Matthew 5:21-26 — The Forgotten Treasure
The Sermon on the Mount explains repentance and renewing the Covenant in anticipation of the Messiah coming. In this passage, Jesus repeatedly refers to “your brother” as a reference to your covenant kinfolk. It’s a matter of emphasis. We notice that the Jewish leadership is never so hard on anyone as they were the Jewish peasantry, particularly the poor. The arrogance of status under this highly perverted view of the Covenant justified all sorts of moral abomination.
A critical element in Jesus’ teaching was restoring the ancient Hebrew mysticism of heart-led moral awareness. This was not merely offensive, but shocking to the Pharisees. They often played dumb, using semantic games and legalistic posturing, as if Jesus couldn’t possibly be serious about returning to mystical symbolism, something they abandoned three centuries before. Sometimes Jesus threw it back in their faces by pointing out the logical conclusions of what they were saying. Thus, Jesus’ teaching was often shocking to your average Jewish peasant, as well, in how it contradicted everything they had heard in synagogue.
Jesus enters into a series of comparative teachings: “you have heard…” The first is the common teaching against murder. This was prominently featured in the Ten Commandments. Jesus hardly disputes this law, but says the literal meaning doesn’t go far enough. It’s pretty obvious that you can’t have shalom with folks killing each other in the Covenant community. Very ancient Jewish tradition had proposed distinctions in penalties for different types of homicide, and the Pharisees expanded upon this a good bit. And yet, they used the legal definitions as an excuse for all kinds of destructive spite, short of homicide, against those they were supposed to be leading. The people of God were His treasure on the earth.
We could easily weary ourselves cataloging the equally silly modern legalism about “being nice” and worrying about people’s feelings, but Jesus’ teaching doesn’t justify anything like that. Rather, His emphasis here is a heart-led determination to make shalom, not simply avoid getting into trouble. In verse 22 He hammers out how easy it is to get lost in avoidance and restrictions. How much “don’t do” shall we pile up? Jesus points out how the Pharisees had made it flatly illegal to call someone raca (Aramaic for stupid and troublesome) but not illegal to say the same thing using the Greek word moros (the root of our English “moron”). As far as Jesus is concerned, that’s a pretty silly distinction — you can stand before the Sanhedrin for one, but face God’s wrath for the other. Which court is the higher authority?
It’s not about the words, but the needless tension that threatens shalom.
Turn this around, says Jesus. Think in terms of reducing tension when possible. Say you are about to present your offering in the Temple, and then the Holy Spirit takes advantage of your penitent frame of mind to remind you that you have offended your Covenant brother. Do you suppose that you can try to reduce tension with God when your conscience is still burning like that? Stop. The ritual of offering will wait while you turn around and search for that brother there in the crowd of worshipers. Make amends as best you can, then come back up to where you set aside your offering and seek God’s favor with a clear conscience.
On a human level, it’s the same thing. In ancient times, you probably would have very little warning if someone filed a civil case against you. Almost everything was done orally and without a lot of bureaucratic nonsense compared to modern times. It’s quite likely you would get short notice that you were a defendant in most civil courts, and summoned to appear as soon as an officer could find you. So it’s a very common wisdom to approach the plaintiff before the case is called and try to find out what terms of redress would prevent things going any farther.
If you would do it in a civil matter, why not for a purely moral issue when you stand before God? In the former case, you are notified by God that something is an offense worth His attention, and it smites your conscience. In the latter case, it’s something that a human court decides is worth its attention and you are under civil threat. Either way, the heart-led wisdom is to maintain a readiness to make shalom, not nurse your pique at someone. Sure, there will always be folks you cannot please no matter what you do. Nobody suggests you have to placate them, but nothing justifies spite either. Build the habit of keeping your cool when someone offends you, and you promote shalom for everyone under the Covenant.
This is a return to that Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) feudalism, wherein the greatest earthly treasure of any man is the people who love him and seek his welfare. And because they are your treasure, you’ll return the favor, seeking their shalom as well. When you stand before God with a clear conscience, you can afford to stop worrying about the legalistic Pharisees.