21 “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.’ 22 But 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.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Hello everyone, I’m back! I tell you what, trying to get over a cold while you have two kids who are also sick is no picnic. But we’re doing OK. Well enough for me to start getting up early, again!
And thank God for small blessings, this is a short and relatively uncontroversial passage -about all I feel I can handle today. I think we can all agree, at least in theory, that murder is bad. For the sake of brevity we aren’t going to get into the nuances of what some might or might not consider “murder” today (wars, abortion, self defense, societal negligence or apathy that leads to death, etc). But again, in theory, most people agree that murder is bad.
So what about this other stuff? Calling your brother “Raca” and settling matters out of court quickly? Why is that lumped into the “murder” category of this speech? The larger thrust of this message, of indeed all of Jesus’ teachings, is to live in peace with our fellow man. Murder is probably the greatest breach of that peace. It is hate in our hearts turned into action, but so are these other matters.
First, the whole name-calling bit. I did a bit of reading, and to summarize, using the language contemporary to Jesus, calling someone “Raca” is calling into question their intelligence. Calling someone “a fool” is to call into question the salvation of their very soul, or to condemn them spiritually. The best analogy I can think of is it’s almost like the difference between free speech and slander. You’re allowed to say a lot of awful things about people, but at some point it crosses the line. Language to degrade, debase, and defame a person out of malicious intent is hateful and can do real harm. Just like murder, slanderous language is a breach of peaceful living with our fellow man.
Second, leaving your gift at the altar to make peace with your brother. We literally do this in church (well, not all churches, but most church-goers are probably familiar with this practice) when we share the peace. Saying “peace be with you” to the others in our pew, shaking their hands (or hugging, as often happens in my church) is a ritualistic embodiment of us making peace with our neighbors before coming to God’s table. It is a symbolic act of reconciliation that allows us to take communion with a clear conscious, indicating we are at peace with our fellow man.
Finally, settling matters quickly and out of court. So first off, this is just good life advice. Why do you think so many companies want to settle accusations of harassment, union disputes, and other disagreements out of court? Because it’s quicker and cheaper. I’m not condemning the whole judicial system (though it has its flaws) and not recommending anyone try to settle serious legal matters without consulting a lawyer, but there is something to this “settling out of court,” both literally and figuratively. Settling out of court usually means some sort of mediation: a sit-down face to face with your adversary, as Jesus calls them, where you negotiate an outcome that is acceptable to all parties. Can you imagine how much better a world we would have if we could mediate all our disputes – legal, familial, workplace, you name it – by taking time for a rational mediation, maybe one that even included (gasp!) impartial mediators? So much resentment and hurt feelings could be wiped away!
Most of the Bibles that provide intra-text headings to further delineate stories title this passage “Murder,” because that is what the passage starts with, but perhaps it would be more accurate to entitle it “Peaceful Living.” How can we apply it today? Next time you have something nasty to say about someone, think about how saying it might effect them, even if it’s not (maybe especially if it’s not) being said to their face. When you share the peace at church, don’t just go through the motions, but actively engage your heart, letting go of any resentments you may have, at least for the moment. I once read “forgiveness” is an ongoing act, so you haven’t failed if resentment creeps back in later, you’re just human. You can always try again. And finally, whenever possible, work out your disagreements. Don’t let them fester into soured relationships and hurt feelings. The more we work at this, the more we are free to live in peace with our fellow man, just as God intended and Jesus instructs.