When I was a young college student studying journalism, we were required to take an upper-level course on Journalistic Ethics. That may give you an indication as to my age, for surely it appears that recent graduates of communications degree programs are no longer required to study it. The cynic in me wonders if more emphasis is being placed on strategies of click-baiting, how to write a misleading lede, and how to pass off fake news entertainment as factual investigative reporting. Is it just me?
Today we are going to look at Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” in the fifth chapter of Matthew to explore Jesus’ ethics. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what my professors, news people, politicians, or even world leaders think about ethics. It only matters what Jesus thought. Watch for phrases like “but I say to you” and “therefore.” These are indications that Jesus is about to amplify the current understanding and application of what is ethical.
He begins with the standard Ten Commandment statement on the subject of murder:
Matthew 5 (Common English Bible)
21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.
This understanding is completely in line with the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” But watch where Jesus takes it next:
22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.
Jesus is warning about the deadly effects of anger, name-calling, and put-downs. By associating these things with murder, he is raising the bar on our understanding of killing. Can you kill someone’s self-esteem with a derogatory remark? You bet. Can you choke the life out of someone’s joy by spewing out your anger at them? You know you can, and you probably have.
Next, Jesus pivots to forgiveness and reconciliation. Here he raises the bar even higher by stating that you should not come to the altar until you make things right with everyone who has something against you. The fact that the pews are filled every Sunday may be an indication that we don’t take this literally, for surely our churches would be empty if this was a requirement of admission:
23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.
Then Jesus gives guidance about how to settle disputes quickly in fair and civil terms, rather than drag grievances through the court.
25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.
Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:26 to not let the sun go down on our wrath. Jesus urges us to quickly settle our disputes so that they don’t fester and grow, and so that we can move past them and get on with things. In a beautiful figure of speech, he likens a drawn-out dispute to being in prison, where you realize that you’ve become jailed because you didn’t resolve an issue before it was too late. This is also an illusion to the kind of eternity that we subject ourselves to when we refuse to deal swiftly with an adversary.
We will deal with the rest of this portion of the Sermon on the Mount in our next devotional, but for now, consider this: are you guilty of “murder” in Jesus’ definition? Are you killing someone’s joy or hope? Are you harboring a grudge as you worship and pray? Have you let a falling out go on for too long?
According Jesus’ ethics, these things have changed.
So must you.