Murder is a hit man, a killer for hire! Cold, calculating, ready and willing to terminate someone’s life for the right price. Such a blatant disregard for life is disgusting, isn’t it? No one who hires themselves out to take someone else’s life can be innocent in any sense of the word. You shall not kill. How much plainer can that be? They are guilty of judgment! So preach on about the horrendous nature of such crimes and such criminals while we shake our heads in disgusted disbelief. How could anyone ever think of doing such a thing? They deserve everything the law throws at them. Murder is wrong.
But hit men don’t exist in a vacuum. Someone has to hire them. Anyone who hired a hit man would be just as guilty as the person who actually pulled the trigger, wouldn’t they?
If murder is a hit man, then anger is the one who hires him. Anger puts the contract out. Murder may do the actual deed but it is anger that is behind the scenes pulling the strings.
This is what Jesus wants His audience to understand as He points them to the true meaning of Torah in Matthew 5:21-26. How easy it is to read the law superficially so that you believe (along with the rich young ruler), that you have kept it perfectly because you have not murdered anyone. But the intent of the law is not fulfilled simply by not murdering. After all, Torah is not primarily about preventing death—it is about promoting life!
Murder is wrong but so is unchecked anger that is harbored in the heart and allowed to brew into bitterness and malice. Murder is the fruit but anger is the root! To call murder wrong but gloss over its cause is to deal with the symptom but not the disease.
Unresolved anger with others is the cause of trouble! So Cain killed Abel. So we disregard life when we allow unresolved anger to spill over to malicious thoughts, hurtful speech, and harmful behavior. It is destructive to others and it is destructive to us.
But information alone (even if it is in the form of insight), is not the final answer here – it’s just a step along the way. Jesus makes it clear that recognition must lead to reconciliation. How strong and shocking it must have been to hear Him urge people to put down their gift to God and go seek their brother (v. 23-24). The seeking of another to make things right would be a sweet savor to the Father. Note also that the prompting is not about what we might anticipate—mending fences with someone who has upset us. Jesus moves past that to us being sensitive to the possibility that we have upset someone else through our behavior.
Debtor’s prison is the last picture Jesus draws upon in His teaching about anger and murder (v. 25-26). It was part of the Gentile culture of Jesus’ time. Debtor’s prison was a place where people were held when they were unable to pay their creditors. Often their families were imprisoned with them. Since the imprisoned were unable to work, they were dependent upon relatives or friends to come up with enough money to free them. Often, people would remain in debtor’s prison for years while some spent the rest of their lives there.
It’s an appropriate metaphor, because holding a grudge against someone is much like putting them in prison. We distance ourselves from that person until they have served their time (i.e., they have been sufficiently punished for whatever pain they caused us or others). Unresolved anger puts bars between us and the person we’re angry with.
Interestingly the picture doesn’t conclude here. With a tremendous touch of irony, Jesus flips the figure so that it ends up that we are the ones who are behind the bars! Unresolved anger has imprisoned us.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, the benefits from the performance went to charity. Specifically, they were used to pay the debts of 142 people who were being held in debtor’s prison. It must have been a cause near and dear to Handel’s heart as he himself had often been heavily in debt and not far from prison. If Handel’s Messiah provided freedom for 142 people, God’s Messiah offers liberation for all when we choose to walk in His way in regard to dealing with anger. Jesus calls us away from destruction and death and to constructively deal with our anger and live as community.
This is what Torah was concerned with.
This is life!