The Sermon, part 7: First Antithesis

Read Matthew 5:21-26

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE 
“These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community.” (Numbers 35:12 NLT)

  Jesus opens up his first antithesis by quoting a law as found in the decalogue (Ten Commandments). “You have heard to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder.” He then follows that up with, “and all who commit murder will in danger of judgment”. This last part cannot be found in the law, word for word, but it is a reference to passages such as Exodus 21:12, Levitcus 24:17, and Numbers 35:12.

First, it must be said, that most people misquote and misunderstand this scripture. The law states that “you shall not commit murder.” Many often misquote it, and it was mistranslated in the King James Version, as “Thou shalt not kill.” While no one likes to kill, killing is an inevitable necessity to life. Even the gentlest Buddhist, or the most conscientious vegan inevitably kills things.

I recently hosted a round table conversation regarding veganism and the Christian faith. One of the attendees brought up that the Judeo-Christian God, if “he was truly good, would have made it abundantly clear that one should be vegan and not kill animals.” While, as a vegan, I can appreciate the sentiment, this misunderstands a whole host of things. While I will not go into all of the areas that this statement is lacking in understanding, I will say that it is premised on equating killing with murder, and it is also hypocritical as it fails to humbly acknowledge that even vegans kill (plants, fruits, microscopic organisms, bugs while walking, etc.).

At face value, the law does not seem like it is lax or not to be taken seriously. It is a law that forbids the unjust killing of other human beings (aka murder) and it advocates that those who murder should face the same punishment as their crime. This goes against my sensibilities as someone who opposes the death penalty; however, it is pretty standard in terms of punishment for murderers. If you choose to murder someone, you shall be executed.

Yet, the law wasn’t as rigid as that either. Within the law are provisions to make sure that justice is truly done. It is not okay, for instance, for families to just go out and get revenge against the alleged murderer. In Numbers 35:12, the law states, “These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community.” In other words, before one can be executed for murder, there needs to be a trial proving the person murdered.

What’s more, in Numbers 35:30, “All murderers must be put to death, but only if evidence is presented by more than one witness. No one may be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.” As can be seen, the law is not about vengence, but about justice, and the law seeks to “prevent the death of innocent people”.

The point of this is that Israel had strict laws; however, we should not misconstrue the strictness to be unjust or unusually harsh. Jesus, in this antithesis, is not standing opposed to the law itself; however, he is pointing out the fact that those interpreting God’s law are not without culpability in breaking it. The very people calling for strict observance of the Torah are, themsleves, guilty of breaking it by God’s standard. In essence, Jesus affirms the Torah (those who murder are in danger of legal judgment), and then takes it to the eschatological (judgmeny day) extreme (those who are angry WILL BE in danger of divine judgment).

What can be said is this, while the Torah is announcing the penalty for physically murdering someone, Jesus is pronouncing the judgment to come upon people who harbor anger and resentment toward others. This judgment is not human judgment (as in the case of murder), but divine judgment. When you are angry at others, it is likened to murdering them in your heart. Every human, even the Pharisees, are guilty of that! What’s more, we harbor such anger in our hearts, even as we go before God in worship. In one word, HYPOCRISY. Jesus lets us know that a) just as we judge with the law, we are also judged by it. What’s more, b) love is not hostile, but seeks reconciliation with those anger has separated us from. Let us, as we reflect on this and the antitheses to come, prayerfully search our hearts for hypocrisy and humble ourselves before God. Let us remove hostility from our hearts, for love is not hostile!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” – Buddha

PRAYER

Lord, purge me of the hypocrisy of thinking that I am good enough to judge by the law without being judged by it. Amen.

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