Matthew 5:25-26

MAKE PEACE IN TIME

Matt. 5:25-26

Get on to good terms again with your opponent, while you are still on the road with him, in case your opponent hands you over to the judge, and the judge hands you over to the court officer, and you be cast into prison. This is the truth I tell you–if that happens, you certainly will not come out until you have paid the last farthing.

Here Jesus is giving the most practical advice; he is telling men to get trouble sorted out in time, before it piles up still worse trouble for the future.

Jesus draws a picture of two opponents on their way together to the law courts; and he tells them to get things settled and straightened out before they reach the court, for, if they do not, and the law takes its course, there will be still worse trouble for one of them at least in the days to come.

The picture of two opponents on the way to court together seems to us very strange, and indeed rather improbable. But in the ancient world it often happened.

Under Greek law there was a process of arrest called apagoge (GSN0520), which means summary arrest. In it the plaintiff himself arrested the defendant. He caught him by his robe at the throat, and held the robe in such a way that, if the man struggled, he would strangle himself. Obviously the causes for which such an arrest was legal were very few and the male-factor had to be caught redhanded.

The crimes for which a man might be summarily arrested by anyone in this way were thieving, clothes-stealing (clothes-stealers were the curse of the public baths in ancient Greece), picking pockets, house-breaking and kidnapping (the kidnapping of specially gifted and accomplished slaves was very common). Further, a man might be summarily arrested if he was discovered to be exercising the rights of a citizen when he had been disfranchised, or if he returned to his state or city after being exiled. In, view of this custom it was by no means uncommon to see a plaintiff and a defendant on their way to court together in a Greek city.

Clearly it is much more likely that Jesus would be thinking in terms of Jewish law; and this situation was by no means impossible under Jewish law. This is obviously a case of debt, for, if peace is not made, the last farthing will have to be paid. Such cases were settled by the local council of elders. A time was appointed when plaintiff and defendant had to appear together; in any small town or village there was every likelihood of them finding themselves on the way to the court together. When a man was adjudged guilty, he was handed over to the court officer. Matthew calls the officer the huperetes (GSN5257); Luke calls him, in his version of the saying, by the more common term, praktor (GSN4233) (Lk.12:58-59). It was the duty of the court officer to see that the penalty was duly paid, and, if it was not paid, he had the power to imprison the defaulter, until it was paid. It is no doubt of that situation that Jesus was thinking. Jesus’ advice may mean one of two things.

(i) It may be a piece of most practical advice. Again and again it is the experience of life that, if a quarrel, or a difference, or a dispute is not healed immediately, it can go on breeding worse and worse trouble as time goes on. Bitterness breeds bitterness. It has often happened that a quarrel between two people has descended to their families, and has been inherited by future generations, and has in the end succeeded in splitting a church or a society in two.

If at the very beginning one of the parties had had the grace to apologize or to admit fault, a grievous situation need never have arisen. If ever we are at variance with someone else, we must get the situation put right straight away. It may mean that we must be humble enough to confess that we were wrong and to make apology; it may mean that, even if we were in the right, we have to take the first step towards healing the breach. When personal relations go wrong, in nine cases out of ten immediate action will mend them; but if that immediate action is not taken, they will continue to deteriorate, and the bitterness will spread in an ever-widening circle.

(ii) It may be that in Jesus’ mind there was something more ultimate than this. It may be that he is saying, “Put things right with your fellow-men, while life lasts, for some day–you know not when–life will finish, and you will go to stand before God, the final Judge of all.” The.greatest of all Jewish days was the Day of Atonement. Its sacrifices were held to atone for sin known and unknown; but even this day had its limitations. The Talmud clearly lays it down: “The Day of Atonement does atone for the offences between man and God. The Day of Atonement does not atone for the offences between a man and his neighbour, unless the man has first put things right with his neighbour.” Here again we have the basic fact–a man cannot be right with God unless he is right with his fellow-men. A man must so live that the end will find him at peace with all men.

It may well be that we do not need to choose between these two interpretations of this saying of Jesus. It may well be that both were in his mind, and that what Jesus is saying is: “If you want happiness in time, and happiness in eternity, never leave an unreconciled quarrel or an unhealed breach between yourself and your brother man. Act immediately to remove the barriers which anger has raised.”

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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