Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:25-26)
As I was studying today’s passage I was surprised to find that it was one of the proof texts for the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. I had obviously heard of this doctrine but had never really considered where it came from.
As I have a very inquisitive mind, especially when it comes to doctrine and the bible, I thought I would do some research.
According to the Catholic church, purgatory is a place that believers (not non-Christians) go to when they die so they can be purified before they get to heaven. We are living in a sinful state on this earth and we are tainted with sin, so we cannot go immediately into God’s holy presence. Purgatory is a place of purification, not punishment and we are to stay there until we are pure. This could be a matter of hours for the ‘super-holy’ or very many years for the rest of us. We can be speeded through the process by our kind family and friends left on earth who can go to mass on our behalf, do penance, say the rosary or buy indulgences (not so common now but nevertheless a fascinating subject I just don’t have time to cover here).
The main concept of purgatory is found outside the traditional canon of the bible, but in a set of books called ‘the Apocrypha’ which Roman Catholics hold as highly as the bible. It is in the book of Maccabees;
“Therefore they praised the work of the Lord, the just judge, who reveals what is hidden; and turning to prayer, they asked that this sin might be entirely blotted out. The noble Judas called on people to keep themselves free from sin. . . But since he had in view the wonderful reward reserved for those who die a godly death, his purpose was a holy and pious one. And this was why he offered an atoning sacrifice to free the dead from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:41,42,45, New English Bible).
Apparently in today’s passage; God is the judge (obviously), the angels are the guards, prison is purgatory and the last penny is the last bit of sin.
I’m sorry but I really don’t see that in this passage. It is highly fanciful at best. I have read it a number of times but unless you want desperately to believe in this doctrine and anything that remotely fits into the concept will do, this is not what the passage means. It is a big mistake, when approaching the bible, to start with an idea and then try to twist passages to fit in with what you believe. I covered this subject in a previous blog which you might like to read here http://adrianpursglove.com/interpreting-the-bible/
I believe this passage is a lot clearer than some vague interpretation of purgatory. In the preceding verses. Jesus has been talking about going beyond just empty obedience and the letter of the law. He has been talking about our hearts and attitudes and actually being at peace with one another. In the previous verse he talked about our brothers (Christians I presume) but now He is even talking about our relationships with our enemies (‘adversaries’ actually means those we are coming up against, specifically with regard to legal matters).
The situation in the passage seems to involve a relationship breaking down and some sort of trust being broken. Someone is accusing someone of something and it looks like it probably involves money. Setting aside any specifics, Jesus is highlighting our need to settle our differences quickly before they get out of hand. The wisdom is to settle disputes before they get to court, because once the legal system is involved it is much more difficult to then just have a mutual agreement and settle things easily. Again, it’s about our heart attitude, humility and the desire to live at peace (as far as it depends on us) with everyone.
I’ll leave you with a deeper interpretation of this passage and that is the aspect of our relationship with God. Before we became Christians we were in a similar state to this passage. We were heading to the court where the righteous judge would have considered our sins and declared us guilty as charged. We would have been sent to prison without the possibility of paying off our debt. Our sins had made us bankrupt. But thanks be to Jesus that it was He who paid the last penny. We could never atone for our sin in purgatory or anywhere else. He had to do it all and I for one will be eternally grateful that He did. His sacrifice was all sufficient, meaning there is nothing left for us to do.