What action does God take in Matthew 5:21-37?
Matthew 5:21-37 is a part of Jesus’ most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount. Christ’s action throughout the whole passage is teaching, although this is not directly mentioned in these verses.
What action does God call me to take toward God? Toward others?
There are several direct actions that God calls us to take:
Vs. 23 – Remember that your brother has something against you.
Vs. 24 – Leave your gift before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Vs. 25 – Come to terms quickly with your accuser
Vs. 29 – If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.
Vs. 30 – If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.
There are also several indirect actions that Jesus calls us to take in this passage of Scripture. For example, Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife makes her commit adultery (vs. 31-32). This indicates (although never given as a direct command) that a man shouldn’t divorce his wife. Similar conclusions could be made with regard to anger and lust.
What actions did I take? Or, what actions will I take?
Jesus’ instructions in verses 23-24 are often skipped over in light of the more astonishing revelation that the command not to murder applies not only to outward acts, but also to inward anger.
The remembering and reconciliation that Jesus commands us to undertake is embedded within the setting of “offering your gift at the altar”. This gives us a picture of a formal religious ceremony whereby one offers a lamb or a pair of doves, given to God at the temple in Jerusalem.
As New Testament believers, this passage can remind us of Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11:27 against eating the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” and the need to examine oneself before eating the bread and drinking of the cup.
However, Augustine suggests that we can interpret this in a spiritual manner as well by saying,
And so we may interpret the altar spiritually, as being faith itself in the inner temple of God, whose emblem is the visible altar. For whatever we present to God, whether prophecy, or teaching, or prayer, or a psalm, or a hymn, and whatever other such like spiritual gifts occurs to the mind, it cannot be acceptable to God, unless it be sustained by sincerity of faith, and, as it were, placed on that fixedly and immoveably, so that what we utter may remain whole and uninjured. (On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, Augustine)
The implications of Christ’s command is that before one can meaningfully worship God, one must reconcile with a brother/sister in Christ. This would not only apply to formal worship within a church, but also our daily worship that takes place anywhere and everywhere. Worship that emphasizes praying and Bible reading would not be more important or effective than worship that is a reconciliation between two brothers in Christ. In fact, our praying and Bible reading could be hindered if we don’t remember and reconcile with our brother or sister in Christ.
Augustine also suggests that timing of reconciliation is of the utmost importance in these verses. Verse 22 shows a progression towards greater levels of punishment with regard to anger, thus making it important to deal with any anger or bitterness right away!
How do we fulfill Christ’s commands in Matthew 5:22-23? By taking every opportunity to remember our relationships with each other and by taking every step necessary to reconcile with each other.