Sunday, June 10, 2012

Matthew 5:21-26 Ax Heads and Altars: Fulfilling the Law "Do Not Murder"

One of the primary passages to which people turn when they want to suggest that Jesus did away with Torah observance is the Sermon on the Mount. In it we find Jesus uttering the famous mantra, "You've heard that it was said... BUT I tell you..." Before we jump to the conclusion that Jesus was contradicting Torah, and before we jump to some convoluted idea in Paul's writings that the law was inadequate, let's reacquaint ourselves with how the Law actually defined murder and what it legislated concerning murders. Sound fair?

Deuteronomy 19:4-6  "...if he has accidentally killed another without hating him at the time of the accident. Suppose he goes with another to the forest to cut wood and when he raises the ax to cut the tree, the ax head flies loose from the handle and strikes his fellow worker so hard that he dies. The person responsible may then flee to one of these cities to save himself.  Otherwise the blood avenger will chase after the killer in the heat of his anger, eventually overtake him, and kill him, though this is not a capital case since he did not hate him at the time of the accident." (NET)

(American English = ax, British and International English = axe) Compare these verses to the opposite case a few verses later:

Deuteronomy 19:11-13  "However, suppose a person hates another and stalks him, attacks him, kills him, and then flees to one of these cities. The elders of his own city must send for him and remove him from there to deliver him over to the blood avenger to die. You must not pity him, but purge out the blood of the innocent from Israel, so that it may go well with you." (NET)

In theses passages, there is a clear line defining when a violent act can be considered culpable murder. Not only must there be motive to kill, the motive is explicitly named, hate. According to the law, hate is the ingredient that made death murder. Knowing this background, Jesus' statement that anger is murder cannot be seen as either contradictory or supplementary to the Law. Jesus is accurately interpreting and applying the intent of the law of murder and bringing with it the full weight of its force and implementation. The question is not where Jesus came up with the wisdom or beauty of his words. That is obvious. The question is why we ever thought that Jesus' statements were new? This betrays how little we aquatint ourselves with God's word.

Consider one more passage from the Law:

Exodus 21:12-14 "Whoever strikes someone so that he dies must surely be put to death. But if he does not do it with premeditation, but it comes about by accident, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks his neighbor to kill him with guile, you will take him from my altar to die." (NET)

The fact that Jesus mentions offering one's gift to God at "my altar", as opposed to the "temple" or "Jerusalem", or "with a priest" suggests that that this very passage is what Jesus had in mind. If anger is murder (not is like murder) and carries the same repercussions, would not offering a gift at the altar provide no safety to one who has hurled with malice words that pierce? Hence Jesus councils to the individual to make peace with their adversary, else the consequences will be swiftly exacted with no mitigation.

And this is why this passage is a perfect illustration of beatitude praising "peace-makers" as children of God. It is too easy for an English reader to picture the "peace-makers" Jesus is highlighting as political diplomats far removed from day to day life in an angry world. Or it is too easy to picture a "peace-maker" as a third party in a dispute that brings a level hand and a calm disposition to feuding parties. Peace-makers are dirtier than this. They are those who run after those whom they have hurt, after those at whom they have hurled hate, like ax heads that fly off their handles. Peacemaking is not fun. It is humbling. For in it we regret every angry word we have spoken.

So what is Jesus contradicting? Understanding how similar Jesus' teaching about murder and anger and hate is to the Torah should causes us to re-examine the "BUT I tell you...." In verse 20, Jesus seems to quote a modern rabbinic law about to whom murderers are duly subject, namely the court. There is some debate about whether this is an earthly court or a heavenly court. Nevertheless, apparently Jesus not only agreed with this sentiment, but criticized how narrowly it was construed. Jesus essentially said that a certain kind of verbal abuse was ALSO answerable to the Sanhedrin (the high Jewish court of the day) and even to Gehenna itself. Far from overturning anything, Jesus actually uses the Old Testament to suggest that Jewish law be stricter! How's that for "fulfilling" the Law?

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