Formations 03.02.2014: First Things First

Henrik Olrik, Sermon on the Mount (detail), c. 1880

Henrik Olrik, Sermon on the Mount (detail), c. 1880

The Didascalia is an ancient manual of church order. According to one of its provisions, before the church celebrates the Eucharist, the deacon recites the passage from Matthew in which Jesus commands those who know of any relational rift with a brother and sister to leave their gift at the altar and first be reconciled with that member of the community.

Can you imagine what church might be like if we followed the same practice—and took it seriously? I can envision worshipers moving to other pews so they could sit quietly with each other and work things out. Perhaps a trickle of congregants would make their way to the lobby to call friends and family members with whom they have suffered a falling out. The service would likely go long that day! I expect Jesus would say the extra time was worth it.

What should Christ’s followers do when there has been a rift in their relationships? In this week’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges believers to go and be reconciled, even if it means the inconvenience and public embarrassment of leaving one’s sacrifice at the altar in the temple.


• What would be the modern equivalent of leaving one’s gift at the altar?
• Have you ever risked embarrassment or inconvenience for the sake of mending a damaged relationship? What happened?
• How high a priority should we place on seeking reconciliation? Is there a point at which reconciliation is not worth the effort it would take? Explain.

Reference Shelf

An Example of Jesus’ Teaching

In the literary context of Matthew, 4:23-25 forms an inclusion with 9:35. Sandwiched between these two summary passages, the evangelist shows Jesus to be the Messiah who is mighty in both word (5:1–7:28) and deed (8:1–9:35). In 4:17, 23 the narrator tells us that Jesus announced the Kingdom and called people to repentance. The sermon on the mount offers a specific example of Jesus’ teaching. As teacher, Jesus is presented as one who has authority greater than the scribes (7:28-29) and as one who is even greater than Moses (5:21-48). Jesus closes all loopholes, including those which were culturally accepted, and intensifies the demand of the Law with his insistence on a greater righteousness (5:21-48). In the sermon, Jesus disseminates the unadulterated expression of God’s will.

David E. Garland, “Sermon on the Mount,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 811.

Handling Anger

Notice first of all that Matthew 5:21-26 deals with the issue of anger. The commandment of Moses prohibiting murder (Exod 20:13) is cited, but only as an opening remark so that Jesus can tell his disciples he is calling them to a much higher standard of righteousness than just avoiding murder. It should be noted that this passage involves an ethic that can be called in house. The term “brother” keeps coming up in this discussion. In other words, Jesus is regulating behavior amongst his disciples.

This was never intended as some utopian ethic to be imposed on society in general. A certain escalation can be seen as the anger boils over—first he refers to being angry, then refers to actions involving epithets—‘raka is an Aramaic term of contempt, and “you fool” is even worse. Notice also the escalation in “subject to judgment,” “answerable to the council” (perhaps the Sanhedrin), and “in danger of hell fire.” Some of this should probably be seen as dramatic hyperbole, as is often typical of sapiential language, which relies on metaphor and the dramatic.

But is Jesus really saying don’t be angry ever
 for any reason? If so he would certainly be
 offering a different wisdom than Aristotle, who
 said those who are angry at the right things and
 with the right people at the right time for the 
right length of time are to be praised (Eth. Nic. 5.4). Notice however the context of Jesus’ words. The sort of anger Jesus is referring to involves fellow believers, and more to the point it involves verbal abuse. He is not talking about righteous anger in regard to a sin or a wrong done; he is talking about sinful anger against another person and its inappropriate expression. This is where it needs to be pointed out that there is probably an echo here of the story of Cain, which refers to anger against a brother and murder and also mentions the offering of a sacrifice (see 5:23-24).

It seems clear, in light of this, that Jesus is referring to some kind of sinful anger; otherwise he would have had to condemn his own behavior (cf. Mark 1:41; 3:5; and of course the action in the temple—see Matt 21:12-17). What Jesus is condemning may be called sinful rage and wrathful actions. Notice that the antithesis section goes on to deal further with one of the expressions of anger, namely taking revenge (see below on vv. 38-45).

Verses 23-26 provide us with practical advice on what to do if some fellow believer has something against you, and the advice involves “go and be reconciled.” It then adds that if an adversary has something against you, Jesus advises settling before it goes to trial and there are horrific consequences. Leaving gifts at the altar and making friends on the way to court “are both illustrations of the self-discipline of reconciliation, which is the antidote to anger.” What is interesting about this advice is that it tells a person how to respond to another’s anger, perhaps even appropriate anger, rather than giving advice on how to deal with one’s own anger. The function of this material is not to give advice to isolated individuals, but rather to help believers live in community with one another. Reconciliation is the watchword given to those who have wronged another. Go and make it right before any other acts of piety or charity are attempted, says Jesus. The reference to being thrown in jail and not getting out until the debt is paid is true to the judicial situations of the day. One could not be thrown in jail for failure to pay a debt without a judicial decision, and one would not be released until the debt was paid, sometimes with as much as a 50 percent surcharge (cf. P. Monac 52, lines 16-17; UPZ 1.124, lines 12-13).

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 129–31.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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