Matthew 5:23-26,  in prison for the last penny

1. Parallel passages

Luke 12:58-59

Luke 12:58-59 provides a parallel for this passage. 

58For when you are going with your adversary before the magistrate, try diligently on the way to be released from him, lest perhaps he drag you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.  59I tell you, you will by no means get out of there, until you have paid the very last penny.”

(Luke 12:58-59 WEB)

In Luke this advice is offered in the light of a forthcoming day of judgement, with its punishment of the unfaithful servants (Luke 12:42-43) and division of families (Luke 12:51-52).

The Lukan version omits the mention of making a sacrifice found in Matt 5:23-24. Hence, for Luz (2007, 233), verses 23-24 represent “an independent traditional unit,” derived separately from the common material of Matt 25-26 and Luke 12:58-59. Other commentators have followed the pattern of viewing Matt 5:23-24 and Matt 5:25-26 as separate sayings (e.g. Stott 2003, 85-86, France 1995, 121). However, the situation is not quite as clear-cut as such treatment infers. Luke 12:58a preserves the meaning of Matt 5:23-24, for, at least within the Israelite cult, those who administered a sacrifice were also those who sat in judgement. 

Outside the context of Judaism, the shorter Lukan version would have been more readily understood. It seems more likely that Luke’s version paraphrases away cultic details that would have been meaningless to his intended audience, than that Matthew’s invents them. So, assuming that the passage was originally a single unit, the Matthean version looks the more original. 

The remainder of Luke’s version (verses 58b-59) is very similar to Matthew’s but modifies the sentence order and the odd detail. Hence, Matthew’s “the prosecutor” becomes simply “he,” Matthew’s Hebraism “Amen” (= “Most certainly”) is lost from before “I tell you,” and “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are with him in the way” becomes “For when you are going with your adversary before the magistrate, try diligently on the way to be released from him.”

There is one further notable difference, apparent in the Greek but often not in English translations. In Matthew the coin is a kodrantes (about 1/64th of a days wages) but in Luke it is a lepton, there being two leptons in a kodrantes.

2. Provenance

The reference to the altar, in Matt 5:23-24, places that saying unambiguously at a time before the temple’s destruction. Moreover, Jesus’ offering on the cross replaced the need for such sacrifices from the community of his followers, thus scholars should not lightly attribute a date of origin to this saying that is after the lifespan of Jesus. 

Vermes (2004, 91), suggesting that the Jewish legal system made no provision for imprisonment of debtors, postulates that the saying’s present form is a fuller version that arose later and within the gentile church. However, whilst Vermes is right to suggest that first-century Jewish legislators did not imprisoned debtors, the bible does provide a case-law precedent for doing so under certain, very prescriptive, circumstances. It appears that, from the perspective of Jesus, though not of the Jewish authorities, precisely such circumstances existed at around the time at which the gospel sets the Sermon on the Mount. The reference to kodrantes in Matt 5:26 also supports a Jewish context for this imprisonment, as discussed below. Furthermore, on the basis of the analysis below, it would seem that debt was not the primary issue Jesus had in mind. Instead, the whole saying seems to relate to personal injury and to carry a subtext that was entirely relevant to the earliest days of re-establishing the Way, as Jesus picked up the pieces of the infant movement following the arrest of John the Baptist. It would therefore seem unnecessary to postulate an origin outside of a Jewish context for any of this passage, nor one other than the early ministry of Jesus.

3. Who is my brother?

This has been full covered in the notes for Matt 5:21-22, where the term is clearly shown to be used by Israelites when addressing any fellow Israelite, or more generically by a member of a people group when addressing others from the same people group.

4. Interrupting a sacrifice to resolve an issue

4.1 In the Hebrew bible

The setting of Jesus’ teaching, a dispute between brothers in the context of sacrifice, harks back to the account of Cain and Abel, the warning to Cain to resolve the issue, and subsequent first murder (Gen 4:4-8). The account of Cain and Abel revolves around the identification of the rightful heir to the implied priestly role associated with God’s promise to the Seed of the Woman (Gen 3:15, see also Chapter 5 of The Emmaus View). The tragedy of the story lies in Cain’s inability to accept that God has given Abel spiritual authority over him, which leads him to destroy the very person who would have been able to render his sacrifice acceptable. In the earliest period of Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist stood in the position of Abel, whilst his senior ‘brothers’ within the Jerusalem priesthood were struggling with Cain’s dilemma (see Chapter 27 of The Emmaus View). So the political force of these words, in the context that Matthew provides for them, should not be underestimated.

For God, righteousness and justice are more acceptable than sacrifice (Prov 21:3)., as Hosea declared and Jesus twice cited, “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” (Hos 6:6 WEB, cf. Matt 9:13, Matt 12:7).  The principal was succinctly summed up by Samuel when he rebuked Saul with the words “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (Sam 15:22 HNV).

Yet, even with such an emphasis on righteousness, people would fall short or sin unknowingly. To deal with that certainty the sacrificial system had the Day of Atonement ritual. The ten days that preceded the Day of Atonement were then set aside as a time of preparation through good works and setting things straight (see Chapter 6 and Appendix C of The Emmaus View). At other times, should an oppressor, embezzler, deceiver or thief become convicted of their error and own up, they were to make restitution to their victim on the same day on which they came to realise their guilt, add a fifth, then make a guilt offering (Lev 6:4-6). I.e. restitution was expected to precede their sacrifice, just as on the Day of Atonement.

Proverbs makes it abundantly clear that wickedness on the part of the supplicant can  result in a sacrifice having the opposite effect to that which they intended, e.g.:

4.2 In the centuries preceding Jesus

In the early second century B.C.E., Jesus ben Sirach again stressed that obedience was more important than sacrifice:

1 He that keepeth the law bringeth offerings enough: he that taketh heed to the commandment offereth a peace offering. 2 He that requiteth a goodturn offereth fine flour; and he that giveth alms sacrificeth praise. 3 To depart from wickedness is a thing pleasing to the Lord; and to forsake unrighteousness is a propitiation.”

(Sir 35:1-3 [Box and Oesterley])

He also picks up on the teaching of proverbs:

34:18(31:21) The sacrifice of the unrighteous man is a mocking offering, 
(22) And unacceptable are the oblations of the godless.
19(23) The Most High hath no pleasure in the offerings of the ungodly,
Neither doth He forgive sins for a multitude of sacrifices.             
20(24) (As) one that killeth the son before the father’s eyes
Is he that offereth a sacrifice from the goods of the poor.” 

(Sirach 34:18-20 [Box and Oesterley])

Interestingly, he then goes on to condemn, just as the the later Jesus does in Matt 5:22, three acts of deprivation that were tantamount to murder:

21(25) A scanty bread is the life of the poor:
He that depriveth him thereof is a man of blood.
22(26) He slayeth his neighbour who taketh away his living,
(27) And a blood-shedder is he that depriveth the hireling of his hire.”

(Sirach 34:21-22 [Box and Oesterley])

That Sirach deals as a unit with both acceptable sacrifice and acts that were equivalent to murder, provides a potential precedent for Jesus placing them together in Matt 5:21-26. The influence of Sirach is certainly suggested elsewhere amongst Jesus’ words, for example compare Sir 51:1-2, 23-27 with Matt 11:25, 28-30 (Brodie 2001, 742). Moreover, wisdom teaching, of the kind provided by Sirach, is a predominant sub-genre within the Sermon on the Mount (see genre of the Sermon on the Mount).

4.3 In the first century C.E.

Speaking of the examination of the animals for use in sacrifice Philo suggests the need for their perfection was intended as a lesson to those who offered them, that:

“whenever they went up to the altars, when there to pray or to give thanks, never to bring with them any weakness or evil passion in their soul, but to endeavour to make it wholly and entirely bright and clean, without any blemish, so that God might not turn away with aversion from the sight of it.”

(Philo Spec. leg. 1.167 [Yonge])

4.2 In later Judaism

The first-century and second-century C.E. oral traditions recorded in the early third-century Mishnah include the following statement, from which it is clear that the outcome of the divine judgement on the Day of Atonement was integrally linked to prior reconciliation between brothers:

“For transgressions as between man and the omnipresent the day of atonement procures atonement, but for transgressions as between a man and his fellow the day of atonement does not procure any atonement, until he has pacified his fellow”

(b. Yoma 85b, citing m. Yoma 8.9 [Epstein], case change mine)

5. Dragging one another into court

Deuteronomy alludes to the process of brothers taking one another to court, though the only penalty mentioned was beating rather than imprisonment. Here is the relevant passage in full:

1If there is a controversy between men, and they come to judgment, and the judges judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked;  2and it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his wickedness, by number.  3Forty stripes he may give him, he shall not exceed; lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then your brother should seem vile to you.”

(Deut 25:1-2 WEB)

During the reign of Herod the Great, assuming Josephus is to be believed, the dragging of one another into court was routinely abused for political purposes. He describes the situation as follows:

“for everybody forged calumnies, as they were themselves in a state of enmity or hatred against others; and many there were who abused the king’s bloody passion to the disadvantage of those with whom they had quarrels, and lies were easily believed, and punishments were inflicted sooner than the calumnies were forged. He who had just then been accusing another, was accused himself, and was led away to execution together with him whom he had convicted; for the danger the king was in of his life made examinations be very short”

(Josephus Wars 1:493 [Whiston])

6. The reason for repayment

The stated need for repayment automatically suggests that the issue was one of bad debt. Though, that was not the only way in which the law might mandate such a financial settelment. Under the Mosaic Law there are several circumstances relating to inter-personal harm that could also trigger the need for repayment. Furthermore, as Matt 5:23-26 is still dealing with the sixth commandment, “you shall not murder” (see main outline), it would seem more logical for Jesus’ to have draw upon one of these in formulating his words.

Three of the circumstances requiring repayment seem less relevant as Jesus makes no mention of a multiple being required and besides they all relate to property and not people. These are:

Of much more interest is the fact that financial recompense was also required when one individual was directly or indirectly responsible for the injury of another through malice or lack of care (e.g. see Exod 21:29-30, 33-34; Exod 22:2-3). However, it is only when the harm arose through the striking of a pregnant woman, that the need for judicial involvement, as in Matt 5:23-26, is explicitly stated (Exod 21:22). In this procedure, the husband proposed a fine and the judges then imposed as much of that as they chose to allow. Several translations have been responsibly proposed for the difficult text used to state the conditions under which this fine was paid. Douglas Stuart (2007, 491) observes that the NIV has “and she gives birth prematurely” (Exod 21:22 NIV) whilst favouring “but she is still able to have children and there is no harm”. Others include “so that her child/children are born” and “so that she has a miscarriage” (Stuart 2007, 491). At this point it is worth recalling that the renewal process which John the Baptist had initiated was described by earlier prophets in terms of childbirth (see The Emmaus View, Chapters 15 & 20 & 27).

7. Repayment of debts

7.1 Approaches to financial debt within the biblical legislation

Vermes (2004, 91) suggests that imprisonment was not the way in which Judaism dealt with debt, and certainly, under normal circumstances, that would appear to be the case. Within the Hebrew Bible the normal way to deal with non-payment of a debt was to seize the creditors assets or for them to accept slavery until their debt was repaid (2 Kgs 4:1, Neh 5:5) . It was never intended that a debt could force an Israelite into perpetual slavery, for the sabbatical-year release of outstanding debt (Deut 15:1-2) was supposed to prevent that ever happening. The line between slavery and imprisonment may have been narrow (see notes on prison below), but they were still distinct. So, on first inspection, the Law seems to offer no precedents for Jesus’ warning.

7.2 Approaches to financial debt within first century Judaism

Rabbinic practices do not seem to offer any suitable precedents either. The first-century saw significant changes in the way Judaism organised debt, because the release of personal debts in the sabbatical year was making it increasingly difficult for the poor to obtain credit as that year approached. Therefore, the widely revered rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, came up with a legal fiction that provided a way around the problem. Personal debts were cancelled, but debts to public courts were not. So Hillel advocated that a court be made responsible for collecting the debt on the creditor’s behalf (Chilton 1996, 114). However, although it had now become necessary to pay the last penny, there was still no imprisonment involved.

Debt incurred by Israelites was often owed to foreigners and subject to their rules and procedures, rather than the regulations of Judaism (Chilton 1996,115). However, as the setting established by Matt 5:23 is a visit to the temple, then the possibility recedes that the court is anything other than Roman or Jewish. As the key theme of this section of the Sermon on the Mount is the correct interpretation of Jewish law, it seems unlikely that the passage refers to a non-Jewish procedure. The more so, because Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.E.) had recently reformed the Roman legislation on debt by introducing the principal of cessio bonorum, which effectively allowed any debtor to avoid imprisonment by voluntary surrender of their goods, both present and future, in repayment of the debt. Indeed Loveland (1899,2) suggests this principal was “the first law resembling in any marked degree a bankrupt law, as it is understood at the present time.” Thus, provided Roman courts were involved, rather than Jewish ones, imprisonment could be avoided, though repayment of the last penny was still required.  

7.3 Joseph’s precedent and Jesus’ context driven approach

Neither the normal Jewish procedures, or the normal Roman ones, seem to be what Jesus had in mind. However, another possibility exists, and it involves a recognised legal exception to the normal Sabbatical year cancellation of debts. When the debt was to a foreigner they were not automatically released from it, but rather the Israelite creditor was given permission to exact payment (Deut 15:3). As the sabbatical forty-ninth year and its following jubilee provide the year-of-the-Lord’s-favour context for Jesus’ ministry, then throwing this debtor into prison could be seen as the legitimate exacting of payment from a foreigner. This supposition is strengthened by the language used in the Lukan version (Luke 12:58-59), where we find that the creditor is admonished to seek ἀπαλλάσσω (apallasso = liberate or release). Moreover, the Hebrew Bible provides a precedent for the exaction of a debt through the imprisonment of a brother who had become a foreigner. A debt of servitude was owed to Joseph by his brothers because they had initially refused to accept Joseph’s God-given authority over them. The Hebrew brothers then came as foreigners to the Egyptian Joseph, who used the imprisonment of Simeon to advance his case. The viability of such a scenario, as the context for Jesus words, depends upon the existence of circumstances under which an Israelite who refuses to be reconciled with his brother should be treated as a foreigner. For only if a creditor started out as a brother, but their actions then caused them to be treated as a foreigner, could they fall foul of this ruling. As it happens, precisely such an outcome, of a brother being treated like a foreigner, is the end-point of the progression mandated by Jesus in Matt 18:15-17, a passage that is both closely related to Matt 5:22 and precedes the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21-35), in which the ultimate sanction is again to be thrown into jail until the full debt is paid (Matt 18:34)

7.4 Debt and sin

With all manner of sin against other people requiring financial recompense, it is not surprising that debt became a metaphor for unforgiven sin. If any offence against your fellow human left you liable to repay, then how much more would an offence against the deity require satisfaction. Jesus certainly uses debt in this metaphorical way elsewhere (e.g. Matt 18:27, Luke 7:41-2). Whilst it seems that Jesus had a specific context in mind (see below), the teaching is clearly applicable to other forms of sin against a person.

8. Seeking reconciliation

In Matthew, Jesus speaks of the offender seeking διαλλάσσομαι (from diallasso=reconciliation) with their opponent at law (Matt 5:24) so they can εὐνοέω (from eunoeo=agree). Within the New Testament, both words occur uniquely within this verse. The word διαλλάσσομαι is not found in the Septuagint, but related words are used in connection with reconciliation on two occasions, when:

In 1 Kingdoms 29:4, διαλλαγήσεται translates the common Hebrew word יִתְרַצֶּה (from ratsah=please or accept), but in Judges 19:3 it stands out, for it occurs in the phrase “to recover her to himself” (Judg 19:3 Brenton LXX), an annotation not found in the Hebrew text, but used to clarify for the Septuagint’s Greek audience the meaning of the idiomatic Hebrew phrase, to speak to the heart, that precedes it. That phrase is used elsewhere only in the context of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers, to describe how Joseph reassured them after the death of their father left his brothers entirely at his mercy (Gen 50:21).

The word εὐνοέω is used a scant three times within the Septuagint, its use here therefore suggests that Jesus was concerned with a theme explored in one of those passages. They are:

The first of these occurrences has no equivalent in the Hebrew, so is unlikely to have been used here, where Jesus is demonstrating his superior understanding of biblical law. Of the remaining two, the 2 Macc 7:11 passage is noteworthy, for it echoes the situation with Joseph’s brothers, who were unwilling to accept God’s designated ruler (Gen 37:8) and more concerned for their own profit (Gen 37:26). However, it is equally true that, by hinting at Dan 2:43, Jesus could have been reminding his audience of the stark outcome of a failure to agree. As he would later go on to point out “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation. A house divided against itself falls” (Luke 11:17-18)

9. The use of prison

Men cast others into prison and Job credits God with doing likewise (Job 11:10-11). The word here translated as prison is from φυλακή (phulakē), which both the Septuagint and the New Testament use for keeping (i.e. ensuring an item remains secure) (e.g. Gen 40:3, Luke 8:29, Mark 10:20), watching over (Exod 14:24, Luke 2:8), or guarding (e.g. Num 3:25, Acts 12:10). It therefore carried the sense of being placed in custodial care. 

The first Biblical references to a custodial arrangement come from the account of Joseph, which also happens to be the only place in which the Hebrew Bible mentions a repayment (Gen 43:11-12) in connection with the release of an individual from prison (Gen 43:21-23). For, in that narrative, Simeon is imprisoned until the brothers return, but for them to do so safely Jacob and his sons must return all the money that Joseph had hidden in their sacks. Indeed, assuming that Joseph would think they had stolen it, Jacob established a biblical precedent by ensuring they pay back double (Exod 22:9).

Joseph, having suffered imprisonment because his brothers sold him into slavery, later uses the imprisonment of Simeon to help extract repayment of their debt of servitude to him (Gen 42:18-25). The slavery accepted by Judah (Gen 44:33), by this time Jacob’s primary heir designate, serves as a reciprocal penalty for the sons of Leah selling the son of Rachel, into slavery. Jacob’s blessing then appears to effectively ensure that Joseph receives double the inheritance that he would otherwise have been entitled to (Gen 48:5-6).

Once in prison a captive’s ability to pay back would be severely limited, which prompts Blomberg (2001, 284) to note: “Since the man has no way of earning this kind of money in jail, the king’s orders guarantee a life sentence.” However, Jesus’ saying seems to assume that the captive already has the means to repay should they wish to. Just as in the Joseph story, the emphasis is upon the need to comply in full, rather than upon any inability to pay.

10. The last penny

Until the advent of Herod Agrippa (10 B.C.E. - 44 C.E.) as ruler of Judea, Samaria and Galilee, in about 41 C.E., first century Palestine used the Seleucid monetary system, under which one perutah (sometimes spelt prutah) equated to one dilepton (i.e. two lepta) (Bond 1998, 19), the lepton being the smallest denomination issued by the Herodian dynasty (Perkin 1988, 407). The Roman governors minted coins only as required and in the case of Pilate, that was in the years 29/30, 30/31, and 31/32 C.E. (Bond 1998, 21). Pilate’s coins were of the perutah denomination (Sayles 1999,113) and they all depicted religious symbols (either the simpulum, a ladle used in sacrifices, or the lituus, and augers wand) (Bond 1998, 20)

Whilst neither the lepta minted by Archelaus or the bronzes minted by Herod Antipas (before 20 B.C.E. - after 39 C.E.), tetrarch of Galilee, were objectionable to the Jews in their design (Perkin 1988, 407-8), it has been argued that the images on Pilate’s coins were considered offensive by the Jews (Perkin 1988, 407-8).  Whilst Jesus’ render unto Caesar teaching (Matt 22:20-21) implies that images on coins were an issue for the devout amongst Judaism, Bond (1998, 21) suggests that this aspect may be over emphasised. The coinage of both Herod the Great (c 73-4 B.C.E.) and his son Herod Archelaus (23 B.C.E. – c. 18 C.E) had also included issues depicting pagan religious designs (Bond 1998, 21), so Pilates images were nothing new, and Herod Agrippa, a Jewish sympathiser (e.g. see Acts 26:2-3), saw fit to continue using those coins at least until 42/3 when he first issued his own (Bond 1998, 21). Never-the-less the perutah denomination remained the smallest denomination that carried an offensive image.

Both Matthew and Mark make use of the Roman terminology for coinage by referring to the Quadrans. From Mark 12:42 it is apparent that the Roman quadrans (κοδράντης) was seen as equivalent in value to two lepta. Thus, the quadrans seems to have been the accepted equivalent of the perutah. Thanks to an interesting aspect of Jewish law, the fact that the widow put two lepta into the temple treasury would seem to support such a conclusion. The legal framework preserved in the Mishnah, which probably dates from the first or second century C.E., presents the perutah, not the lepton, as the minimum value that constituted a legally significant transaction. In terms of recompense for things unlawfully taken, it was the smallest value that still had to be accounted for and the offender was expected to go to extreme lengths to ensure that full restitution was made (see examples under The attitude of later Judaism below).

One might expect Jesus to have referred to the lowest value coin in circulation, the lepton as found in Luke. So, as Matthew has Jesus referring to the quadrans, this could be taken as an argument that Matthew’s gospel was written later, after inflation had taken its toll. However, by the time of Jesus, the Quadrans was already the smallest coin minted by the Romans (Parker 2011, n.p.). With it also apparently the smallest amount that constituted a transaction under the sacred law, Matthew’s reference to the quadrans,begins to look less anachronistic and more indicative of his version’s total authenticity. So why should Luke use Lepton instead? Paraphrasing Jesus’ words for a Roman audience, the use of lepton probably conveyed the smallest-amount sense somewhat better than quadrans (which required a deduction based upon a knowledge of temple practice). Refering to a lepton rather than a quadrans also conveniently avoided any hint of a possible anti-Roman overtone (linked to the Jewish resentment surrounding the Perutah/Quadrans issued by Pilate).

11. The significance of being on the way

The implication, that the disagreement is between brothers who are on the way, points to Joseph’s admonition to his brothers not to become angry on the way (Gen 45:24). This passage includes the first biblical reference to the form of anger that Jesus condemns in Matt 5:22. Thus, the setting of this disagreement “on the way” supports the suggestion that Matt 5:21-22 and Matt 5:23-26 were originally delivered as a single unit. It also serves to reinforce the associations with the Joseph narrative that have already been identified above.

12. A commentary on John the Baptist’s arrest?

Ever since the Jerusalem authorities refused to heed John the Baptist’s call to repent, John’s followers and the incumbent authorities had been in dispute. A recent attempt by Jesus to exercise his regal authority in Jerusalem had been rebuffed (for the basis of this conclusion see Chapter 27 of The Emmaus View), John the Baptist had been taken into custody, and Jesus had been forced to vacate Judea for the safer climes of Galilee. The dispute between these ‘brothers’ centered upon who had the God-given authority to atone for themselves and so delegate priestly authority to others. Those in Jerusalem held that it was a son of Zadok, but Jesus knew it to be the son of David, the legitimate Davidic king (for more on the origin of this arrangement see Chapter 7 in the Emmaus View). Hence, like Cain, this ‘elder brother’ in Jerusalem, though unable to offer an acceptable sacrifice himself, was unwilling to accept the cleansing authority of the ‘younger brother’ and thereby legitimise his offerings. Whilst John was not the chosen seed of the woman, as Abel had been (see Emmaus view, Chapter 5), he was in a similar position to Joseph. He was the one whom God had granted authority over his brothers, by virtue of being the leader of the new-born child-nation. Yet instead of embracing John’s salvific-authority, following his lead, and accepting Jesus, they had John imprisoned, treating him just as Joseph has been treated by his brothers. Hence, Jesus reminded them, when it came to exacting reparation for their rejection of John's authority, they would face imprisonment, just as Joseph’s brothers had, as Joseph exacted from them the obedient servitude that he was due.

Although Jesus’ words appear to appeal for John’s released, that was not to be. However, when it came to John’s execution, Herodius choice of method (Matt 14:8-12) suggests that she was well aware that John’s situation was like that of Joseph. In the Joseph account a fellow prisoner, the baker whom God did not see fit to release, was beheaded (the implication of lifting his head from him (Mathews 2007, 751)), and then his body hung up for display (Gen 40:19-22). John was beheaded and the fact that his disciples could gain access to his body without fear for their own liberty suggests that it too was hung in a public place. Hence, Herodius’ actions seem designed to imply that John was not some Joseph-like figure who enjoyed God’s favour, but more like the baker of the Joseph story. 

The context of John the Baptist’s ministry was the birthing of the Spirit-born offspring of an idolatry-corrupted and terminally ill nation (see Chapter 15 of the Emmaus View). However, the arrest of John had threatened the birth of this gestating infant. Hence the legislation concerning the injury of a pregnant woman was likely to be at the forefront of Jesus’ mind.  The circumstances surrounding John’s imprisonment would seem consistent with Stuart’s preferred reading: “but she is still able to have children and there is no harm” (Stuart 2007, 491). The woman (Judah) had been injured, but the injury was not mortal and she was still able to bring to birth the all-important spiritual child that would preserve the promises of God. God as Judah’s husband, could ask their King, as the temple authorities judge, to impose a fine. There was still time for the temple authorities to be reconciled to Jesus, but they would have to do it whilst both groups were still following the Way of Righteousness, i.e. before the next Day of Atonement when Jesus’ followers would remain righteous, but those who followed the temple authorities would find themselves in an unclean land. 

13. Related New Testament texts

Vermes (2004, 350) notes that advice to seek instant reconciliation also features in Luke 17:3 and Matt 18:15. Luke 17:3-4 does little more than address the number of times in a day which one must forgive (which is effectively unlimited):

3Be careful. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him.  4If he sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times returns, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”"

(Luke 17:3-4 WEB)

However, Matt 18:15-17 is much more interesting as it is effectively an inverted near-parallel to Matt 5:22, i.e. a similar progression, but presented from the opposite perspective:

15If your brother sins against you, go, show him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained back your brother.  16But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you, that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.  17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly. If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector”

(Matt 18:15-17 WEB)

The latter passage involves similar teaching to Matt 5:22, but from a different and more generic perspective (see notes on Matt 5:21-22). Moreover, the following block of teaching on forgiveness, includes the parable of the merciless servant (Matt 18:23-35), in which the offending servant, having been excused sale into slavery on account of his huge debts, has his fellow servant thrown into prison until he repays a much smaller debt. His Lord then subjects him to the same treatment that he metered out on another (Matt 18:34).

Paul, recognising the dangers of approaching a sacrifice unworthily, encourages his readers to examine themselves before taking the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:27-28). Then, in a fashion that hints at the undertones in Matt 5:23-26, he links adverse judgement resulting from taking part in this sacrifice to a failure to correctly judge concerning the corporeal Christ (1 Cor 11:29-30).

14. Some additional Christian perspectives

Vermes (2004, 90-91), assuming an eschatological outlook for this passage, concludes that Jesus is encouraging reconciliation between brothers before the ultimate Judge renders end-time judgment on their case .

Luz (2007, 240) observes how Luther, applying these verses to politics, suggested that sacrifice without reconciliation was “the same as bringing on was, murder, and bloodshed - and then paying a thousand guldens to have Masses said for the souls of those who were killed” ([Luz 2007]). Arguing that this passage cannot be seen as an example of the practical application of Matt 5:21-22, not least because of its inconsistency with Jewish practice, he attempts to shift the emphasis away from practical preparation for encountering God toward the more wisdom oriented concern that obedience is more important that sacrifice (Luz 2007, 240). He sees, in the imprisonment of the offender, evidence for a gentile trial, such as those assumed to take place in Syria (though note that Syria was another Roman province), the community amidst which he envisages that Matthew’s Gospel arose (Luz 2007, 241). The use of “amen” and “I say” are, suggests Luz (2007, 241), typically Matthean introductions to an eschatalogical statement, thus, he suggests, the final judgement is the focus of Matt 5:26.

Stott (2003, 85-86) sees in this passage two units, the first concerning a ‘brother’ and the second an accuser. Both being application of the forgoing text in Matt 5:21-22.

France (1995, 121) notes that only within the context of offering an animal sacrifice was a layman offered access to the Court of Priests, and therefore to the altar. Therefore this “would be a very rare, and therefore significant, experience for his Galilean audience” (France 1995,121).

15. The attitude of later Judaism

Vermes, after Jeremias, cites the Mishnah (oral traditions, apparently from the first couple of centuries C.E. whilst claiming greater antiquity, but first documented in the second century), which states concerning the Guilt Offering, “But if he brought his guilt offering before he brought back what he had stolen, he has not fulfilled his obligation” (m. B. Qam. 9:12 I [Neusner 1988]). He also mentions that the Talmud includes similar teaching in “t. Pesah. 3.1.”

Concerning the need for reconciliation before the Day of Atonement sacrifice the Mishnah states “For transgressions between man and man, the Day of Atonement atones, only if the man will regain the good will of his friend” ( m. Kipporim 8.9 E [Neusner 1988]).

In the Talmud (t. b. Sotah 8b) an unknown rabbi, but possibly the second-century R. Meir (see t. b. Sanh. 100a), suggests that whilst deciding upon a reciprocal punishment one needs to take account of every aspect of the offence, and that every perutah (a small coin, here symbolising the smallest of misdemeanor) adds up when all are considered together. 

In the Mishnah and the Talmud, the perhuta is presented as the minimum legal value in cases requiring restitution. A few examples should suffice to illustrate this: 

The Talmud claims that the perutah known to the sages who rote the Mishnah was an eighth of an Italian issar  (i.e. a Roman assarius) (t. b. B. Meṣ 44b). At that time a perutah therefore equated to half a quadrans, the quadrans being a fourth of an assarius. Thus the Mishnaic period perutah equated to a single lepton, the currency unit much used in temple transactions at the time of John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.E.).