14 March 2014

Matthew 5:21-26

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (v.20)


In God's eyes it is a dreadful thing to breach the fellowship among the disciples of Jesus, or to disrupt that community in destructive ways. Jesus' vision was of disciples of great diversity living together in peace and mutual respect. That vision is damaged by outbursts of anger and inner feelings of contempt. Such 'sins' are as serious as an act of murder.

The commandment against murder appears in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. Hence the reference in Matthew 5:21 to "those of ancient times", ie when the law was given to Israel through Moses. Once confirmed in court, the sentence for murder was death (Leviticus 24:17). In verse 22 Jesus piles up metaphors to put the expression of negative feelings against a "brother or sister" on the same level: anger, insult (or, saying 'Raca', which was presumably a term of abuse) and contempt are worthy of condemnation by the courts and merit God's judgement, which is here pictorially conveyed by the smouldering fires in the municipal rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, called Gehenna.

In Jesus' teaching, it is crucial that disciples see how serious it is when they are the cause of a falling-out with a fellow-disciple. Indeed God cannot receive the worship, offerings or prayers of someone until they have made peace with an offended brother or sister. Being in the wrong and failing to put things right as soon as possible puts a disciple under God's judgement (verses 25-26).

To keep the new community up to Jesus' vision for it is the 'greater' righteousness which is expected of disciples, compared with the righteousness practised by the scribes and Pharisees (verse 20). (The Pharisees were a lay movement advocating strict adherence to Moses' Law and to a supplementary body of interpretation which had been developed by the 'scribes' - the trained and accredited pharisaic teachers.)

To Ponder

  • How significant is the sharing of the peace in Christian worship for settling arguments between members of a congregation?
  • What sort of experiences make you lose your temper? And what have you learned which best helps you to control your temper?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Deeks

The Revd David Deeks is a retired Methodist minister. He has always focused on theology and spirituality as practical themes.