“Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
Who needs to avoid the danger?
The nature of being human is that we do not always know how things are going to turn out. We may think it is manly to plunge forward, heedless of danger. Any of us knows how to play the big man until we run into something bigger still. (Women can do this as well.)
Jesus commands his disciples to settle one issue swiftly, while the matter is still in their hands: what claim might others have on you before God? But will his disciples listen?
Jesus imagines a dispute in which two Jews are on their way to a court to have their dispute adjudicated. But what court? In this context, there can only be one answer: God’s court of divine judgment. In effect, Jesus says do not show up before God’s judgment with matters still in doubt. You cannot afford to lose there!
R.T. France points out one clue when he says, “The inclusion of ‘I tell you truly’ . . . alerts us to a more important purpose than merely avoiding imprisonment: like the other parable of debt and imprisonment (18:23–35), it is a pointer to the divine judgment on those whose earthly relationships do not conform to the values of the kingdom of heaven.”
Who would be likely to find themselves in such danger? The wealthy and the powerful had little to fear in any earthly court, but, in the court of heaven, even the smallest might bring them down. How else may we understand Jesus’ words to the Pharisee: “Give from your heart to those in need, and then everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41). The Parable of the Rich man with poor Lazarus lying at his gate, unaided, will surely account for the rich man ending up in hell (Luke 16:19–31) and Lazarus in paradise.
Under the law, the rich were responsible before God to care for the poor, the fatherless, the widow and the alien. How can they expect anything but ruin when the matter comes before God?
If this is the case, then how could the wealthy and powerful settle with others who had a claim on them? First of all, they could repent of their disobedience to the law and begin to practice the love, justice, mercy and humility that God demands of us all (Micah 6:8). Only by showing mercy can they have hope of finding mercy before a holy God.
The closing warning (5:26) is dire. It begins with the solemn words “I tell you the truth.” It continues with the most powerful negation in Greek: “you will absolutely not get out of there until you have paid the last penny” (my translation of Matt. 5:26b). The amount of money mentioned was 1/64 of a denarius, which was one day’s wage for a laborer. In our country, minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and 1/64th would be a little over 11 cents.
Thinking theologically, we must ask how a disciple could discharge such a debt, one gained over a lifetime of neglect. The only chance was to repent and seek God’s mercy. Such were the powerful demands that Jesus brought upon his disciples.
Act while time remains!
In all of his teaching about resolving differences within relationships (5:21–26), Jesus has stressed the need for unity and the peaceful resolution of differences. Indeed, broader social obligations must be met before they arrive for adjudication before God’s throne.
Cain rhetorically asked God, “Am I my brother’s guardian?” (Gen. 4:9). God’s unspoken answer was “Yes!” Many of us do not talk like Cain, but on this question we may manifest his values.
How do some find it possible to live with such self-focus when the one we call Lord set aside the splendor of heaven to die in our place, paying a price we could never pay? How should we live to show him that we understand what he wants?
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 203-204.