and especially that which dishonors Him. Jesus is talking here about selfish anger that rises because someone has done something against us or simply irritated us or displeased us. It is the anger that broods and simmers against someone else. It does not want to forgive or come to reconciliation, but holds to its resentment. It is the seed that leads to the root of bitterness spoken against in Hebrews 12:15. That anger makes you guilty before the court.
Jesus goes on to say, “and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court.” When that anger erupts and is expressed in a epithet then you are guilty not just before the local court, but also the supreme court, which literally here is the Sanhedrin, which heard only the most serious cases. The word, “Raca” has no English equivalent, but it is a term of abuse and slander. Derogatory terms such as jerk, blockhead, turkey, nerd, geek, lame, idiot, etc. are in the same category. To express the anger that is in the heart with derogatory terms makes you guilty before the higher court.
But Jesus goes on to say, “and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” If that anger goes beyond a derogatory expression to actually accuse the character of the person, they you are guilty and deserve fiery hell, Gehenna, the trash dump of Jerusalem that burned continually and so that it became the common term to refer to a final end in waste and eternal torment. The word “fool” here is the same word from which we get our word “moron.”
The word itself is appropriate when used according to its proper definition. It describes someone who has a low IQ or is demonstrating the Biblical definition of a fool which is someone that says there is no God or lives in such a way as to ignore God. But used in the manner described here, it is a term of slander against a creature made in God’s image and thus a slander against God Himself and is equivalent to murder. When that kind of anger is present, and when it is expressed with a derogatory statement, or when a slander against the persons character is made, it is murder in the heart. All three express the desire that you would like the person offending or irritating you to be gone from your presence. The ultimate removal from your presence is their death. Jesus said in Matthew 15 that it is from out of the heart that such defilements as evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and slanders come. It is a matter of the heart, not just outward action. That is what the Scribes had left out in their teachings.
What is the response of your heart when someone irritates you or does something against you? Say your driving down the road and someone cuts you off or pulls out in front of you forcing you to hit the brakes, or someone takes the parking place you’ve been waiting for. What is in your mind? What do you say? Is there selfish anger in your heart? Do you think they stole your space? Do you say something like “idiot,” “jerk,” “you fool!”? According to what Jesus has taught here, you are guilty before the court, the supreme court or even of fiery hell.
As a matter of practicality, let me give you a word you can use that may remind you of what your response should be. I have mentioned this before and some of you may remember it. The word is “P.I.N.O.G.A.M.” It stands for “Person In Need Of Grace And Mercy,” and that is what we are to give to people even when they personally offend us or irritate us. Give them grace and mercy because that is what they are need of. God knew that we were all pinogams which is why Jesus died on the cross for us, that we might receive His grace and mercy. Extend the same to others.
Jesus did not stop with correcting the teaching of the Scribes but went on to describe and illustrate what God wants from us. In Matthew 5:23,24 Jesus says, “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” When anger rises relationships are broken. They are broken between man & man and man & God. Those relationships have to be reconciled.
The religious leaders were in the same trap that we often find ourselves in when we have done something that is less than what God wants from us. Rather than correcting the problem, we think we can fix it by doing something good and thereby balance out the scales. We think we can correct a wrong by doing right in something else. If we wrong somebody, then maybe we can make it okay by doing better at our religious activity.
King Saul thought so. In 1 Samuel 15 he was told by God to “utterly destroy Amalek” and not bring back anything including any animals. Instead, Saul spared the best of the animals. When the prophet Samuel confronted Saul on his failure to obey the Lord, Saul said the animals were for a sacrifice. He was trying to make up for his failure by a sacrifice to God. Samuel responded to Saul, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king.”
When you know that someone has something against you, do not think you can make up for it by coming here to worship? It is as David said in Psalm 66:18, “If I regard (hide) iniquity in my heart, The Lord will not hear.” God will not accept your worship until you try to reconcile with your brother. While it takes both parties to accomplish reconciliation, we are to be diligent to do all that we can. Paul stated this in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” If you remember that someone has something against you, and note here that means regardless of whether you did anything wrong or not, you go to them and try to reconcile. Until you try, then your worship will not be acceptable to God.
The final two verses in this section emphasize the urgency of seeking that reconciliation.
Correct it Quickly
Jesus says in verses 25,26, “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent.”
The reference is to Roman custom and law concerning debtors. A person could seek an “out of court” settlement until the time they arrived at the court, but once they were in court the matter was totally in the hands of the judge. The matter could no longer be settled out of court. In debtor court, if the judge ruled against you, you were thrown into prison and remained there until the entire debt was paid. In the illustration Jesus stresses the urgency of seeking reconciliation.
In the first illustration the question of whether you had done wrong or not was left unanswered. It simply pointed out that if you remembered somebody had something against you, it was your duty to seek them out and try and reconcile otherwise your worship would be hindered. In this illustration the implication is that you had offended and therefore you should seek reconciliation quickly because if God calls you into account, you will pay the full price.
In summary, Jesus contrasts the true teaching of God with that of the legalism and self-righteousness of the Scribes. You cannot think you are good just because you haven’t murdered anyone. If you have ever had selfish anger, called someone a derogatory name or slandered their character, then the judgement against you is the same as murder. No one here is innocent. We are all guilty before God. That is why the characteristics of true righteousness as described in the beatitudes begin with poor in spirit and mournful. We realize our guilt before Him and cry out for His mercy. He reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ paying the penalty of our sins on the cross. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5 that we are to be therefore ministers of reconciliation.
In a few moments we are going to celebrate communion – remembering Jesus death on the cross for us. I want us to take what He has said to us in the passage seriously. If you are here today and you know that somebody has something against you, or you know that you have offended them and you have done nothing to reconcile the situation. I want you to make that right. If that person is here today, then go to them and seek reconciliation. You go to them even while we sing our next hymn. It doesn’t matter what people think, it matters what God thinks. Take them into my office or go downstairs, but – seek forgiveness and give forgiveness.
If that person is not here today, then you pass the elements of communion along and seek that reconciliation first. Go to them this afternoon, call them on the phone, then you can properly come and offer your sacrifice of praise to God.
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