Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.—Matt. 5:25–26
The time for reconciliation with others is always now, just as it is with salvation. Tomorrow may be too late. No excuse is valid to allow bitterness, anger, hatred, or any other sin to keep us separated from another person. Jesus illustrates here that we should make good on any debt or settle any grievance before it is too late and we’re imprisoned.
In the Roman Empire, two opponents at law could settle an issue on the way to court, but not after a judge became involved. To avoid judgment and imprisonment, the guilty person had to pay “the last cent,” or everything owed in debt.
Being thrown into prison and not being able to get out until a debt is paid is Jesus’ analogy to the Father’s punishment. We can’t miss the Son’s teaching here: we must make every effort possible, with no delay, to mend any broken relationship with a brother before we can avoid divine chastening and have a right relationship with God.
We know that because of sin, none of us is ever completely at peace or perfectly related to another. And since it’s impossible to have perfectly right attitudes toward others or God, no worship is ever fully acceptable. All of Jesus’ teachings in this passage and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount show us again the utterly perfect standard of God’s righteousness and the absolute impossibility of our meeting that standard on our own.
|There ’s no denying the pain of strained and severed relationships. But there ’s nothing like knowing you’ve done everything you can to make it right. Can you live in the Lord’s peace even if nothing changes?|
The Effect on Our Relations with Others
Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent. (5:25–26)
These verses are essentially a commentary on the previous two. Using an illustration from the common practice of imprisoning a person for an unpaid debt, Jesus teaches that if someone holds a debt of any sort against us, he is to make it good as soon as possible and before it is too late and he is imprisoned.
The time for reconciliation, just as the time for salvation, is always now. Tomorrow is often too late. We are not to allow bitterness, anger, hatred, or any other sin to keep us separated from other people, whoever they are.
Whereas in verses 23–24 the command for reconciliation is given to the innocent as well as the guilty party, here the focus is strictly on the one who is guilty. Roman law provided that a plaintiff could bring the accused with him to face the judge. The two themselves could settle the matter on the way, but not after the court became involved. If a man had wronged an opponent at law (indicating that the issue was headed for court) he should make friends quickly, that is, settle the account with his opponent before he had to face judgment. The sequence of going from the judge to the officer to prison shows the typical procedure in dealing with a guilty person. To avoid3udgment and prison he had to pay the last cent (a small Roman coin) owed.
This illustration is a picture of sin against another person. Such sin must be resolved to avoid having to face a sentence froin the divine Judge.
The precise penalty to which Jesus alludes is not made clear. Being thrown into prison and not being able to get out of there until the debt is paid is an analogy of God’s punishment. The basic teaching is plain and unmistakable: we are to make every effort, with no delay, to make our relationship right with our brother before our relationship can be right with God and we can avoid chastening.
In the fullest sense, of course, because no one ever fully has right attitudes toward others, no worship is acceptable. Thus everything Jesus teaches in this passage, as in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, is to show the absolutely perfect standard of God’s righteousness and the absolutely impossible task of our meeting that standard in our own power. He shatters self-righteousness in order to drive us to His righteousness, which alone is acceptable to God.
5:25, 26 It is against a litigious spirit and a reluctance to admit guilt that Jesus warns here. It is better to promptly settle with an accuser rather than run the risk of a court trial. If that happens, we are bound to lose. While there is some disagreement among scholars about the identity of the people in this parable, the point is clear: if you are wrong, be quick to admit it and make things right. If you remain unrepentant, your sin will eventually catch up with you and you will not only have to make full restitution but suffer additional penalties as well. And don’t be in a hurry to go to court. If you do, the law will find you out, and you will pay the last penny.
25–26 Compare Luke 12:57–59, where the contextual application warns impenitent Israel to be reconciled to God before it is too late. Many conclude that Matthew has “ethicized” an originally eschatological saying. But the language of the two pericopes is not close, and it is more realistic to postulate two stories from one itinerant preacher. Explanations for one or two of the changes (e.g., McNeile) are not convincing unless they fit a pattern that justifies all the changes.
Jesus again urges haste (v. 25). Settle matters with the offended adversary while still “with him on the way” to court, not on “the road to life” (Bonnard). In the ancient world, debtors were jailed until the debts were paid. Thus v. 26 is part of the narrative fabric and gives no justification for purgatory, universal restoration, or urgent reconciliation to God. It simply insists on immediate action. Malicious anger is so evil—and God’s judgment so certain (v. 22)—that we must do all in our power to end it (cf. Eph 4:26–27).
 MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 118). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 298). Chicago: Moody Press.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1220). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 183). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.