Open Matthew 5:23-26.
Three times a year, observant Jews were to take time off work and travel to Jerusalem for the big festivals. They didn’t go empty-handed: they always brought God a gift that expressed their submission to his kingship, a sacrificial animal that acknowledged their place at God’s table.
So you’ve gone all the way to Jerusalem, bought the approved animal, and you’re leading it to the temple grounds. You’re meditating on how good it is to have a place in God’s family, when it reminds you of that guy who’s not so glad you’re in the family. He thinks you’ve treated him unjustly, charged him an unfair price, taken advantage of him when he was in trouble. The memory messes up your feeling of belonging.
Jesus says you stop at this point. Return the sacrifice animal. Seek out your estranged brother and be reconciled. Only then can you truly celebrate your place in the family. You can’t have a place at God’s table if you can’t share the table with that guy.
That’s been Israel’s story since the beginning. Jacob (Israel) cheated his brother, and Esau was angry enough to murder him. Jacob fled for his life. As he left the Promised Land, God showed him that he was running from the place where God dwelled (Bethel = house of God). After twenty years in exile, Jacob was called to return. It involved quite a confrontation with God (Genesis 32). It involved quite a reconciliation with his brother (Genesis 33). Only then could Jacob enter the House of God, offer his gift at the altar, and be affirmed as Israel (Genesis 35:1-15).
Jacob’s gifts to Esau served to make restitution. Reconciliation can be very costly. But there was something Jacob valued above his possessions: the opportunity to look into his brother’s eyes and see God’s acceptance expressed in their restored relationship:
Genesis 33:10 (ESV)
Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.
For all those years, Esau had lived in the Land, while Jacob was in exile. Only when Jacob addressed the issue that his brother had something against him could he return.
Don’t hold out, Jesus says. Even if you think you’re paying too much, hasten to settle matters with that guy who’s prosecuting the case against you. Your relationship is worth more than the cost of repairing it.
If you won’t be generous in restoring your relationship with each other, why would you expect your heavenly sovereign to be generous with you? Without grace, you would stay languishing in exile until you’ve paid every last red cent, instead of enjoying life under God’s kingship (5:26).
Relationships are not disposable. Jesus cared less about just retribution and more about his people just reconciling, whatever the cost. The gospel is good news of reconciliation. Why should the king extend grace to people who don’t believe in grace?
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 203–204:
This little cameo is designed, like many parables, not to give practical advice for legal disputes (no indication is given as to what sort of settlement might be possible if the money is not available) but simply to reinforce an ethical message: do not allow bad relationships to remain unresolved. … The inclusion of “I tell you truly” (see on 5:18) alerts us to a more ultimate purpose than merely avoiding imprisonment; like the other parable of debt and imprisonment (18:23–35) it is a pointer to the divine judgment on those whose earthly relationships do not conform to the values of the kingdom of heaven.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1985), 86:
Immediately, as soon as we are conscious of a broken relationship, we must take the initiative to mend it, to apologize for the grievance we have caused, to pay the debt we have left unpaid, to make amends. And these extremely practical instructions Jesus drew out from the sixth commandment as its logical implications! If we want to avoid committing murder in God’s sight, we must take every possible positive step to live in peace and love with all men.
Carey Nieuwhof, What Self-Aware Leaders Know…That Others Don’t (2014):
If you struggle with your mood (and how doesn’t?), here are a few ways to handle it:
- Be the first to recognize it.
- Pray about it.
- Regulate it.
- Be more interested in other people that day than you are in yourself. (This really helps.)
If you want to become more emotionally intelligent, be aware of the impact of your emotions on others.
[previous: If you’re angry, are you a killer?]
[next: Feeling guilty]
2 thoughts on “Reconciliation or retribution? What do you want? (Matthew 5:23-26)”
The wonderful photo of the sculpture at the top: where is this sculpture located?
Thanks for your comment, Charles. Can’t recall where this sculputre is, but it certainly is expressive.