Bible oldThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 5:25-26

25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.[a]

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This passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, which includes not only the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:3-11 but also the rest of Matthew 5 as well as Matthew 6 and Matthew 7!

Jesus delivers a lot of hard-hitting messages in this lengthy sermon comprising three chapters.

The preceding verses to today’s are as follows:

Anger

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother[c] will be liable to judgment; whoever insults[d] his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell[e] of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Therefore, if we are angry at someone — even if we have a nonviolent grudge against them — we are to mend our fences with them before worshipping.

If we make these overtures and the other person does not accept them, then we have done our best and cannot change their minds. We can still pray that divine grace brings them a change of heart in time.

There is something insidious and destructive about anger and grudges. Our Lord says:

whoever insults[d] his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell[e] of fire.

When we destroy — and continue to destroy — a person’s reputation unjustly and unreasonably, we are in danger of being condemned ourselves when we reach the Final Judgement. Let’s make up now!

On the other hand, some of us have business associates, neighbours or, worse, family members who conduct character assassinations against us. Note the word ‘assassinations’ in that commonly used turn of phrase. Christ says that such harsh words and thoughts in chronic anger are tantamount to murder. Food for thought.

John MacArthur has an interesting take on this with regard to church worship. Even when he gave this sermon on Matthew in 1978, he was already getting requests for the contemporary folderol (trifling thing) so in vogue these days: better aesthetics, modern music and so on to bring in more people.

His response was as follows (emphases mine):

The way to increase the meaningful worship is to get the people out who don’t have any business being here, because there’s something wrong.  You know, I believe that every Sunday there are people who come here, husbands and wives who have bitterness between the two of them and they try to worship God, and God doesn’t want anything to do with it.  I believe there are families that come where there’s animosity from the kids toward the parents or the parents toward the kids and God isn’t interested in their worship

I believe that there are times when we come to church and there is a feeling against somebody else in the fellowship, or a neighbor in the street or somewhere, and we know there’s a bitterness.  We do absolutely nothing about it.  There’s a fellow Christian that we don’t particularly care for and something has happened, and we let that thing settle in a bitterness.  And the Bible says, “Go away.  You offer nothing to God.  He is not interested in your worship.  It’s a sham.” 

Psalm 66:18 says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”  First Samuel 15:22 says, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offering and sacrifice, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken is better than the fat of rams.” 

This brings us to Matthew 5:25 in which Jesus exhorts us to arrive at an agreement with our accuser on the way to court, lest the judge impose a greater penalty than we had anticipated.

Worse, should we find ourselves imprisoned, we will not be released until we have paid our last penny in recompense (verse 26).

Although those verses have practical application, the more pertinent message is about our spiritual state. If we are angry — including bitter — or have not attempted to reconcile ourselves with those who feel similarly towards us, then, we are vulnerable to judgement on that fateful Last Day.

Longtime readers of Forbidden Bible Verses might find this passage sounds familiar. I covered it in an exposition of Luke 12:57-59 in July 2014:

Settle with Your Accuser

 57“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. 59I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”[a]

The verses about never getting out until we have paid the last penny implies ‘never’.

Matthew Henry warns:

It is a fearful thing to be thus turned over to the Lord Jesus, when the Lamb shall become the Lion. Angels are the officers to whom Christ will deliver them (Matthew 13:41,42) devils are so too, having the power of death as executioners to all unbelievers, Hebrews 2:14. Hell is the prison, into which those will be cast that continue in a state of enmity to God, 2 Peter 2:4. [5.] Damned sinners must remain in it to eternity[;] they shall not depart till they have paid the uttermost farthing, and that will not be to the utmost ages of eternity: divine justice will be for ever in the satisfying, but never satisfied.

What sort of hell are we talking about? I am still researching the nature of this place. Whether it is literal fire or an existential emptiness devoid of God’s presence which the condemned constantly seek, it will be eternally unpleasant.

MacArthur offers this insight:

Now you notice the word “hell fire” at the end of verse 22?  It’s a very serious word, the word “hell.”  The Greek word translated “hell” here is the word gehenna, and I want to tell you about it.  It’s fascinating.  Gehenna is a word with a history.  Gehenna is used and translated “hell” very commonly.  It’s Matthew 5:22, 29, 30, Matthew 10:28, Matthew 18:9, 23:15, and 23:33, Mark 9, Luke 12.  It’s used in James.  It’s a very common word.  It means “hell.”  But gehenna – now listen – is a reference to Hinnom, gehenna is a form of Hinnom.  It means the valley of Hinnom

When we were in Jerusalem, it was pointed out to us where the valley of Hinnom was.  It is southwest from Jerusalem.  It’s very easy to see.  It’s there today.  It is a notorious place.  I’m going to read you a little of its history.  It was the place where Ahaz had introduced into Israel the fire worship of the heathen god Molech to whom little children were burned in the fire.  “He burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and he burned his children in the fire.”  Says 2 Chronicles 28:3.  Further, Josiah the reforming king had stamped out the evil worship of Molech in the place of Hinnom, and ordered that the valley should be forever after an accursed place.  Because of what had gone on, because it had been defiled, because in the valley, there had been the fire of Molech. 

Now in consequence of this, the valley of Hinnom bore that curse throughout all of Israel’s history.  It became a place where the Jewish people dumped their garbage.  The valley of Hinnom was the garbage dump of Jerusalem.  And what they had there was a public incinerator that burned all the time, all the time, all the time, never went out, never went out.  And when Jesus referred to gehenna or hell and described the eternal state of the wicked as gehenna, what He was saying is it is an eternal, never ending fire, in an accursed place, where the rubbish of humanity will burn and be consumed.  Vivid language. 

Always, says the historian, the fire smoldered in Hinnom, and a pall of thick smoke lay over Hinnom at all times, and it bred a loathsome kind of worm which was very hard to kill.  That is what our Lord refers to in Mark … “where the worm dies not.”

So gehenna, the valley of Hinnom, became identified in peoples’ minds as a filthy, vile, accursed place where useless and evil things were destroyed, and Jesus used it as a vivid illustration of hell.  And He says if you’re even angry and if you ever say a malicious word to sort of put down some person, or worse than that if you ever cursed them as it were to hell, you are as guilty and as liable for eternal hell as a murderer is.  And so Jesus attacks the sin of anger, the sin of slander, and the sin of cursing, and with it He destroys their self-righteousness. 

I know people who have held grudges against a family member — sometimes members — for decades. The grudges extend through their offspring and grandchildren. The latter say, ‘I don’t even know what it’s about, only that we’re not supposed to talk to them.’

In other cases, the person who refuses to put the grudge aside makes sure that every other family member knows what the grudge is about, sometimes exaggerating and embellishing the circumstances. The notional villain of the piece tries to make up with the family member guilty of character assassination. The angry family member refuses to put bitterness aside. Even worse, this person deprives the family of unity and the isolated person of familial love and affection, which sometimes leads to intense loneliness.

Worse, is that the person leading the hate campaign perceives himself or herself as being saintly and righteous. It happens all the time. To them, this post is dedicated. May they seek reconciliation and, if this is impossible, may they ask for divine forgiveness — then worship God in full peace.

Next time: Matthew 5:31-32

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