On the Way to Court…

“And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?  For while you are going with your opponent to appear before the magistrate, on your way there make an effort to settle with him, so that he may not drag you before the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.  I say to you, you will not get out of there until you have paid the very last cent.” (Luke 12:57-59 NASB)

So, a funny thing happened to me on the way to court…seriously? This one of those things Jesus says over which I scratch my head and wonder, “What was that about?”.  On their way to court, try and work it out or you’re going to jail.  Don’t miss that the assumption is that the person to whom Jesus speaks this is assumed to be guilty.  Don’t miss that.  A believer is guilty for some sort of damages, and result or consequence of that damage or debt is jail.  Okay, so don’t go into debt.  But beyond that look at this teaching for the surface meaning: to judge what is righteous, work it out before court or you will suffer the full consequences.

So believers/followers in Jesus’ day (or Luke’s) would get into a debt or be legally responsible for damages, and then expect that their relationship with Jesus would be sufficient to enable them to avoid the consequences?  Jesus is saying, no, it doesn’t work that way, it works in reverse of that, the penalties will be more not less.  Once it’s phrased that way, do you hear the quiet assumption of our generation in our culture?  What’s in it for me?  If I do this you should do that for me.  Where relationships are “networking” and result in special privileges (or there’s no point to them).

Now, that’s not necessarily what Jesus is alluding to, but it sure works well in translating the application to our culture.  Just because we claim a relationship with Jesus doesn’t mean that God will get us out of traffic tickets, law suits, or any other place where we’re being held accountable for our actions.  Jesus is speaking.  He speaks to those around Him following and listening to Him.  He says to them work it out on the way to court, before you reach court because it won’t go well for you in court.  What did they do?

First off, the culture then was ironically similar to our in that there was an absolute glut of tort cases, way more than criminal cases.  And the distinction between criminal and civil cases weren’t as stark as ours either.  Judges were simply community leaders (magistrates or princes), and they could often be rather arbitrary.  So, this isn’t a far fetched idea, that a true follower of Jesus would be brought to court.  It could happen even for small infractions or damages or even small debts.  The problem was real for them.

Debt and legal problems are not foreign to believers today either.  So the application of this saying is probably good for us as well.  Make it right before you get to court.  In other words, as we say today, “settle out of court”.

One thing before leaving this topic though, this is in a context where Jesus has been discussing His eventual return.  I think that’s important here.  It’s possible that Luke’s audience may have been thinking that, because Jesus was returning soon, they could behave “less than stellar” and escape the consequences because Jesus would return and they wouldn’t need to repay the debt/damages.  I’m not sure that’s what Jesus originally intended, but it may have been a real issue for Luke’s audiences.  Either way, Jesus corrects the view that His followers would be somehow exempt from legal consequences they had personally incurred.  What a strange thing to believe in the first place.

What do you learn from Jesus’ legal advice?

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7 thoughts on “On the Way to Court…

  1. I’ve always read this as just good practical advice, akin to advice a father might give his child on how things work in the world. I can though see the economic tendency of humans to think A) Jesus is returning soon or Jesus will get me out of this, therefore B) I don’t have to worry about paying this back (or making this right, etc). It reminds of the movie Armageddon, when Steve Buscemi’s character is getting a huge loan from this sketch looking loan shark guy and the loaner asks him, “You don’t look too well to me. You’re not gonna die on me are ya?” And Buscemi says, “Not anymore than you are!”

    Maybe I’m taking it to the extreme with that example, maybe Jesus didn’t just mean it in the eschatological vein. I think he also just meant it as good practical advice for the tort cases a number of his followers would end up in.

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  2. Hey Matt, I was curious about something…I have a knothole I encountered that I would really like to get your expert historical opinion on. It’s the comment thread on this blog https://kristimckenney.com/2016/06/29/divine-friendship-divine-grace/ We were talking about male/female relationship boundaries in the church and the author and I are in agreement on the conversation, but we are trying to research what the meaning of skandalon, σκάνδαλον, or “stumbling block,” was in 1st century Palestine and Koine Greek lit and I was wondering if we maybe could bring in your thoughts if you had time, since you have a good in-depth knowledge of the historical context of the lanuage.

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      1. Sounds good Matt! Yeah, you’re name popped right into my head when we started talking about context with skandalon and I thought, “I really want to get Matt’s thoughts on this!”

        And it’s a really long thread, so if you get busy, no worries, totally understand! But I at least wanted to send it your way in case you did have a little time!

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