Sunday, December 31, 2017

On the Mount (11)

After questioning the Lord Jesus, the high priest stood up before the Jewish council and asked, “What is your decision?” Mark’s gospel tells us, “they all condemned him to be guilty [enochos] of death.”

That same Greek word, usually translated “guilty” or “liable”, appears four times in the Sermon on the Mount. It is legal terminology. The Sanhedrin had no problem delivering its verdict, but it lacked sufficient clout to carry out its sentence without Rome’s ratification.

In the kingdom of heaven, however, there are no such inconvenient limitations.

An All-Encompassing Legal Standard

I have mentioned in previous posts that the standards set by the Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are unattainable in a fallen world. This would be one of the more obvious examples:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother* will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council**; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Here in a single paragraph are all four ‘liables’. Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty. In a Western trial, the judge’s gavel would be landing on the sound block repeatedly.

The Lord addresses not just actions (“You shall not murder”) but words (“whoever insults his brother”, “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ ”) and even hidden thoughts (“everyone who is angry with his brother”). It’s a perfect metric that deals with every possible sinful response to provocation — including responses that might be undetectable to those around us. Even the regenerate man balks at the thought of having such a sweeping legal standard applied to him.

Three Levels of Accountability

The Lord addresses anger and its consequences at three different levels of judgment: (i) krisis, a general word for justice carrying the implication that one’s fate is to be determined by someone else, be it man or God; (ii) synedrion, often translated “Sanhedrin”, meaning the 71 member council in Jerusalem composed of scribes, elders and the high priest; and (iii) gehenna, meaning the place of final, irrevocable, eternal judgment.

Considering this last liability (to the fires of hell) arises not for murder but for intemperate outbursts against one’s fellow man, I’d say that’s a legal net destined to catch virtually everyone at one point or another. It is highly probable the Lord’s entire audience stood condemned. Having crossed that line even in their thought lives, they now had no input into their own ultimate fate and were as dependent on the ruling of heaven as any prisoner in the docks.

All Have Sinned

Now, notice that the Lord is not declaring here that hell, or even punishment through the legal system, is to be the inevitable outcome for everyone in his audience. The court has made its finding; it still has to establish the sentence. Jesus is simply declaring them guilty. Even if nobody present had ever committed murder, their thoughts, words and deeds put them in danger of the same sentence as a murderer should they opt to rely on their own ability to keep the Law as a means of being declared righteous before God.

Even perfect law cannot perfect sinful men and women. All it can do is draw attention to God’s righteousness and the magnitude of our failure to attain to it.

Having condemned all before both God and man, Jesus now gives his audience a pair of practical correctives, assuming they have now grasped their own true culpability. (The self-righteous listener would of course reject the Lord’s interpretation and carry right on doing what he had always done.)

Conflict and Worship

The first corrective is toward God:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Worship in the absence of justice is vain. It is an absolutely pointless exercise. God is not impressed by mere ritual and loathes religious hypocrisy.

This is not a new concept, and one can picture devout Jews nodding in agreement as they reflected on things the prophets had said. Amos put it this way:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
God has not changed. In our day it is equally important that acts of worship not be contaminated by a spirit of disregard for our fellow believers:
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
Conflict and Legal Obligations

The second corrective concerns obligations to fellow Jews:
“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. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
It’s unclear what sort of legal claim is in view here. It might be a matter of an unsettled debt or possibly a loss incurred by a neighbor because of negligence on the part of the accused for which compensation had yet to be made. Jewish custom or the Law of Moses would apply, depending on the situation.

Here the issue has less to do with the judgment of God and more to do with the danger of the judgment of the courts. That risk is not significant for many of us today, but we can certainly apply the lesson by making every effort to avoid the sort of conflict that can arise from failure to make good on our obligations. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” and “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Both correctives are founded on the assumption that all have sinned and fallen short.

Christian or Jew, consciousness of our own culpability in God’s eyes remains a great curative for religious hypocrisy.

* The Textus Receptus manuscript tradition has the words “without cause” here. But even without the insertion, it is evident from comparing scripture with scripture that anger on its own is not necessarily sinful. The king who became angry in the Lord’s parable of the wedding feast is a picture of God, and the Lord Jesus himself became angry at the hard-hearted. Still, there is always the danger anger may become sinful, particularly when it is nursed rather than dealt with in the appropriate timeframe. The person of whom the Lord speaks in the Sermon has evidently crossed that line.

**  When the Lord declares that whoever insults his brother will be liable to the Sanhedrin, it appears to me he is not speaking of the then-current application of the Law of Moses under the Jewish legal system (the words “will be” are our first clue), but rather of the legal standard in his coming millennial kingdom, which is to be centered in Israel and will be profoundly Jewish in its character. With many of that kingdom’s citizens indwelt by the Holy Spirit and the government of Christ dictating the moral atmosphere, it seems likely the incidence of brother-insulting will be reduced to such a degree that even a well-run human court system might be able to cope with the volume of traffic.

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