Jesus has just challenged his followers to live a “righteousness [which] surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees”; not a kind that competes with others, but strives to keep up with Jesus. Now he continues his commentary on kingdom righteousness by contrasting it with what had become the cultural norms of Pharisaism, beginning with a quote of the sixth commandment: “You have heard that the ancients were told ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.'”
We all know this command. We all approve of this command. But there is more to kingdom righteousness than a surface-level, one-dimensional adherence to this command. In their current culture of Pharisaism, the “do not murder” command would have measured a person’s righteousness by whether or not they had a person’s blood on their hands. If they did, they were guilty in sight of the law and courts. If they did not, they were “righteous”. The problem with this measurement, however, is that in kingdom reality, righteousness in this context is measured by so much more than whether or not we have murdered someone.
So in view of “surpassing righteousness”, Jesus clarifies the righteous essence at the heart of the sixth commandment: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing’, shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool’, shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”
Three times in three various ways with three intensifying consequences, Jesus makes anger and its frustrated burstings as unacceptable as murder. Why? Since the kingdom of heaven is the reality of redemption cultivated in God’s sovereignty, as following participants we must perceive all of life through the lenses of God’s redemptive reality. The King’s grace which brings us into redemption postulates that everyone is redeemable, and as participants in God’s redemption we must treat everyone as such. Sustaining an anger that is willing to treat people as “good-for-nothing” and fools only corrupts our understanding of and witness to that redemptive reality. Maintaining an anger that hinders God’s redemptive reality effectually “murders” our sense of redemption, towards both ourselves and others. Surpassing, kingdom righteousness here is not measured exclusively by outward expressions of violence, as hypocrisy would have us believe, but by the extent to which Christ’s righteous character of peacefulness is formed in us.
Jesus then gives his disciples two illustrations for overcoming anger for the sake of kingdom righteousness: “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.”
The first picture is set in the context of spiritual community and worship. While one person is preparing to worship God, elsewhere is a community brother who may be angry with him for some unspecified reason. In such a situation, Jesus would have the worshipper embody kingdom righteousness by taking the initiative and leaving his place of prayer and offering to engage in reconciliatory conversation with the brother. Then he can return to truly worship. This illustration teaches us, the community of the King, that the emphasis of living kingdom righteousness is on the internal cultivation of Christ’s character which is what gives integrity to external expressions of worship. If we’re not actually overcoming our anger issues and reconciling relationships through Christ’s redemptive character, our expressions of worship are actually hypocritical.
The second picture is set in the context of a conflict that could be leading up to a courtroom showdown. Jesus isn’t specific about the details of that conflict; what Jesus is specific about is how he expects his followers to live out a righteousness that might keep such a conflict from ever getting as far as a courtroom, where by then the damage to our kingdom witness is already done. This picture paints us, the community of the King, into the role of “peacemakers” whose priority is not to get the better of others, but to overcome our anger issues and conflicts with others in order to bring many sons back to their heavenly Father.
Much of the hypocritical nature Jesus confronts in this text is the presumption that how we treat people has nothing to do with how we relate to God. Jesus’ words and illustrations reveal that much of our relationship to the King is expressed by how we do relationship with others. Kingdom reality is not simply vertical, between us and God; it’s quite horizontal, as kingdom righteousness is lived out amongst people, both the community of the King and all others.
Jesus’ brother James would later write “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”. What does is the disciple who takes the righteous character of Christ more seriously than any past slight or self-pitying bitterness our pride often nurtures; these things will be gradually discarded in the dust stirred up as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, his peacefulness genuinely permeating our innermost person.