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Matthew 5:23-26 – “Superior Righteousness, Part 1b: Repentance”

If therefore, you present your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, abandon there your gift before the altar and depart. First, be reconciled to your brother and then, coming back, bring your gift. Be friendly to your accuser quickly, while you are with him on the road lest the accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the bailiff, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will never come from there until you pay back the last quadrans.

The point Jesus made in vv. 21-22 is that (a) the scribes and Pharisees had demoted the sixth commandment from a divine and eternal ordinance to a civil law code and (b) it is impossible and foolish for humans to even attempt legislating righteousness. It is incorrect to say that there is no absolute right and wrong and thus morality cannot be legislated. There most certainly is and it most certainly can. But we must not confuse morality with righteousness. Humanity can only observe what is external and thus provide punishment on an external level. If humanity cannot legislate righteousness, then what is the proper response to a lapse in righteousness? The following verses provide Jesus’ application for kingdom citizens who fall into unrighteousness.

Jesus’ Application: Repentance (vv. 23-26)

The overarching theme of these verses is that of repentance. While the legalist searches for a box to check in order to confirm his righteous standing, Jesus provides no such box. In the case of murder, or any sin for that matter, the kingdom citizen is called on to repent. It is important to note from the onset that both scenarios come from the perspective of the guilty party. Jesus has changed from using plural second person pronouns (ὑμεῖς – y’all) in vv. 21-22 to singular (σύ – you) in vv. 23-26. This change brings a very personal touch as Jesus teaches His disciples.[1] There is an assumption that the disciples will fail at times, but the answer to their unrighteous “murder” is not capital punishment but repentance. While capital punishment is a righteous response from society to murder, it does nothing to make the murderer righteous. Repentance is therefore the key to this text. Jesus first illustrates the priority of repentance (vv. 23-24) before demanding the imminence of repentance (vv. 25-26).

The Priority of Repentance (vv. 23-24)

If therefore, you present your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, abandon there your gift before the altar and depart. First, be reconciled to your brother and then, coming back, bring your gift.

Here Jesus presents the first of two illustrations regarding the application of the lesson from vv. 21-22 (i.e., sin cannot be legislated and any attempt to reduce sin to a legal crime is the heart of legalism). The hypothetical scene presented is that of a worshipper who has brought his offering to the temple in Jerusalem and is in the very midst of the physical act of worship. The fact that v. 24 demands that the offering be left “in front of” (ἒμπροσθεν) the altar suggests that the animal has not yet been slain. Yet the present tense “presenting/brining” (προσφέρῃς) presents that action in real time. The worshiper is either in line, drawing close to the altar and the priests who will take his slain animal and place portions of it upon the altar, or his turn is up and he is moments from transferring the animal into the care of the priests. Because Jesus is using an illustration, it is best not to read too much into this example such as guessing whether the offering in question describes a volitional act of worship[2] or compliance to a prescribed gathering such as Passover or the Day of Atonement.[3] Jesus provides no statement to indicate either way. The point is simply to place a hypothetical example of one who is about to come before Yhwh in faith through Yhwh’s priests by means of Yhwh’s prescribed offering. This is a sober and sacred act, but it is an act that has been misunderstood and misrepresented by the religious elite. Looking at these verses intact, there are several things to consider.

First, as already mentioned, there is an assumption of guilt. The moment before the worshiper (presented by Jesus as any one of His disciples – “you”) is fully committed or has crossed the point of no return with his offering, he remembers that his brother has something against him (ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἒχει τι κατὰ σοῦ). This statement is more specific than suggesting that his brother doesn’t like him or that his brother has a grudge against him. The point here is that the worshiper is actually guilty of wronging his brother, that the brother has a legitimate grievance against the worshiper. The Lord Jesus Himself uses similar language (ἀλλ᾽ ἒχω κατὰ σοῦ – but this I have against you…) to bring His charges against the churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2:4, 14, 20). Jesus’ point to the Asian churches is not that His feelings require an apology but that they have committed sin against Him and are thus guilty of a specific transgression. That is precisely the same meaning here. In the context, the sin in question is undoubtedly “murder”. Not that he has taken the life of his brother (how can he reconcile with a dead brother?) but that he has anger against his brother that has manifested itself in some way to the point where the brother has a righteous grievance against him. He is moments away from entering into worship, and he remembers that he is guilty.

Second, the allusion within this illustration to Cain’s murder of Abel from vv. 21-22 continues. Jesus has already pointed toward Gen. 4 simply by mentioning murder in the context of one’s “brother”. That allusion grows stronger when the detail of worship and offering are added for the whole context of Cain’s murder of Abel revolved around Yhwh’s acceptance of Abel’s offering and His rejection of Cain’s. This is why Jesus demands that the offering not be carried through.

There is a general misunderstanding of Yhwh’s words to Cain before he killed his brother. Yhwh rebukes Cain for being angry and links it to Cain’s unacceptable offering. Rather than offering that which was prescribed (namely, that which has blood to show a substitute life for life), Cain offered from the fruit of his fields (namely, from the works of his own hands). Yhwh prescribed an offering of substitution in faith. Cain offered evidence of his works in expectation that he would be justified through them. Yhwh, full of grace and patience, urged Cain to repent and reconsider. The text of Gen. 4:7 is usually translated something like “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (NASB). The impression is that Cain is exhorted to resist sin lest sin overcome him. This is a translation and interpretation that is not supported by the grammar, context, nor basic orthodox theology. Why would God command Cain to man up and resist harder? A translation that takes the grammar, context, and theology into consideration reads something like this: “If you do well, will not you be accepted? And if not you do well, at the door is a sin offering lying down and its desire is for you so you must rule over it.” It is not that God is commanding Cain to try harder but that He is exhorting him to cease offering his works and to take up the sin offering that has been prescribed, the offering that God Himself provided. We read nothing of Cain’s reply to God, only that he leaves to find and kill his brother instead.

Finally, it is important to note that Jesus here uses hyperbole and is not giving a statute to follow verbatim. Jesus is speaking to a group of Galileans in Galilee regarding a 60-90 mile one-way trek to Jerusalem. If a man was fleet of foot and able to cover 30 miles a day (averaging a 3-mph pace nonstop for ten hours a day), this journey home to reconcile with his brother and back would take between 4-6 days at a minimum. Is the bound animal expected to still be alive and in place when the worshiper returns? It’s almost as if Jesus is using excessive speech in order to make a point rather than providing step by step instructions.

Putting these things together places the hypothetical worshiper (presented through the eyes of the disciples) in the same position as Cain after he committed murder. It is as if a Cain-like person continued to offer the works of his hands rather than trusting in the offering of God with his brother’s blood still staining his hands. It is not quite accurate to state that the murder of one’s brother disrupts the union between God and this worshiper so much as the murder reveals that union has already been disrupted. Therefore, the key is not to continue checking the box of wrote religion but to stop the charade and repent.

This illustration is not only in the context of murder (vv. 21-22) but is also within the context of superior righteousness to the scribes and Pharisees (v. 20). Jesus presents the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees as the same self-righteousness as Cain. These are men who would murder their brothers (as understood from v. 22) and carry on with their external religious rites as if nothing has happened. They are able to do this because their righteousness is a legalistic self-righteousness of box checking. According to their righteousness, they are not guilty because their brother still breaths. Jesus points to his disciples and plainly states that this will not do. Stripping the law of legalism creates a standard that is impossible for man to righteously keep. That’s the point. This illustration assumes that at one point or another, the disciples will be guilty of murder. But even Cain was given an opportunity to repent (Gen. 4:7). Therefore, the key of kingdom righteousness is repentance. Above all else, repentance is the priority.

The Imminence of Repentance (vv. 25-26)

Be friendly to your accuser quickly, while you are with him on the road lest the accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the bailiff, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will never come from there until you pay back the last quadrans.

This second illustration also assumes guilt, though the image shifts from murder (or any outworking of an angry heart) to something much more trivial: debt. The “accuser” or “opponent”(ἀντίδικος) describes one’s legal opponent. The plaintiff is the accuser (ἀντίδικος) of the defendant just as the defendant is the accuser (ἀντίδικος) of the plaintiff. Jesus again plants the disciple in the hypothetical situation of guilt and whose only option is to waste no time in appeasing the one who he has wronged. The time in which to do so is narrow indeed, for once the pair arrive at court, the decision is out of the accuser’s hands and belongs to the judge who will turn the matter over to the bailiff[4] who will throw the guilty disciple into prison where he will not return. The idea of a debtor’s prison is more to instill fear into would-be debtors than procure a means of collecting debts. Men that cannot work and have no money are not likely to produce any from inside a dungeon. The disciple, in this hypothetical situation, is never leaving prison because the last cent[5] will never[6] be repaid. The point is very simple: there is no opportunity to repent after judgment.

This scene goes back to trace out the thought of the scribes and Pharisees in their twisted legalistic rendering of the sixth commandment. There is no grace according to their righteousness. If you are guilty, there is only the chance that your accuser will let you off the hook. This is not grace, nor mercy, nor righteousness but tyranny of the worst kind. Yet, under the system of the scribes and Pharisees, this is the only way to avoid judgment: beg the accuser to drop the charge before it becomes official, sweep it under the rug, don’t let it see the light of day. What a miserable righteousness this is.

The time to repent is now, not later. There is no guarantee that there will be a later. The harmony between brothers is certainly in view here, but not for the sake of harmony itself. The larger point is that of repentance. This is a warning to the listening disciples, and an indictment to the scribes and Pharisees undoubtedly hanging on the fringe of the circle. Sin cannot be legislated and therefore one cannot be considered righteous by checking boxes of law following. Sin assumes a sinful heart. Therefore, there is but one remedy: Repent, and trust in the substitutional offering that God has already provided. Follow Jesus alone.

[1] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 299.

[2] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 231-2.

[3] Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 190.

[4] Ὑπηρέτης is a nondescript term for a servant. The context describes one who serves the judge by escorting the convicted to their punishment. This present context presents the idea of a modern court bailiff.

[5] Literally a quadrans (κοδράντης) is a small coin that is the equivalent of 1/64th of a denarius, the average equivalent of about seven minutes of labor in an eight hour work-day.

[6] The construction οὐ μὴ with the subjunctive mood (ἐξέλθῃς) is a strong negation that certainly means “never.”

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