Settling Out of Court

Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art with him in the way; lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou have paid the last farthing (Matthew 5:25-26).

Today we would call this type of scene “settling out of court.”

In the middle of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus provides a bit of wisdom in Matthew 5:25-26. He seems to presuppose a situation in which a person owes money to another and has not fully repaid. Jesus encourages such a one to come to an agreement with their adversary, their legal opponent, the one to whom something is likely owed, lest that adversary deliver the person up to the judge, and then to the relevant officer who will imprison the person until they have paid the last kordantes, the smallest unit of Roman money.

Jesus provides wise counsel here for those who find themselves in such a situation. At first glance its placement seems strange; Jesus has begun a series of declarations contrasting “what was said” with what He “sa[id] unto you,” a declaration of the way of the Kingdom which goes far beyond the narrow standard of righteousness expected in the Pharisaic tradition (Matthew 5:20-48); Jesus has just uttered the first such statement regarding murder and hatred (Matthew 5:21-22), and followed up with a man needing to reconcile with his brother before he could properly make an offering before God (Matthew 5:23-24). Jesus will go on to speak about adultery and lust (Matthew 5:27-28). Why, then, does He provide this particular piece of counsel? Is His concern really about settling out of court rather than before the judge?

To understand Jesus’ saying we must consider the force of His teachings so far in Matthew 5:21-24. All would agree that murder was wrong (cf. Exodus 20:13), but Jesus went on to declare that the entire process that would lead to such first-degree murder–hatred, insult, degradation–was just as wrong (Matthew 5:22). In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus shows how religious behavior cannot be divorced from everyday living and still remain effective; one cannot be reconciled with God while he intentionally remains unreconciled with his brother. Therefore, in His initial contrast Jesus declares the Kingdom way of avoiding hostilities: we are not to hate, degrade, or insult one another, and we must maintain reconciled relationships with our brothers if we want to maintain a reconciled relationship toward God. Whatever Jesus is attempting to say in Matthew 5:25-26 must flow from these principles.

We can immediately discover some parallels and some contrasts. We can see that Jesus continues the theme of coming to agreement, but the “other person” in this situation is far different from those who have come before. Previously Jesus spoke of not insulting one’s “brother” or needing to reconcile with one’s “brother”; this time Jesus is speaking about coming to terms with one’s “adversary.” Jesus finds some virtue in coming to terms with this adversary without going through the whole legal process which will not end up well for the person under discussion. But what does this type of agreement have to do with what Jesus has said before? What is He critiquing, and why?

Jesus’ concern has been about healthy relationships. Murder, of course, is the complete breakdown of a relationship. Hatred, insult, and degradation are corrosive and toxic for relationships. Relationships suffer when someone has something against the other. Likewise, two people going to court indicates a breakdown in communication and agreement in a relationship, especially when the court case involves owed money. At some point the relationship between the parties was sufficiently cordial so that one person felt confident enough to lend money to the other; if such a one must take the other to court in order to get satisfaction, that relationship has clearly broken down. By the time the matter is brought before the judge, the situation is now all about justice and there can be no expectation of grace or mercy. The time for grace and mercy had past; the opportunity to receive that was “on the way” to the courthouse, either literally or figuratively. By the time the case reaches the judge the person will be held accountable for the debt and has no reasonable expectation of having a restored relationship with the one to whom he was indebted.

When seen in this way, Jesus’ counsel here makes much more sense in context. The counsel remains useful for those indebted but is by no means limited to those in debt; it is an appeal for all to agree with those who either are or who might quickly be our adversary on the way, to find agreement so as to find more grace and mercy then as opposed to experiencing nothing but justice at the end. When an agreement is made, a relationship can be restored; when no agreement was made, and justice was demanded, the relationship is in tatters. Jesus wants us to take healthy relationships very seriously: it is not enough to just not murder people but remain insulting, derogatory, full of hate, flippant about unresolved offenses in relationships, and unwilling to find agreement. Instead, we are to seek reconciliation with our fellow man and find agreement so that grace and mercy can triumph over judgment.

Yet, in light of what Jesus will have to say in Matthew 18:21-35, 25:1-46, we would be remiss to miss the connection between relationships between people and the relationship between God and man. God expects people to come to agreement with those to whom they are indebted lest the time of grace and mercy is exhausted and they experience justice before the judge (Matthew 5:25-26); in the same way God appeals to all people to come and make agreement with Him while He extends grace and mercy to receive forgiveness of sin through His Son Jesus Christ before it is too late, for the day is coming when the time of grace and mercy has passed and all that remains is to experience justice before God as our Judge (Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). We do well to “settle out of court” with our fellow man so as to preserve some sort of relationship, yet we all must make sure we “settle out of court” with God by trusting in His Son, the Lord Jesus, so as to receive grace and mercy through Him, the forgiveness of sins in His blood, so that we do not have to experience justice on the day of judgment! Let us all put our trust in the Lord Jesus and maintain reconciled relationships both with God and with our fellow man!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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