“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” (Matthew 5:25-26).
Clearly these words relate to those that precede them, the teaching about leaving a gift at the altar and going to reconcile with a brother. Jesus seems to be illustrating the dangers of allowing a wrong to fester uncorrected for too long. In this world, punishment—such as the debtor’s prison Jesus describes—follows our sins and mistakes when we fail to get along with one another and when we do not correct the wrongs we have committed.
Punishments in this world remind us of the final Judgment of the Day of the Lord, as well as the punishment of sinners that will result from that Judgment. Perhaps this lesson of Jesus is a parable about Judgment Day. Jesus already explained that the commandment not to murder covers more territory than the simple act of taking a life. With that in mind, Jesus says, we had better consider how the lives we live measure up to the standards that he will use at the final Judgment. We must change our lives today, making sure that we are not found guilty on that Day, because hell is a prison from which there is no escape.
Most religions dedicate themselves to this proposition: we must become better people, causing less harm to one another and to our world, accumulating less guilt for that final Judgment. Goodness, though, is not only motivated by escaping punishment. Goodness is sought for its own sake, to please God, and to be the people he intended when he created us. We want to be better now. We want to turn our lives around so we walk on the paths that God has provided us.
Who will be our adversary on that Day? The people hurt by our sins and wrongdoing might testify against us, but the real Adversary is the one whose rules we have broken. We take sides against God whenever we do what he told us not to do, and we also take sides against God when we fail to do the things he commands. Our Maker, who knows what we are meant to be, has given us clear instructions about how to live. This Maker will also be our Judge. If Jesus is the Adversary and the Judge and the Officer of the prison as well, we have no hope of escaping punishment on that Day.
Therefore, we seek to be right with Jesus today. We try not to be angry at our brother. We try not to insult the people around us. We try to meet the higher standards of Jesus, but we fail. The good deeds we manage to perform cannot balance our shortcomings. Our best intentions, our worship and prayers, and our efforts at holiness all might seem to help us come to terms with Jesus quickly, before that Last Day comes when it is to late to come to terms. Left to ourselves, though, we cannot be right with Jesus. Left to ourselves, we still find ourselves facing an eternal prison sentence.
Is there no answer to this problem? The answer has already been given; the answer was found in the blessings which Jesus spoke at the beginning of the sermon. Jesus has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. Jesus has given us a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—Jesus has given us his own perfect righteousness. He gave it as a free gift. Now we are right with him. He is no longer our Adversary, because he has paid our debt in full. Not a penny remains to be paid.
If we are right with Jesus now, we will be right with him on the Last Day. He will not be our Adversary; he will be our Defense Attorney, reminding his Father why have a place in his kingdom, as Jesus also is doing today. On that Day, we will not be thrown into prison. On that Day we will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven; we will inherit the earth.
If that is the case, why does Jesus spend so much time teaching the commandments of God and explaining what they mean? Jesus explains the Law to show us how badly we need his gift. He explains the commandments to open our eyes, so we will see that our righteousness is not good enough for his kingdom. Jesus does not want us to try our best and fall short. Therefore, he is brutally honest with us today, telling us how far we are from his kingdom when we try to get there on our own. Some people, when they read the teachings of Jesus, try to tone them down, making them practical and achievable. They miss the point. Jesus was not exaggerating; he really wants everyone to be as good as he describes. He also wants us to despair of reaching that goal on our own. Only then will we treasure the gift of forgiveness he gives to us.
Forgiveness is no license to sin. We still try our best to live up to Christ’s high standards. We try to be good, and Jesus tells us what “good” looks like. He even shows us what “good” looks like, because the standards he teaches match the life he lived. Because we are forgiven, because we are on the path to heaven, Jesus helps us become more like him. His love and his forgiveness transform our lives so we can bear his image. We are not doing it for him; Jesus is doing it for us. J.