Dear Friends of Jesus Christ.
Laws are good for restricting behaviour. Especially when they are enforced on a consistent basis.
Most of us wouldn’t consider stealing from the grocery store, for instance. There are consequences for stealing in Canada. And the consequences aren’t worth the risk.
But while a well functioning legal system is good at restraining our bad behaviour, it can’t really retrain the longings of our heart. Laws can limit our bad behaviour. But they can’t make us good.
Those of you who are parents deal with this reality on a daily basis.
Chances are that you have rules in your house. Don’t hit, for instance. That’s a basic rule in our house. Everyday this rule gets broken and everyday Brittney and I have to reinstate the rule and reinforce it with consequences.
The trouble is that there are a lot of ways for siblings to be mean to each other. I can tell them to stop hitting, but then they just do something else, like stick their tongue out or say so “you’re a pooh pooh head.”
Rules are good at restricting our bad behaviour. But they can’t make us love one another.
And if there’s one thing that Jesus is driving at in this section of the sermon on the mount… its the renovation of the heart. Jesus wants his followers to not simply be good at restraining their bad behaviour, he wants them to actually be good from the inside out.
And so, in his moral teaching, he cuts to the heart of the matter.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)
Recall from last week that Jesus has an extremely high view of the Old Testament. He sees himself as one who is below the law. But he also has an extremely high view of himself. He sees himself as one who is uniquely positioned to fulfill the law the law and pull out its deepest meaning.
Jesus’ high view of himself, comes out loud in clear in the first sentence of this passage.
You have heard that it was said.… But I say to you.
Sometimes, when we’re in discussion with other people we say things like this. “So and so thinks this about such and such. But I say this about such and such.” If you’ve ever written an academic paper, this is the kind of thing you do all the time. You summarize what other people have said, and then you give your opinion on the matter.
And this is what Jesus is doing here. Except the so and so that he’s interacting with is God himself. And the such and such is the law of God handed down through Moses.
All dutiful Israelites knew that lawgiving was God’s prerogative and God’s alone. But here Jesus assumes that role. He has the audacity to position himself beside God.
By assuming the role of lawgiver, Jesus is showing us his true identity. This is no ordinary man. This is Immanuel. God with us.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder.…’ 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
So, the sixth commandment stands, says Jesus. But its just the beginning. Murderous actions don’t spring out of nowhere. They are formed and nurtured in an angry heart.
Now I think we all know that there is a righteous kind of Anger. Somethings that happen in this world ought to make us angry. The killing of innocent children, for instance. Or torture.
At its best, anger is a passion for justice, motivated by love.
Jesus got angry a few times in the gospels. He got angry at Peter, when Peter challenged God’s will for Jesus’ life. “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus said to him. “You do not have in the mind the things of God, but the things of man.”
On another occasion, Jesus, filled with anger, cleared the temple of money changers and merchants. They were turning God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. And Jesus, motivated by love, was was filled with a passion for God’s justice.
Anger is an important resource in our emotional design. And when well trained and directed, it can be a powerful weapon for good.
The trouble is that most of us don’t have a well regulated relationship with our anger.
In her book on the 7 Deadly Sins, Rebecca DeYoung says that anger goes off the rails “when it fights for its own selfish cause, not for justice, and when it fights dirty.”
She goes on to describe four different ways that our anger can miss the mark.
1: We can get angry too easily
2: We can get angrier than we should
3: We can stay angry for too long
4: We can express our anger in non-restorative ways
It would helpful to go through all four of these points and unpack them all. But I’d like to focus on number 3 today. That is the kind of Anger that Jesus is warning us about in the sermon on the mount.
The greek word that Matthew uses for anger is a present tense participle. The present tense participle is used to describe an ongoing action. The anger that Jesus is talking about here is the anger that someone remains in or continues in. “Whoever remains angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
Look, anger happens. We’re going to drive each other crazy from time to time. Anger happens in your family. It happens at work. It happens in Church.
But anger turns toxic when its allowed to settle in and make its home among us. When we nurse it, instead of resolving it. Unresolved anger is murderous for relationships.
I once mediated a conversation between a son and his aging, ailing, mother. The son wanted to talk with his mother about life and death and his mother’s plans and wishes. So he enlisted my help. But the mother didn’t even really look her son in the eye. I could tell something was off. So I pushed in a little. And then the anger came out. She hissed at her son, under her breath. Eluding to something that happened years and years ago. “I think there’s something here that you need to work on,” I said. He was willing. But she wasn’t interested. She died a month or so later. Holding onto anger.
Jesus says, whoever remains in anger will be subject to judgment.
I think he’s talking about ultimate judgement here. Judgement day. The day Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. You don’t want to be nursing a grudge on judgment day. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.
And I know its hard. I mean if someone has truly wronged you. Oh… that is so hard to let go of. Even harder to forgive. You feel so justified plotting revenge in your mind. Why let them off the hook by letting go of your anger?
But nursing a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. In the end its you who pay the price. Dwelling in resentment and anger is its own form of hell. It’ll ruin your life now. And it be catastrophic for your life later.
Be angry, says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. But in your anger, don’t sin. Don’t let it take hold. Don’t let it fester and grow.
Anger grows and is nursed in the heart. But it doesn’t tend to stay there. The most common way that anger shows up in our life is in the way that we speak.
You know you’re angry with someone when you start murdering them with your words: Jerk. Idiot. Stubborn A-hole. And I’m being fairly tame here. You’ve whispered much worse when under the influence of anger.
Raca was a derogatory slur in Jesus’ day. If you wanted to mock your neighbour’s intellect, you’d use the word raca. Stupid. Idiot.
And “Fool”. The Greek word behind fool is “moree”. If you wanted to mock the character of your neighbour, you’d use the word “moree”. Shyster. Rat.
Labels like this are convenient for us. After we give someone a derogatory title, we feel justified in treating them like a second class citizen. “Why try to have a conversation with that guy. He’s an idiot.” “Why give that her the benefit of the doubt. Everyone knows that she’s a fool.”
The bible says that every human we come in contact with is worthy of love and honour. God’s word over them is “good”. They are a person of worth and value. But with titles like Idiot and Jerk, we create distance, and it becomes easier for us to treat that person like dirt.
There’s more than one way to murder your neighbour. You can do it with your hands, but you can also murder with your words. Either way, it kills community.
And Jesus will have none of it in his community.
Instead, Jesus instructs us to chop anger off at the knees before it has a chance to fully mature.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24
This is a worship example. Jesus also uses the words brothers and sisters. So, in this example he’s talking about our relationships in the Church.
And its a rather extreme example. Perhaps even a bit of hyperbole. The altar was in Jerusalem, in the Temple. People would come all over Israel to offer their gifts at the altar. Now imagine you lived in Capernum, on the sea of Galilee, a multi-day walk to Jerusalem. And after a long walk, you’ve finally made it to the Altar, with your sacrifice in hand.
Turn around, says Jesus. Go home and be reconciled first. Then come back an offer your sacrifice.
The main point here is reconciliation is to be prioritized. The secondary point is that our worship slowly loses its integrity if we’re not dealing with the issues that are dividing us.
The “you” in this example is accented. Which means that the responsibility of reconciliation is on each of us. If you have something against someone, go talk with them. If you know that someone has something against you. Go talk with them.
Its so easy to point the finger, to put responsibility for reconciliation in other people’s court. I confess to making that mistake on a few occasions.
But what Jesus is saying is that the peace of the community is everyone’s responsibility. Consider it your responsibility to act.
Reconciliation, of course, is not always quick or easy. It can take time. And sometimes rushing reconciliation is the wrong thing to do. But we shouldn’t delay in getting the process started. We don’t want anger to get a foothold.
And the same goes with our relationships with our neighbours. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way…” (Matthew 5:25)
Our criminal justice system is weighed down with many unnecessary cases. Most disagreements can be settled without the courts. It just takes intentionality, good dialogue, and a willingness to absorb some minor injustice.
Perhaps one of the ways that Christians can be salt and light in the world, is by being slow to sue, and quick to settle matters outside the court.
In both examples, speed is highlighted. Jesus doesn’t want anger to gain a foothold.
I don’t know about you, but I find this teaching of Jesus to be tremendously difficult. Frederick Dale Bruner says that Jesus’ moral teaching in the sermon on the mount has a way of driving us back, again and again to the first beatitude. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The truth is that anger is going to get the better of us from time to time. When that happens, its important to remember whose we are, and God’s intentions towards us and the world.
God model’s what he commands, you know. He’s good from the inside out. He doesn’t remain in his anger towards us. In reality we are all idiots and fools, and God would be totally justified to dismiss us into oblivion. But instead, out of love, he quickly comes to us in order to be reconciled to us. Jesus, Immanuel, is God with his disciples. Jesus, Immanuel, is God working in history to restore shalom in a world that has been torn apart by Anger.
Yes, we need to join him in this work. Yes we need to be agents of reconciliation as he was an agent of reconciliation. But the power to do this work is found in the gospel itself.
I don’t know about you, but my anger tends to dissipate when have the wherewithal to take a time out and hold my anger up to the light of God’s love. Then I remember my own foolishness, and all that God has done to redeem me in Christ. Then I’m able to see others not as idiots or jerks, but as fellow creatures, made in the image of God. Jesus came to forgive and heal them too.
In addition to this, the gospel is also the declaration that Jesus is Lord. Which means that there is a just judge that sits on the judgement seat of heaven and earth. Nothing sneaks by his heavenly gaze. While I can’t always trust that my anger is properly regulated I know that Jesus’ anger is properly regulated. Vengeance is his, not mine.
I can let go of my anger, because I know that in the end, ultimate justice will be accomplished.
Knowing both God’s love and God’s justice reframes our relationship with anger. It melts it away like the sun burns away the fog of the morning.
And Jesus goes with us as we take this journey of reconciliation together. He sent his Spirit to write the law of God on our hearts, and to empower us to love one another, as he has loved us.
Let’s follow his lead and he continues to renew us from the inside out.