Matthew 5:23-26,  be reconciled

5:23 “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you,
5:24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
5:25 Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are with him in the way; lest perhaps the prosecutor deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison.
5:26 Most certainly I tell you, you shall by no means get out of there, until you have paid the last penny.”

(Matt 5:23-26 WEB)

Worship can wait

After reminding his audience that there were consequences for those who responded contemptuously to godly rebuke, Jesus moves on to revisit the first biblical record of murder, the account of Cain and Abel in Genesis. Both that account, and Jesus’ teaching, focus on an individual seeking to make an acceptable sacrifice. But, whilst both are talking about the specifics of a sacrifice, they are equally concerned with the wider issue of how a person can approach God and be sure of a favourable reception. Cain, who refused to seek reconciliation with his brother Abel, found that his offering was not viewed favourably, so Jesus recommends the opposite course of action.

The basic message here is that our acceptability as we approach God depends upon our attitude to others. This was nothing new as far as teaching went, for it was a foundational principal within Judaism and is attested repeatedly within the Bible. However, behind this innocuous reminder of a widely accepted truth, Jesus’ words spoke directly into the prevailing political situation during his earliest ministry, for the relationship between Cain and Abel mirrored that between the Jewish establishment and the followers of John the Baptist, amongst whom Jesus had numbered himself. 

Jesus had just suggested that persistent failure to accept godly rebuke could leave a party facing the judgement of God (Matt 5:21-22). That was precisely what had happened with Cain, and was now in danger of happening with the Jerusalem authorities. So, against this backdrop of a growing rift between two Jewish factions, Jesus highlights the need to agree whilst it is still possible for both parties to walk together. Once the depth of their division removes that possibility, then the matter may escalate to the divine courtroom, where judgement will take account of the full measure of the offence, right down to the smallest detail. 

The quadrans, or its Jewish equivalent the perutah, was not the smallest coin in general Judean circulation, but it was the smallest financial amount that Jewish law considered significant. It was also the smallest Judean coin to carry icons associated with other deities, making it the smallest that could be considered overtly offensive to Judah's God.

The mention of payment implies an offence for which recompense was required. In Jesus’ day the Jewish courts did not pursue the non-payment of such debts by imprisonment, moreover Roman law provided for a debtor to escape imprisonment by claiming something akin to bankruptcy. However, Jesus wanted to highlight the existence of a biblical precedent for the use of imprisonment to ensure that full recompense was made. Some of the words used in this passage appear carefully chosen to remind its audience of the dispute between Joseph and his brothers. Just as God had chosen Abel before his elder brother Cain, so God had chosen Joseph as leader over his older siblings. They, like Cain, refused to comply, selling Joseph into slavery as an alternative to killing him, and indirectly leading to the imprisonment of Joseph. God then turned the tables, allowing Joseph’s fortunes to wax as his family’s fortunes waned. Eventually, as God-driven circumstances placed Joseph’s brothers within his power, he used the imprisonment of one of them to help ensure that all would serve him. Hence, by having the judge use imprisonment to exact recompense, Jesus reminded his audience how God dealt with those who failed to accept the divinely appointed leader of Israel, especially when they imprisoned him, as with John the Baptist.

Matt 5:23-26 in detail.