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Denha Fifth Sunday

Season of Denha

Fifth Sunday: MATTHEW 5:17-26
JESUS IS THE FULFILLMENT OF LAW

INTRODUCTION

This gospel passage is a section from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt cha. 5-7) which is a collection of discourses of Jesus for his followers. It directs how a Christian should live to inherit the kingdom of heaven. The Pharisees and scribes accused Jesus of disregarding the laws that they strictly practiced. However, according to Jesus, these adversaries were the wrongdoers because they had deviated from the spirit behind the laws and misguiding the people according to their false interpretations and man-made traditions. So, Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets. He advised his disciples to surpass the misleading spirituality of the scribes and Pharisees. In the second part of this passage, Jesus corrects and perfects the teachings people had heard. He illustrates how those who nurture anger, call others false names with contempt, or do character assassination will have to face judgement. So, we have to reconcile with fellow humans before we approach the Lord with our sacrificial offerings and before facing our death when God will pronounce the particular judgement.

BIBLE TEXT

Teaching About the Law

(Mt 5:17) Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (18) Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. (19) Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (20) I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Teaching About Anger

(21) “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ (22) But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. (23) Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, (24) leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (25) Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. (26) Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

INTERPRETATION

Teaching About the Law

The Jewish aristocrats condemned Jesus as a lawbreaker. They accused him of disregarding ritual purifications and breaking the Sabbath observance. Whereas Jesus here speaks on the Law with respect and severity and illustrates spiritual applications of them which the Pharisees and scribes had ignored.

(Mt 5:17) Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.

The question presumes the misunderstanding of the Pharisees, scribes, priests, and other elite Jews who criticized Jesus for not keeping the Sabbatical observances and acting against Jewish traditions. For them, Jesus, who became influential, was misguiding people and facilitating them to disobey the law and prophets, claiming that he was the Messiah.

There was no prophet in Israel for about five centuries after Prophet Malachi who lived around 450 BC. During this intertestamental period with no prophet, the Jews developed different groups and interpreted the Holy Scripture according to their own interests. They taught their ancestral traditions as divine laws and made people’s lives unnecessarily burdensome (Mt 23:4). Jesus objected to this and tried to reinstate the God-given laws to their original intentions. That caused conflict between Jesus and the Jewish groups. According to Jesus, the ceremonial laws attributed to the ancestors were not binding. So, Jesus refers here to the misconception about him as a destroyer of the Law and Prophets and an abolisher of the ancestral traditions.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.

Unlike all other humans, the incarnation of Jesus had a purpose. He came to redeem the world and save the people who had deviated from the covenantal relationship with God. Other leaders in Israel, like the priests, prophets, and kings, came to realize their role only after they were born and when God selected them for their mission. Starting with Adam, God revealed the arrival and mission of the Messiah. Angel Gabriel foretold Mary the mission of Jesus, “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Lk 1:32-33). The prominent leaders and even some publics had misunderstood the purpose of Jesus’ ministry.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. 

The Law and the Prophets stand for the Old Testament, that also contains other writings.

I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

The Jews had various understandings of the Law. It can be the 10 commandments, the Pentateuch, the law and prophets, or the oral and scribal laws. The laws that Jesus objected was on this fourth class of laws that were the interpretative laws of the scripture scholars. The Jewish scholars derived 613 laws based on the first five books of Moses. “We learn from the Talmud, Makkot 24a, there were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of a person’s limbs” (https://mag.rochester.edu/exhibitions/rochester-rabbis-respond/). Such laws were burdensome for the people, and they lacked the genuine spirit of God, the lawgiver. Since there were 613 laws, a scribe asked Jesus: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” (Mk 12:28). On another occasion, Jesus rebuked the scribes, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Lk 11:46).  

Jesus came to fulfill the law by extracting the genuine spirit behind the God-given laws. He summarized the Old Testament teachings, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mt 22:37-40). Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes, “‘How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’ Yet you say, ‘If a person says to father or mother, ‘Any support you might have had from me is qorban’ (meaning, dedicated to God), you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things’” (Mk 7:5-13). Thus, Jesus purified the contaminated religion of the time with better values. He did not go against the Law and the prophets. Besides, he redefined the Mosaic laws and prophetic teachings, and perfected them by instituting a new Israel, the church.

(18) Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.

Amen, I say to you,

Jesus used the Hebrew word, “Amen,” or even twice as “Amen, Amen, I say to you” (John 3:3) at the beginning of important statements. The meaning is “truly, truly, I say to you” or “I solemnly tell you the truth.” By these phrases, Jesus affirmed the truthfulness of what he said. He was the only one who knew all the truth because he came down from heaven and he was one with the Father.

until heaven and earth pass away

Here the emphasis is not on end of the heaven and earth but the permanence of the law. As long as the heaven and earth exist, the law of God also shall remain without loss of its content.

not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law

The Letter Yod (Yud) (י), the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph-Bet) with a numerical value of 10, is the smallest letter of the Hebrew language. Little strokes on the letters helped to identify the difference between the letters. Misplacing a minor point on a letter could make a distinct sense. For example, the Hebrew letters shin (שׁ sh) and sin (שׂ s) look similar but different in meaning depending on the position of the stroke. Therefore, the scribes were extremely vigilant in writing and copying such letters. If a mistake happened in transcribing, the whole sheet was destroyed. Jesus, when used this common phrase of the time, meant that he was careful in preserving even a minute element of the law.

Jesus did not abolish any of the God-given laws like the Ten Commandments that are permanent. However, he questioned the later developed wrong applications, traditional practices, and ceremonial rituals. Jesus interrogated, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? (Mt 15:3). When the Pharisees and scribes questioned Jesus, “‘Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?’ He responded, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts’” (Mk 7:5-7).

By healing the sick and casting out demons on the Sabbath day, Jesus emphasized the importance of mercy over worship (Mt 9:13). He rebuked the unreasonable traditions of the Jews and rectified the faults in the practical applications of the laws. Though he seemed to be a lawbreaker for the Jewish leaders, he corrected and perfected them.

until all things have taken place.

This expression means that the law will remain as long as the heaven and earth exist. “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest part of a letter of the law to become invalid” (Lk 16:17). Jesus was not talking about the end of heaven and earth but was emphasizing permanency of God’s commandments.

(19) Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments

Since even a smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter is important in the law, breaking even a minor commandment or teaching others to do so is a serious offense and will be punishable. By commandments, Jesus was denoting the divine commandments and not the human precepts falsely developed based on them. Jesus mentions “the least of these commands” because the Pharisees might have classified the laws as greater and lesser. For Jesus, all the laws are significant.

and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

Since this teaching of Jesus was part of the sermon on the mount, this must be addressed to his disciples and those who would follow him. If they disregard the commandments, they will misguide others to break the laws through their dishonest lives. Those who do so or teach them against the commandments, will be least in God’ kingdom. It can be a denial in the kingdom, or a lower position in heaven based on the gravity of one’s failure.

But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments

A disciple will be great in the kingdom of heaven only when he or she keeps the commandments and teaches the same to others. Role models are necessary in the church and their preaching will be effective.

will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus revealed that there will be different grades in the kingdom because Jesus will judge us based on our actions in this life. St. Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others, knowing that will repay each person according to what they have done” (Colossians 3:23-24). Jesus promised the apostles, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28).

(20) I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

I tell you

By “you,” Jesus meant not just his disciples, but all his listeners at the sermon on the mount. The people who were familiar with the Scribes and Pharisees were included in this. They might be admirers of the scribes as experts in the Law, and Pharisees as elite Jews who were scrupulous in practicing the Jewish rituals.

the scribes and Pharisees

The scribes were initially copiers of the Holy Scripture when there were no durable writing materials and copying devices. They were serious in copying the Bible without error. Later, they also became interpreters of the Holy Scripture and experts in the judicial procedures. Though some of them were priests like Ezra (Ezra 7:5-6), some Levites and common people also became scribes. The Jews respected them because of their knowledge in the Bible, dedicated service, and adherence to the Laws. They gained authority among the Jews and joined Pharisees in opposing Jesus for his liberal approach to man-made laws. Some of them were members of the Sanhedrin and wise scribes were also known as Rabbi.

Pharisee in Hebrew means “separate” or “detach” because this group had separated themselves from the ordinary people in their strict religious observances. The origin of Pharisees was after the post-exilic times, when there was a thirst for maintaining the purity of Judaism according to the written laws and oral traditions. They opposed the Hellenistic influence in Judaism. They gave importance to the traditional rituals that were not in the Mosaic laws but were handed over by the elders of the post-exilic generations, claiming that they were also of divine origin. Though some Pharisees appreciated the teachings of Jesus and invited him for dinner (Luke 7:36-50, 14:1), many of them objected him because Jesus did not strictly follow their man-made rituals and traditions.

righteousness

A righteous person is one who is morally true or justifiable. In the Biblical sense, righteousness is the state of being right in front of God. God is righteous (Psalm 11:7) and He will judge our righteousness (Is 33:22). The humans are weak and have the tendency to slip away from righteousness. This weakness started from the time of the first parents. However, there have been righteous people specially mentioned in the Bible.

In order to understand righteousness, let us see the reasons for considering some as righteous in the Bible. Abel was righteous because “by faith Abel offered to God a sacrifice greater than Cain’s” (Hebrews 11:4), “Enoch walked with God” (Gen 5:22) and hence he was righteous (Gen 5:24). “Noah was a righteous man and blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God (Gen 6:9). “Abram put his faith in the LORD, who attributed it to him as an act of righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Besides, Melchizedek (Heb 7:1-2), Lot (2 Peter 2:7-8), Job (Ezek 14:14,20), Daniel (Ezek 14:14,20), Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, and the prophets (Heb 11:32-33) are presented as righteous during the Old Testament period.

In the New Testament times, Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” (Lk 1:6). Joseph, the husband of Mary (Mt 1:19), Simeon (Lk 2:25), John the Baptist (Mk 6:20), Joseph of Arimathea (Lk 23:50), and Cornelius (Acts 10:22) are others specially mentioned as righteous. So, all who keep their fidelity to God and walked according to God’s ordinances are righteous.

No human is perfect because all have sinned (Rom 3:10, Rom 5:12, 1 Jn 1:8,10) “There is no one on earth so just as to do good and never sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Only God is perfectly righteous and Jesus who is God incarnate. Those who are called righteous gave priority to God instead of sin. Only by the merit of Jesus we have access to heaven. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). That was the purpose of Jesus coming into the world as Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). At the resurrection, all whom Jesus select for reward will be considered righteous (Lk 14:14).

righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees

While observing the ceremonial and traditional practices, the hearts of the Pharisees and scribes were not with God. Jesus criticized their duplicity. “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Mt 23:2-3). He pronounced woe to them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing” (Mt 23: 27-28). Jesus presented them also as “blind guides of the blind” (Mt 15:14).

uless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees

The scribes and Pharisees claim themselves to be righteous. From God’s perspective, they are not. Jesus calls them hypocrites (Mt 23:13, 15). The scribes and Pharisees rejected Jesus and denounced his teachings. A Christian cannot be like them. They have to be righteous in the genuine sense. “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one” (Mt 5:37).

you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven is the rule of the Almighty over the entire universe with no territory because everything belongs to God with no border. “The LORD has set his throne in heaven; his dominion extends over all.” (Psalm 103:19). In a specific sense, Israel was the kingdom of God because God’s kingdom is a spiritual rule over the lives and hearts of those who remain faithful to Him. Jesus reconstituted it, forming the church with Jesus as its head. This kingdom is spiritual, and that is why Jesus said to Pilate: “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” (John 18:36). The church is only a foretaste of God’s kingdom that will happen later in its fullness when the time of redemption is over and when the time of judgement will happen with the second coming of Christ. God will govern this kingdom that is eternal, peaceful, free from any struggle, and is open only for the faithful children of God. “In the lifetime of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people; rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever.” (Daniel 2:44). Thus, the Kingdom of God has different stages. It was initially established in the world at large, then among the chosen people of Israel, Jesus renewed it later by establishing the church, and it will reach perfection with the second coming of Christ.

Jesus had clarified the eligibility criteria to enter the kingdom of God. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). Jesus has specified practical examples of this in his discourse on the last judgement. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me… Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” (Mt 25:34-36, 45). This altruistic approach of mercy was lacking among the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus exhibited the acts of mercy throughout his public ministry.

Teaching About Anger

(21) “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors

The ordinary Jews who came to listen to Jesus at the sermon on the mount were illiterate. They had heard the laws and their interpretations from the synagogue services or from the scribes’ preaching. These laws were attributed to Moses, who received them directly from God and communicated that to the Israelites. They taught these to their descendants and handed over them in written and mostly in oral form. The scribes of the post-exilic period also transmitted their interpretations and applications as oral traditions. As time went by, these practices had deviated from the intention of God, the lawgiver. The questioning of Jesus was not on the Mosaic teachings, but on the false interpretations of the post-exilic ancestors.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus presented six examples of laws that the people were familiar and gave his interpretation with emphasis on the intentions rather than actions. They are:

1. “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:21)

2. “You shall not commit adultery” (Mt 5:27).

3. “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce” (Mt 5:31).

4. “Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow” (Mt 6:33).

5. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt 5:38).

6. “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Mt 5:43).

Jesus negated the contemporary views on each law and redefined them with God’s intentions behind such teachings. He did not negate the ancient doctrines, but the teaching and practices of the Jewish leaders manipulating the laws and presenting them as of divine origin. According to Jesus, God’s righteousness differs from the human views. God judges by actions and the intentions that trigger them.

You shall not kill

Better translation for “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13) is, “Thou shall not commit murder.” God justified killing in certain circumstances in the Old Testament, such as war and death penalty. In order to inhabit the promised land, God asked Israelites to kill the natives. God killed the firstborn of the Egyptians when the Pharaoh rejected the liberation of His people after enough warnings.

Jesus taught forgiveness and mercy rather than retaliation. He also instructed to do good for the enemies. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:27-28). So, the early Christian community did not wage war or retaliate when they faced severe persecution. They prayed like Jesus did at the cross, stating, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). When the enemies stoned Stephen to death, “he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’; and when he said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). St. Paul advised the Romans, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” (Rom 12:20).

The Catholic Church teaches, "God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being" (CCC-2258). Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses some of the end-of-life issues:

1. Legitimate defense: “If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful.... Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's” (CCC-2264).

2. Capital Punishment: “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, [Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide” (CCC-2267).

3. Intentional homicide: “The fifth commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful. The murderer and those who cooperate voluntarily in murder commit a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance” (CCC-2268). “The fifth commandment forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person's death. The moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, as well as refusing assistance to a person in danger” (CCC 2269).

4. Abortion: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception” (CCC-2270).

5. Euthanasia: “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable” (CCC-2277).

6. Suicide: “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God” (CCC-2281).

whoever kills will be liable to judgment.

Moses had instructed the Israelites to prepare for their entry into Canaan, “In all the communities which the LORD, your God, is giving you, you shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes to administer true justice for the people” (Deu 16:18). Each city in the ancient land of Israel had a court or Sanhedrin. For Jews, one judge was not enough for the court. The minimum number of judges required was three in small villages of less than 120 men. If the number was higher in a village, a Sanhedrin or court of 23 judges formed the judiciary. The Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, comprising 71 was the supreme court of the Jews. Thus, there were three classes of courts: The Great Sanhedrin, the Lesser Sanhedrin, and the Court of Three or Seven. The judiciary interrogated the culprits and pronounced judgement. Thus, the judges in each community were handling complaints and injustices. Those who purposefully killed other humans were put to death (Lev 24:21, Num 35:16). The Sanhedrin, the supreme council in Jerusalem, reserved the right to decide the severe punishment of stoning to death.

(22) But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

I say to you

While the prophets and scribes started their quotes from God with the phrase, “Thus says the LORD” or “There is a teaching that,” Jesus started his statements with the phrase, “I say to you” as an authoritative teacher. While prophets were spokespersons of God, Jesus was God, and he spoke with authority. His listeners noticed it and were amazed at such a speech. The report of the sermon on the mount concludes saying, “When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:28-29).

whoever is angry

The judiciary of the Israelites were looking only at the act of murder. Jesus went beyond that and presented hatred and anger as the cause of murder. Besides the act of murder, he gave importance also to the resentment and the intention behind it even if the murder did not take place.

Anger can be a natural and quick response that dies down instantly (thumos in Greek), or a deep-rooted and lasting anger that sustains for long (orge in Greek). The second type is more dangerous and can lead to revengeful acts. According to Jesus, such nurtured anger is punishable. St. Paul instructs, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger” (Eph 4:26).

Anger against sin does not come into this category. Jesus expressed anger against sin. He enraged against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Mark 3:5) by droving out the merchants and money changers (John 2:14-16) from the Temple. The anger against sin is not what Jesus meant for judgement, but lasting anger based on the hatred of others. Christians should avoid ongoing anger or hatred that can lead to murder. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him” (1 Jn 3:15).

whoever says to his brother,

We need to take the usage of brother in a broader sense here because all humans are children of God the Father, and all are to respect one another.

‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin

Raqa, is a scornful word that derives from pride in oneself and hatred to another. Its meaning is brainless, or worthless idiot. Verbal abuse, an outcome of hatred, is serious than anger. That is why it would be referred to the Sanhedrin, the higher court of the Jews. Even contemptuous words shall be liable for last judgement at the second coming of Christ who said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak” (Mt 12:36). In a reverse sense, Christians should love and respect one another. We must honor the life and dignity of all persons, regardless of their weakness.

whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

The fool lacks wisdom. The words fool and wisdom in the Bible have meaning different from our ordinary usage. Proverbs 1:7 says, “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.” Psalm 14:1 adds, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ Their deeds are loathsome and corrupt; not one does what is good.” Such a person who purposefully denies God and leads sinful life cannot inherit heaven. In the Biblical sense, calling someone fool is a character assassination, slandering the person’s spiritual and moral integrity, and damaging his reputation. The one who does so is liable for eternal punishment in hell.

fiery Gehenna

Fiery Gehenna is a metaphorical presentation of eternal punishment for the sinners. Literal meaning of Gehenna is "the valley of the sons of Hinnom." Though unknown today, Hinnom must be the name of someone who lived in ancient Israel.

Gehenna is a deep and narrow valley in the southwest of Jerusalem that was famous for idolatrous worship of Molech where children were sacrificed (2 Chronicles 28:3). Pagan worship and child sacrifice were strictly forbidden for Jews, though some of them, including King Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:1-3) sacrificed their children as burned offering to the false god (Jeremiah 19:4). So, this valley was cursed. King Josiah later stopped the sacrifices there (2 Kings 23:10).  

Later, Gehenna became a place of waste disposal that was burned, including the dead bodies of animals and criminals. Because of the dumped refuse of the city, it was also a place of worms and maggots. Since the fire kept burning there all the time, this place became a symbol of an everlasting destruction of sinners in the life after death. This shows the gravity of punishment that waits for those who dissolute others and allege them as fools in the Biblical sense.

(23) Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, (24) leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

if you bring your gift to the altar

God had instructed through Moses, “Three times a year, then, all your males shall appear before the LORD, your God, in the place which he will choose: at the feast of Unleavened Bread, at the feast of Weeks, and at the feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed, but each with his own gift, in proportion to the blessing which the LORD, your God, has given to you” Deu 16:17). Proverbs 3:9-10 reminded them, “Honor the LORD with your wealth, with first fruits of all your produce; Then will your barns be filled with plenty, with new wine your vats will overflow.” So, the Israelites had the custom of bringing offerings to God when they approached Him for worship.

Though the priests burned a portion of the offerings at the altar, they distributed the rest of the gifts (1) to maintain the tabernacle and later the Temple, (2) to support the Levites, and (3) to help the poor. “At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithes of your produce for that year and deposit them within your own communities, that the Levite who has no hereditary portion with you, and also the resident alien, the orphan and the widow within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied; so that the LORD, your God, may bless you in all that you undertake” (Deu 14:28-29).

there recall that your brother has anything against you

When people brought the offerings and waited for the priests to inspect and accept them, they had enough time to reflect on their deeds. Then they could examine their relationship with fellow humans. Even if one thought he had nothing against another, and remembered the grievance of another towards him at the altar, he had to resolve that complaint before offering the sacrifice. Humans have a natural tendency to justify themselves and find fault with others.

leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother

One goal of Temple sacrifice was the remission of sins. It has to start with the reconciliation of the opposing people. The disruption in the human relationship will disturb one’s correlation with God. So, Jesus taught, “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions” (Mk 11:25). A deliberate vengeance or hatred is to be rectified before offering the sacrifice.

If the conflict is based on a misunderstanding, that needs to be clarified. If one damaged the reputation of another, he has to rectify that. If one has cheated or caused damage to another, he has to compensate for that. God will accept our sacrifice only after we restitute for the damage. So, reconciliation with one another and with God, and reparation for the injustice done are prerequisites for sacrifice to God. Jesus taught forgiving others is required for God’s forgiveness. He said, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:15-16). Our sacrifices become ineffective if we do not reconcile with others or do not compensate for the damages we have caused.

then come and offer your gift.

Our forgiveness, reconciliation, and reparation become complete when we return to God and resume the sacrificial offering. A good relationship with others alone will not save us, but we need to keep our faithfulness and loyalty to God through our worship. The reconciliation should take place in our daily lives. It cannot be prolonged. However, even at the moment of sacrifice, if we remember any hurt feeling of another, we need to address that also, and then return to offer the sacrifice. God expects cleanliness of hand and purity of heart from the offeror. “Who may go up the mountain of the LORD? Who can stand in his holy place? The clean of hand and pure of heart, who has not given his soul to useless things, what is vain. He will receive blessings from the LORD, and justice from his saving God” (Psalm 24:3-5).

(25) Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.

The imagery of Jesus now turns from the Temple setting to a law-court

Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him.

The presumption here is that the judge had summoned a culprit and his opponent to the court. The judge will punish the culprit if he does not settle out of court before their appearance in the court of law. So, the chance for reconciliation was going to end, and he has to act soon. If the culprit avoids this last chance, the judge can put him in prison.

Jesus suggested a quick settlement because the time is running out before the accused and the adversary reach the judge. So also, in our spiritual life, the time is running out and we do not know when God will call us back to him for our particular judgement. When we face death, our chance for improvement of our lives will be over, and God will judge us based on our merits and demerits. The earlier we reconcile, the better chance of reconciliation and prevention of future damages. So, now is the time for reconciliation because we do not know whether we get an opportunity for it tomorrow.

Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge

The guilty person will be weak in front of the judge. The opponent, in this case, is powerful because justice is in favor of him. He will hand over the guilty to the judge who will make a right decision.

The judge when we apply in spiritual life is God. Unlike human judges, the divine judge is just and omniscient. We cannot establish ourselves as innocent if we are guilty.

the judge will hand you over to the guard

The prison guard will execute the judgement. In the Kingdom of God, angles will be the guards who do it.

you will be thrown into prison.

Imprisonment is the punishment for the guilty. The prison must be an interim period for compensating for the damages done.

(26) Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

In this allegory, the guilty person did not get capital punishment or a perpetual imprisonment. He was condemned to be in prison until the compensation is fully met. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, his term can be short or long.

When we apply this example in the spiritual context, we are approaching God, our judge, at the end of our life in this world. Though He will reward us for our faithfulness to Him and our good deeds for others, we cannot reach heaven with rivalry in our life. If we do not attempt for reconciliation or settle any damage done, we will be punished. The punishment period depends on the seriousness of our offense. This implies purgatory because the imprisonment is not permanent like hell, and most people are not saints or sinners at the time of their death. They are not worthy of going directly to heaven and not grave sinners to go to eternal punishment in the hell.

MESSAGE

1. Jesus subjected himself to the law (Gal 4:4). While keeping the genuine laws, he perfected the adulterated ones. Let us also follow God’s precepts, the teachings of the church, and the civil laws, understanding the genuine spirit behind them as the love of God and respect for others.

2. Jesus promised, “whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:19). Let us also comply with the laws and teach others, especially our children, to respect the laws with proper understanding.

3. Teaching the commandments of God is best implemented by our practicing Christian devotion and charity. Jesus requires these as requirements for our entry into the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:20).

4. Jesus equates lasting anger against others with murder because nurturing it can grow in our mind to hurt the enemies. Though anger against sin is beneficial to correct others, it should not last long to cause undue damage to others.

5. Contemptuous bullying and character assassination are serious offenses. Love and forgiveness should be the characteristic of us as Christians regardless of the weakness of others. Let us win our opponents with our gracious acts than revenge towards them.

6. Enmity and injustice to others are hurdles for our entry into the kingdom of heaven. Our days in this world are counted and are decreasing day by day. Let us resolve any issues we have with others at the earliest.