Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 5:21-26; Acts 5:12-26; Psalm 10; Genesis 24
Matthew 5:21 begins a section in which Jesus takes six Old Testament ethical positions and explains how they apply in His kingdom. This is not a concise ethical code or a list of principles. Rather, Jesus gives six examples of how he applies the principles he has laid out in verses 17-20. He thus makes it clear how radical his ethic is. He is not calling for the Old Testament to be done away with, but rather for its complete message to be fulfilled.
The Ten Commandments forbid murder (Exodus 20:13). Everyone would agree that this is wrong. The wicked described in Psalm 10 lie in wait for their weaker victims and kill them in arrogance. The problem Jesus points to is that we can start to think we have taken care of this law if we have never killed another person. Such an approach might address the letter of the law, but Jesus goes beyond this. He declares that the spirit of this law addresses much more than physical killing.
According to Jesus, people have violated God’s law if they have been angry with others, or called someone ‘raca’ or ‘you fool.’ The word ‘raca’ does not translate easily as it conveys its meaning through its sound. It sounds more like a deep-throated spit that conveys total contempt for the person. To call someone a fool was not like saying they were stupid, but a reflection on their moral character. As Psalm 14:1 states, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’
Understanding the word used here for anger is also revealing. The Greek language had two words for anger. One conveyed the idea of dry hay burning: a quick flash and it’s gone. Jesus used the other word here: one that captures the idea of slowly burning embers that smoulder for a long time. Nice people do not let this sort of anger bubble to the surface, but it lives in the secrecy of their hearts. It can fester inside us leading to bitterness and hatred. Jesus is not revealing anything new here, as the Old Testament also declared, ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’ (Leviticus 19:17). But it is much easier to focus on the command against murder, especially for those with a tendency towards legalism and self-righteousness.
Jesus used these passages to address those who think they can keep God’s commands. He reminds them that they too sin. They, and we, might be quick to quote Psalm 14:1 against the person who denies God, but we must not forget to finish this verse: ‘there is no one who does good.’ We might never have even thought of killing someone, but we still fall short of God’s standard. Therefore we all need God’s grace and forgiveness. That should remind us if we are holding something against someone else (Matthew 5:23-26). Reflecting on our own sinfulness, and God’s forgiveness of us, should then lead us to reconcile with others and settle matters quickly.