~ Matthew 5:21-26/Psalm 119:1-8 ~
We continue our journey through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Two weeks ago, we considered the Beatitudes, about how the Kingdom of God is for those who do justice and those who experience injustice. Last Sunday we talked about how we are salt and light for the Kingdom of God. Now we encounter the difficult Antitheses, six comparisons sometimes called the “entrance requirements” to the Kingdom of God. Introduced with the formula “you’ve heard it said, but I say unto you” Jesus delves into a variety of issues: murder, lust, divorce, honesty, retaliation, and loving your enemy, which we’ll consider next Sunday. Today, a look at the first antithesis: murder and anger. Hear God’s word for us today: Matthew 5:21-26
21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Anger is a very satisfying emotion. Getting good and mad at something or someone can have a cathartic effect. When someone does me wrong, messes with me just a bit too far, pushes me over the edge, the desire to take revenge is strong and compelling. When someone hurts me, physically, emotionally, socially, I want to get back, get even; no, more than get even – do them in, destroy them. If I let anger go unchecked, let it build and fester, I can find myself consumed with hate.
There seems to be much anger and hate in our world today. Much desire for revenge. Sometimes it leads to violence; sometimes it leads to murder. Which is probably the reason that Jesus could easily make the connection between murder and anger in the first of his antitheses? Yet, on the other hand, there is a big difference between anger and murder. Murder is murder; a life is lost. Anger? Doesn’t that just make for hard feelings and a broken relationship? So, what was Jesus getting at?
As you can probably guess, biblical scholars have studied these sayings of Jesus, ad nauseam. Was Jesus dismissing the Law, replacing it with his own law? Was Jesus adding to the Law? Was Jesus cancelling the Law altogether? All of these have been suggested. And the fact that with each of these sayings Jesus seems to treat the Law differently from another only confuses the matter. The very fact that they are called antitheses is confusing. Technically, an antithesis is a statement, theory, or position that stands in direct contrast to the thesis. A thesis is proposed and then an antithesis is stated in opposition.
Here Jesus states the thesis: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times.” He then states the antithesis: “But I say to you.” Of course, what they heard in those ancient times was the very Law of God, the Law of Moses, indeed, in this case, the Ten Commandments! “You shall not murder” is right there at the heart of the sacred Jewish Law.
As we heard from our reading from Psalm 119, the Law was incredibly important. In just a few verses, the psalmist uses almost every term of law one can think of: decrees, statutes, precepts, commands. The point is that keeping the Law is of upmost importance. Happy are those who keep God’s Law.
Indeed, for the people of Israel, the Law given my Moses was virtually equal to God. God’s Law is God. If I keep the Law of God, I stand blameless before God. There is no doubt as to my standing. If I can’t keep the Law completely (indeed, the psalmist states, “if only I were more faithful in keeping your statutes”), well, that’s what sacrifices are for. It is this idea that the Law equals God that Jesus has an issue. So, let’s dissect this saying of Jesus and see if we can make sense of it for us today, indeed, how we follow Christ and his teachings.
So, what did those of ancient times hear? “You shall not murder,” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” First, let me say that even though God isn’t named in the formula, everyone understands that it is God who says it. These are God’s words. They are from the Law, after all.
The point is that if one commits a murder you’ll be tried for murder, “liable to judgment.” If you’re convicted of murder then you’ll pay the penalty, which usually was execution. But if you’re found not guilty, then you are blameless before the law, before the people, and ultimately, before God. In other words, as long as I’ve not been convicted of a crime my standing before God is good. It is in this very narrow legal sense – that I’ve met the law’s demands to the extent I’ve not been convicted of a crime – that Jesus confronts.
So he says even if you are just angry with someone, a brother or a sister, you are guilty and liable for judgment. You could go to trial for being angry in the same way you’d go to trial for committing a murder. Jesus doesn’t stop there. Even if you just call someone an “idiot” or a “fool” you are liable for judgment, be put on trial, yea, even thrown on the burning trash heap, the “hell of fire.”
Good grief. What is going on here? How could insulting someone be as bad as murder? Who could possibly meet such a standard? This is a ridiculous standard. Is this is an “entrance requirement” for the kingdom of heaven? Well, forget it!
What is going on here? Well, this is what I think Jesus is getting at. If you regard your relationship to God in strictly legalistic terms, you are missing the point. Again, for many in Jesus’ day, justifying one’s self according to a strict, narrow interpretation of the law was all one needed to say, “God and me? We’re good.” I haven’t murdered anyone so I’m good.
Jesus says that should not be the basis for how you live your life. Legalism has no life. Legalism doesn’t really care about relationships, only about the letter of the law. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is all about relationships. The prevailing attitude started with the legal requirement. Jesus starts with unbroken relationships. When a relationship gets broken, it needs to be dealt with, no matter the cause.
Therefore, to the effect that anger or name-calling is a thing they are signs of broken relationships. If you want to treat anger and name calling legalistically then, yes, legal consequences, going to trial, would be the result. However, that isn’t the point. Jesus says God desires healed relationships; broken relationships repaired.
So, live your life prepared to pursue reconciliation if the need arises, he says. If you happen to be at worship, offering a sacrifice and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, drop what you are doing and go, be reconciled. Maybe someone is taking you to court. Take care of it personally rather than being subject to the vagaries of a court judgment. You just might end up in jail. The point here isn’t that you should never go to court. The point is this: in the community, brothers and sisters, seek reconciliation rather than let your anger fester.
Anger fosters the desire for revenge. Revenge, in the end, is not very satisfying. Hanging on to resentments and bitterness only do harm to you not to the person who did you wrong. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think anger has its place. Sometimes it’s needed to spur us on to seek solutions or protect ourselves and others. However, anger left unchecked more often than not is destructive.
One of the more insightful Disney movies of the last few years is Inside Out, an animated film about Riley Anderson. Inside Riley live five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust (think broccoli), and Anger. Anger is very concerned about fairness. He has a very fiery spirit. When things aren’t fair he literally explodes. Quick to over react, he has little patience for life’s imperfections. When things get a bit confusing for Rile (they move to San Francisco!), the other emotions don’t know what to do. Anger takes charge and almost causes a disaster in little Riley’s life. Fortunately (it is a Disney movie after all), with the help of the other emotions Anger eventually calms down and plays a more positive role in her life as she grows up.
Anger unchecked is bad for one’s mental health, is bad for relationships, and is bad for community. It is the fuel for broken relationships. Indeed, if left unchecked, it could lead to violence and even murder. Jesus says it is God’s desire for us that we life our lives in wholeness with ourselves and with each other.
People do stuff to us. That causes consternation and discomfort. Some things people do to us are small and petty. Unless one is prone to being unusually sensitive, taking offense easily, we tend to let bygones-be-bygones and let it go. The hurt is not too significant. However, if those small and petty things are thrown at us day after day after day, year after year, then the hurt is felt much more deeply. Or if the thing a person does is significant, like disloyalty or betrayal or brutality, that is not so easily dismissed. That hurts very deeply.
When people do us wrong one response is anger and the desire for revenge. However, another response, one that is more healing and really more satisfying, is forgiveness. Forgiveness is loves antidote to hate. Now, forgiveness is not a simple matter. Indeed, back in 2015 we did a five-week study on forgiveness. But I truly believe it is the key to living with each other in wholesome, unbroken relationships. And, it should be said, forgiveness doesn’t even guarantee reconciliation but it is the starting point. As Scottish theologian H. R. MacIntosh puts it, forgiveness is a way of removing “the moral hindrance to fellowship.” Finding a way to remove hindrances with each other is the path to reconciliation.
These days there seems to be much legal hairsplitting in our very litigious society. We hear, “Well, technically I didn’t violate the law.” Politicians and CEO’s tend to use that line. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we find ways to justify our anger towards others. Besides he is an idiot, she is a fool, right?
Living with each other with authenticity and integrity isn’t easy. However, as hard as it sometimes is, may we always strive to live in wholeness of relationship and community. Amen.