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,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 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. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
To watch some of the political wrangling going on these days is so frustrating. In fact, one of my neighbors said that observing all of the bickering partisanship in Washington in these tragic days of the coronavirus makes him “mad as hell.” I mention that today, not to begin some kind of personal political rant, but as a word of relevance for Jesus’ words to us today. He seems to be saying to be careful that our anger doesn’t become hellish.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he makes a marked shift in his comments. He moves from talking about how important it is that we know Scripture and keep its commandments to six ethical examples to illustrate kingdom citizenship. Some biblical scholars call the “antithetical texts of Jesus” the ones that begin this way – “You have heard it said, but I say unto you . . .” However, I think those scholars have mis-labeled these texts, because antithetical means a counter-thesis, that is, Jesus is rebutting the Law. Perhaps the more appropriate term would be “epithetical,” because Jesus was not disagreeing with the Law. He was deepening the understanding, intensifying the Law.
In the case of today’s ethical example, Jesus takes one of the 10 Commandments, the one which says, “Thou shalt not kill,” and intensifies the understanding by adding anger to its meaning. This anger, by the way, was not temporary anger, but refers to carrying a resentful anger. The Greek word for temporary anger is “thumos,” and the word for long-lived anger is “orge.” Matthew uses “orge” here, “orgizomenos” which means an anger which is nursed and nurtured.
Jesus goes on to define this anger by how we treat each other and how we talk about each other. For instance, whoever calls his brother or sister, “idiot” or “fool” — the Greek word here is “hraka” which even sounds disgusting, because it sounds like someone clearing their throat — will have to face the judgment. Jesus takes the original anti-murder commandment and infuses it in such personal and demanding ways, by telling us that to be angry with each other will make us literally “mad as hell.” Put another way, “Being mad will make us mad, out of touch with the Kingdom.”
Yet Jesus knows that we will become angry from time to time and even angry with our sisters and brothers. Thus, he gives the antidote to take care of this. Jesus says, “If your brother or sister has anything against you . . .” Jesus knows that we are going to have issues from time to time, but he clearly desires for the community of his followers to be the outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven as soon as possible. He illustrates this by saying, “If you are coming to church (“bringing your gift to the altar”), stop what you are doing, and go and make it right.
It is worth noting that Jesus uses hyperbole here. You can see how a bit of exaggeration comes into play when you realize that those to whom he was speaking were Galileans. Thus, if they were in the Temple in Jerusalem and realized they had a problem with someone at home, they would have had to go all the way back to Galilee before returning to the Temple! Furthermore, Jesus wasn’t talking about major issues. The word he uses for “anything” in “If your brother has anything against you,” is a small, unaccented participle “ti,” which means “even the smallest, most insignificant of anything.” Jesus is saying that we can’t worship, we can’t be the church, if we are not in the right relationship with God and our sisters and brothers. This is so important that Jesus emphasizes that when we recognize we are out of sorts with one another, we are to move quickly (“tachu”) to make things right.
Jesus wants us to be careful about our anger. Back in the 1800s, a minister by the name of Dr. Newman Hall wrote a devotional book called Come to Jesus. His book was severely critiqued and ridiculed by some people, which didn’t just hurt his feelings; it made him downright mad. One reviewer, in particular, was scathing in his comments. Dr. Hall was so incensed that he wrote a response filled with invective and comments even more cutting than the reviewer’s. Hall took what he had written to a ministerial colleague, his good friend, Charles Spurgeon. He was halfway proud of his response and wanted to share it with Spurgeon. “Would you read this before I send it out?” he asked. Spurgeon took the letter, read it carefully, and then handed it back, saying that the writer of the article deserved everything that was said in the letter. “But,” he continued, “it lacks one thing.” After a pause, Spurgeon went on, “Underneath your signature you ought to write these words, ‘Dr. Newman Hall, author of Come to Jesus.’” Hall blanched, took the letter, tore it up, and never sent it.
It is one thing to be right; it’s another thing to be righteous. I think that Jesus was giving us an example that the Kingdom of Heaven requires our uttermost attention. How we treat each other has eternal significance, individually and collectively. We are chosen to be representatives of a kingdom, God’s Kingdom.
Bill Clinton tells of his first meeting with Nelson Mandela. In his conversation with this great leader of South Africa, the former President said, “When you were released from prison, Mr. Mandela, I woke my daughter at three o’clock in the morning. I wanted her to see this historic event. As you marched from the cellblock across the yard to the gate of the prison, the camera focused on your face. I have never seen such anger, even hatred, in any man as was expressed on your face at that time. That’s not the Nelson Mandela I know today. What was that all about?” Mandela answered, “I’m surprised that you saw that, and I regret that the cameras caught my anger. As I walked across the courtyard that day I thought to myself: ‘They’ve taken everything from you that matters. Your cause is dead. Your family is gone. Your friends have been killed. Now they’re releasing you, but there’s nothing left for you out there.’ And I hated them for what they had taken from me. Then, I sensed an inner voice saying to me, ‘Nelson! For twenty-seven years you were their prisoner, but you were always a free man! Don’t allow them to make you into a free man, only to turn you into their prisoner!’ ”
Anger can be replaced by attitude, the attitude that comes from realizing that God has entrusted us with grace. There is something greater than ourselves going on. We must never forget that. Heaven help us this day . . . After all, we don’t want to go around mad, do we?
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- What is it that makes you mad? How do you express it? To whom do you express it?
- Is there a person whose very name makes you recoil in anger? What is the reason for that? How do you make that relationship right in a way that allows you both to “come to Jesus”?
- We currently find ourselves in a time of inconveniences, difficulties, cancellations, lack of availability, outright suffering and fear. I’ve noticed that people in the community seem poised to respond to each other with irritation… understandably. But I’ve also noticed that a smile and a kind word almost catch people off-guard. Have you had a time recently where you were able to say, “I know this delay is not your fault.” or “Don’t rush. I can wait.” or “Thank you for your effort.”? Consider how this scripture calls us today to a discipline of ‘anger-diffusion’ by ‘kindness-infusion.’
A Guided Poem for Prayer: From John O’Donohue’s “To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings”
This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.”