This paragraph opens the section that runs from verse 21 through verse 48, which requires some introductory comment. Once Jesus has made it clear that he is not opposing the law itself but interpreting it, he shows how the customary practice of the law in his day is inadequate.
In 5:21-48 Jesus explains six legal texts from the Old Testament, interpreting as a good Jewish scholar of his day would (see Flusser 1988:494; Keener 1991a:113-20). Jesus makes the law more stringent in this passage (building a sort of "fence" around the law, which his contemporaries felt was respectful toward the law).
Other Jewish teachers also offered phrases like You have heard . . . but I tell you when expounding Scripture. Paul, in fact, uses roughly the same formula when applying one of Jesus' sayings in this context to a new situation (1 Cor 7:10-12). When Jewish teachers offered statements like this, they saw themselves not as contradicting the law but as explaining it, so we might read the passage thus: "You understand the Bible to mean only this, but I offer a fuller interpretation" (see Schechter 1900:427; Daube 1973:55-58). At the same time, Jesus does not speak with merely scribal authority (7:28-29); there is no academic debate or citation of other teachers, but solemn pronouncements. Jesus upholds the law (5:17-19) but is the decisive arbiter of its meaning, not one scholar among many (Daube 1973:58-60). Matthew 5:21-48 provides concrete examples of the "greater righteousness" of verse 20. Jesus addresses not just how we act but who we are.
The heavenly court will judge all offenses of intention. Earthly courts could not usually judge such offenses as displays of anger (for exceptions see 1QS 7.5; Gaius Inst. 3.220). But God's heavenly court would judge all such offenses (Mt 5:25-26; see more fully Keener 1991a:14-16). Jesus begins by citing the crime of murder in Exodus 20:13, for which biblical law required a Jewish court to execute the sentence of death (Gen 9:5-6; Deut 21:1-9). But Jesus presses beyond behavior specifically punished by law to the kind of heart that generates such behavior. Anger that would generate murder if unimpeded is the spiritual equivalent of murder (1 Jn 3:15). God has never merely wanted people to obey rules; he wants them to be holy as he is, to value what he values.
Anger, calling someone a fool and calling the person Raca (an "emptyhead"; Mt 5:22) are roughly equivalent offenses. Likewise Jesus probably reads the judgment of verse 21 as the day of God's judgment, the Sanhedrin (v. 22) as God's heavenly court (compare vv. 25-26; also portrayed as the Sanhedrin in Jewish texts-Keener 1987), and both as equivalent to the sentence to be decreed there: damnation to eternal hell. Because every word is uttered before the heavenly court, slander of another merits for the accuser the eternal punishment that would have been due the accused (cf. 12:35-37; Deut 19:16-19; Susanna 62).
Jesus' prohibition of acting in anger is a general principle. As in each of his six examples, Jesus graphically portrays a general principle, although some of these principles (like anger and divorce) must be qualified in specific circumstances. Most people understood that such general principles expressed in proverbs and similar sayings sometimes needed to be qualified in specific situations (see Du Plessis 1967:17; Keener 1991a:22-28); Jesus elsewhere qualifies principles of the law more than most of his contemporaries did (as in Mt 12:3-8).
Although condemning anger and insults, Jesus himself expressed grieved indignation and called people "fools" under appropriate circumstances (23:17; see also 23:13-33). Yet our own indignation is too easily excused as "righteous" (see Jas 1:20), and even just anger must be expressed productively, never in a manner harmful to another person (Eph 4:26, 29-32; Col 3:8). Thus when debating with those like the religious leaders in Jesus' day, we must speak responsibly for their correction and accept the personal consequences. When dealing with those closest to us, such as a spouse, we must humble ourselves and seek the other person's best interests in love (as in, for example, Eph 5:21-25; Keener 1992b:133-83).
Our relationship with God is partly contingent on how we treat others. God will not accept our gift at the altar until we reconcile with our neighbor (see similarly m. Yoma 8:9). Again Jesus depicts the situation graphically, since his Galilean hearers might have to travel a considerable distance to leave the Jerusalem temple and then return (vv. 23-24). Jesus' following crisis parable shows how urgent the situation is (vv. 25-26). Imprisonment was generally a temporary holding place until punishment; here, however, a longer penalty is envisaged. The last penny (Greek kodrant h s, Roman quadrans) refers to the second-smallest Roman coin, only a few minutes' wages for even a day laborer.
Through a variety of terrible images, Jesus indicates that when we damage our relationships with others, we damage our relationship with God, leading to eternal punishment (compare 18:21-35). A man who beats his wife, a woman who continually ridicules her husband, and a thousand other concrete examples could illustrate the principle. We must profess our faith with our lives as well as with our lips.
God sees what we are each made of. We judge by what we can see of a person's actions; God evaluates the heart's motivation. Some can act more moral by society's standards because it is to their advantage to do so, but this behavior does not necessarily imply that their hearts are purer than those with less social incentive to behave morally. Although their options differ, most drug dealers operate on the same moral principle as the media networks, the junk food industry or, for that matter, some Christian publishers: "We just give people what they want; it's not our fault if what they want isn't what's good for them." This excuse does not absolve them of guilt, but the person with a straight track through college and into the work force has more incentive to choose a different path. Indeed, the intellectual elite in Western universities laid the groundwork for the sexual promiscuity that has destroyed family structures in many ghettos and made drugs popular. God evaluates us not only by our deeds but also by our character-what we are made of when no one else sees us.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.