Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:25 “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way
with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and
the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.”
The scene depicted here by Jesus is urgent. We left our offering at church, went immediately to be reconciled with our brother (5:24), but did not reach our adversary soon enough. We arrived too late. He already had a warrant for our arrest. He was on his way with an official summons to apprehend us and take us to court. This presents us with a serious dilemma, for once a case is brought to court, the judicial system grinds on mechanically through the stages of trial, sentencing, and being turned over to authorities for confinement. Thus Jesus advised us to agree with our adversary out of court, rather than be confronted by him in court.
One might think Jesus was here giving merely practical, common sense advice on how to handle a lawsuit brought against us in an earthly court of law. Lawsuits, carried to their conclusion, do consume time, money, rest, and friends. Thus Jesus’ words do reflect a wisdom commonly agreed upon, but once again, we are not to take Jesus’ words here literally. He is speaking metaphorically, using earthly courts to picture Heaven’s court. Jesus is talking about God’s tribunal, the same legal system referred to in judgment by trial, Supreme Court, and gehenna fire (5:22).
When our relationship with someone is strained, be wise. Make it up as soon as possible. Settle, as it were, out of court, before the machinery of God’s legal system is set in motion. In angry situations it is always better to deal with people than with God. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (HB 10:31).
Our bitterness, anger, ill will, and unforgiveness, having been subpoenaed by heaven, are marching ahead of us to a higher court. We do not want these unpleasantries to reach their destination and testify against us at God’s great judgment seat. Christ was warning us, trying to tell us He could see that tribunal and He was seeing things we do not ever want to see.
When undergoing interpersonal problems, always be thinking of our relationship with God. This is what matters. Do not think solely of our offended brother, of whom it is easy for us to think something is wrong. Do not think solely of self, whom we find easy to justify. Think of God, whose judgment bar we do not want to stand before, having as our only excuse, “You know, Lord, I meant to do that.”
Settle accounts “quickly.” Today, this moment right now, may be our last chance to be reconciled to an offended brother. Tomorrow the door may be closed forever. The offended person may die, we may die, or what is even more probable, both may live, allowing the passage of time to increase and intensify the enmity.
If a quarrel is not healed “quickly,” it may go on stewing for years. Some feuds have been passed on for thousands of years from one generation to another (eg. Arabs and Jews). In many fights, if at the beginning peace had been sought, if someone would have humbly apologized, the future would have been different.
When personal relations rupture, immediate action will mend it nine times out of ten. To make matters right, the feuding parties must be brought together. Since we are together when the trouble starts, it would be wise to stay together till the problem is fixed. Sometimes a short cooling off time may be helpful, but in most cases, it is better not to leave the presence of another when angry.
Settle quickly, “whiles thou art in the way with him.” I commend to you the example of Abigail (1 SM 25). David was on his way to execute judgment against the household of Nabal, Abigail’s husband. Realizing the danger, Abigail ran quickly to intercept David in the way, negotiated with him, and thereby averted a disaster. Jesus tells us similar quick action on our part will also spare us disaster.
Matt. 5:26 “Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence,
till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.”
A “farthing” was the smallest Roman copper coin, worth about one-fourth of a cent. Instead of “uttermost farthing,” we would say, “the last penny.” Breaking the law is costly. We do not want this storm to burst on our heads. We never want to pay the full consequences of our deeds. We always want God’s mercy mixed in.
God is kind. He knows we are human, creatures of emotion who sometimes get carried away. Jesus, a realist, did not assume or hint we would never have controversy. He knew we would become upset and have flare-ups. Thus He taught us what to do when outbursts happen. There has to be quick amends. God will give us some time to make up, even till sunset if needed (EP 4:26). God, for a while, mixes mercy in with justice, but eventually the element of mercy evaporates, leaving only justice behind. Deal with squabbles while the case is still in our hands, while mercy yet remains in God’s hands. Do not by default let the case slip out of our jurisdiction into the legal system of God. Otherwise we will pay to the last penny. “With quarrelsome persons, their obstinacy often costs them dear” (Calvin).
Before leaving this section on anger, let me speak a word to those who are in the excruciatingly painful dilemma of having to deal with “impossible” situations. I encourage you to read Joyce Landorf’s book, Irregular People, which states some people are impossible to get along with, and offers tips on how to handle such folk.
When all else seems to have failed, the Bible does give a clue as to what may work as our worst case scenario, our last ditch effort–distance. Sometimes our only hope is peacefully and discreetly separating ourselves from an antagonist. The dissension of Sarah and Isaac versus Hagar and Ishmael festered for years. Finally, God told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, to put distance between the adversaries (GN 21:10-12). Esau and Jacob had to go their separate ways (GN 33:16-17), as did Saul and David (1 SM 24:22), and Paul and Barnabas (AC 15:39-40). Christians, to avoid wholesale rancor, have separated into denominations.
If we do have to distance ourselves from our antagonists, we must separate peacefully. There have to be no jagged edges. We must continue to be civil, maintaining decency and decorum. If kin to the antagonist, we should still fulfill our basic family duties, such as attending holiday reunions, birthday parties, graduations, weddings, funerals, etc. As my dad often says about difficult situations such as this, “Son, always do right.” Isaac and Ishmael came back together to bury their father Abraham (GN 25:8-9). Esau and Jacob reunited to bury their father Isaac (GN 35:29). When Saul died, David, though estranged, mourned and showed respect for his king (2 SM 1:11-12). Paul, though separated from Barnabas, continued to commend his brother in Christ (1 C 9:6). Our division into denominations is a boon when we cooperate and work together as much as we can. Our problem in the Church has not been denominationalism per se, but rather the terrible way we have sometimes treated one another.
In Jesus’ stead, I ask probing questions. Have we done all we can to be right with everyone? Do we need to try again, maybe just one more time? Is the sunset daily calling us to cleansing, to releasing anger? Is our heart free from rancor?