8 - Keeping short accounts

Greg Aikins on November 4, 2020

Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.  Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.  I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.  – Jesus, Matthew 5: 25-26.

As a disciple, I need to heed carefully the words of Jesus here.  Our Lord speaks them in the context of his warnings about anger towards others.  Followers of Jesus are to handle anger differently than worldly people, remembering that “human anger does not achieve the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20). In fact, unbridled anger and wrath can lead to great evil and hurt, whether it originates with me or is expressed toward me by others.

One of the ways to head off anger is to keep short accounts with others.  We have already heard Jesus say that if I am aware that another person is angry with me, it’s best to seek reconciliation as soon as possible, in order that my worship of God may not be hindered (Matt. 5:23-24).  If I want to pursue holiness before the Lord, I need to make it a priority to resolve my conflicts with others.

There are also times when I need to clear things up quickly because my personal integrity is at stake.  This is what Jesus has in mind with this command.  The “adversary” here is clearly someone to whom I owe a debt.  If I don’t pay people what I owe them, this can create not only annoyance but lead to anger and retribution.  Refusing to honor my commitments, after I have promised to do so, can result in others resenting and being angry with me.  When I am aware that I have failed to keep my promises it is best that I acknowledge it quickly and do my best to make reparations.

However Jesus not only tells us what to do and when, but how to do it.  The words “settle matters with your adversary” can also be translated as “be favorably minded toward” him or her.  Rather than just grudgingly fulfill my obligations, the Lord asks me to go the extra mile with my “accuser”.  The spirit in which I am to settle matters with anyone who has reason to question my integrity is a gentle, friendly spirit.  Paul admonishes, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).   In order to be a peacemaker who turns away wrath (Matt. 5:9; Prov. 15:1), Jesus calls me to be a person of loving integrity, keeping my word to others out of love for them.

Finally, Jesus reminds me that people who don’t satisfy their creditors end up in court and even in prison.  He prefaces this reminder with the solemn, “Truly I say to you, you will not get out until you have paid the last cent.”  As one writer puts it, “Deeper thoughts underlie these words.  The day of judgement is close at hand, when the unpaid creditor will be able to claim divine justice.”[1] If I am unfaithful in meeting my obligations in this life, I may face the Lord’s judgment later for my lack of integrity.

              In the angry, strife-filled time in which we are living, Christ calls us to be instruments of his peace.  One way in which we can be those agents is by working things out with anyone to whom we owe a debt with a favorable attitude toward them.  Perhaps it is a physical debt, something I have borrowed.  Perhaps it is a relational debt to my spouse, my children or a friend that I owe.  We are not only doing ourselves a favor, we are doing them a favor by showing them that we are true followers of the One who “allowed no debt to remain outstanding, except to love.”    

[1]Alan Hugh McNeile, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, reprinted 1980 from 1915 ed.), 64.