Ok apart from an interesting bit of trivia and trainspotting, I found it rather ironic to call this series of the Sermon on the Mount by a title that was a misquote, because in a roundabout way it highlights what Jesus is doing in this section of his sermon. In the beatitudes Jesus had given a grand invitation to people to come into the Kingdom of God, then he had told his disciples they were to be salt and light in the world. Then as we saw last week he said that His kingdom was not a radical departure from what had gone before, but rather he had come to fulfil the law. That you couldn’t get into the kingdom of heaven unless your righteousness was greater and deeper than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees, that it wasn’t just an external righteousness but reflected a transformed heart.
Now he moves not to address misquotes, the religious people of Jesus day wouldn’t do that, but to correct their misinterpretation of the law in a series of case studies Jesus calls his listeners to see the radical way the Kingdom of heaven is to be lived out. You have heard it said … But I say, here is what is at the heart of the matter, here is the deeper understanding, the deeper righteousness. Today we are looking at the first of those case studies. Where Jesus starts with the sixth commandment,’ thou shall not murder’ and uses it to cover the attitude of anger as well…that those who follow Jesus should be about bridge building not grave digging.
I spent a year at Otago University as a mature student and had a great time getting to know an amazing array of people. One guy was a radical animal rights activist and he knew I was studying to become a minister so would spend time discussing faith and scripture with me. The one of those conversation revolved around the sixth commandment ‘thou shall not murder’ he wanted to know if this was a blanket commandment against any kind of killing including that of animals. He wanted to know if it was a biblical mandate for his vegan lifestyle. I had to explain that while the bible had some strict rules around the treatment of animals that thou shall not kill was really a law against homicide or murder, rather than all kinds of killing. In fact when you look at the Old Testament law it does not cover killing in war or capital punishment by the state, both of which are sanctioned and there is a lot in the first five books of the bible about how do you deal with accidental and unintentional killings of human beings. What we’d call manslaughter and accidental death or death by negligence. While down through history Christians have wrestled with the issue of involvement in war and the death penalty, and sadly ended up on both sides of the debate, the sixth commandment does seem to be specifically about one person intentionally killing, murdering another. A just society cannot condone such an action. It must be judged and punished, so it was with God’s people Israel… and Jesus does not question that … however he does go on to say that this is not simply the line we shouldn’t cross, that the intention behind the law was a way of treating each other that respected life. That was about reconciliation and right relationships.
But I say… Again Jesus is claiming the right to interpret the law to show the intent behind what was written, As David Hill puts it “the messianic radicalization of the law applies it to the underlying cause of murder-anger”. Even beyond that while law limits evil Jesus kingdom is about living out the positive behind the prohibition, keeping right relationships, being peacemakers.
“But I tell you”, Says Jesus, “anyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgement.” While a court may be able to determine from evidence that someone committed murder Jesus here is saying that in the case of God, God looks at the heart. God calls us not just not to not act out our anger to it limit, but to deal with the very attitude itself. Boy is that radical.
Of course that does not mean that followers of Jesus are to be passionless people. It’s the other way round. We are to be very passionate. There is such a thing as righteous anger. In fact in later manuscripts of the gospel of Matthew ‘without reason’ is inserted into the text after angry… to differentiate. Injustice is supposed to make us angry, like Jesus was at the way the Pharisees wrote people off and at the money lenders at the temple, turning peoples desire for God into a money making venture. Injustice is supposed to make us angry.. how we express that is the challenge. It has to be against the injustice not people, it has to cause a positive life promoting response, not as Paul warns about Anger lead us into sin, giving the devil a foothold.
Jesus gives two examples of what he means. Jesus will later deal with the food laws and for Jesus it is not what goes in to a person’s mouth that defiles them but rather what comes out. He shows that how we speak to and of others reflects what’s in our hearts. Jesus uses two words here to illustrate what he means by anger. We have the Hebrew word ‘raca’, insults and put downs don’t necessarily stand the test of time and while we have an understanding of the meaning of this word, we don’t really know how damaging it was in Jesus day. Basically it wrote some one off or denigrates their intelligence, like nitwit or numbskull in our language. Jesus says anyone who does this should be libel to the religious council.
Then he goes one step further and says anyone who calls someone a fool! Will be in danger of the fires of Hell. Again while the Greek word here is in common use in our day Moron again its exact meaning in Jesus day is not known. Jesus will later call the Pharisees fools, but this word does seem to write people off as being empty and bring into question their very nature. Both words have the idea that someone is beyond redemption. The word Jesus uses for the fires of hell here actually is gehenna which refers to the rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem, which would often be seen to be smouldering and burning. So in that you can get beyond simply saying am I Ok if I don’t use those particular words to what Jesus is getting at. If you rubbish someone and out of anger write them off, like they were refuse, you are in danger of being treated the same. We don’t write people off. We don’t denigrate them and rubbish them because we are angry with them.. You will remember Jesus had started his sermon on the mount with the beatitude a revolution of grace saying that the Kingdom of heaven was open to all. It’ also a warning that Anger can consume us until there is nothing left, just a smoldering heap.
Jesus then moves to give us two examples of how we should treat other people. How we should deal with anger. He gives two illustrations of what to do when we are in the wrong, when our brothers and sister in the kingdom or people outside it have got something against us. Not if we have been wronged, he and we will get to that later on when Jesus talks about the use of the saying ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But here its dealing when we have harmed another person, Jesus says well it up to you not to let it linger but to sort it out. If you are worshipping God and you remember someone has something against you… leave what you are doing and go sort it. Right relationships are more important in God’s eye that right rituals. Go and ask forgiveness, go and make it right. In the book of James which is seen as paralleling the ethical teaching of Jesus Sermon on the Mount, it asks a good question ‘How can you worship God with you mouthg and at the same time curse people who are made in the image of God’. The answer from Jesus is you can’t… don’t dig a grave go and build a bridge.
We should seek to be reconciled and make amends. We should do it as soon as possible.
I mentioned last week that this was going to get real personal and real practical. Here are some thoughts about dealing with anger.
In the Ephesians reading we had today Paul tells people not to let the sun go down on your anger, not let it lead you into sin. Anger and bitterness can be like a fester sore that infects the whole system, unless we deal with it and treat it as soon as possible. We need to keep a short account. Pride often stops us when we know we’ve done something wrong from being the one who makes the first move… but we need to be. The Scott Guy murder trial is a good example in New Zealand weather Ewan Mcdonald is innocent or not to see the damage that undealt with anger can have.
Often anger is a reaction that fight or flight instinct. Be it the person who treads on your foot, or one of my weaknesses when someone swerves in front of you out on the road. Or someone does something that hurts emotionally we need to acknowledge that it is an alarm that something is not right.
How we use that anger is in our control. We need to learn to not act out our anger… or to control it and use it in a healthy way. In the car example it gives us the adrenaline rush we need to react quickly but we do need to count to ten and breathe…. Deeply… so we don’t answer that swerve with a serve.
It’s the same with relationships however If something continues to bother you, then you need to talk it out and sort it out not take it out.
We also need to realise that anger is over a situation not the person. In Alpha’s marriage series there is a great saying we need to learn to sit on the couch together with the issue on the table before us, not on the couch between us.
IN Jesus teaching the impetuous is on the person causing the offense to be the one that deals with it, that we are to seek reconciliation with people we have offended. So often things escalate because we are not prepared to admit fault or ask for forgiveness. It’s part of recognising our spiritual poverty and mourning over our brokenness, of living as a peace maker and being meek and humble , the character traits of a follower of Jesus., that we would this.
Western writer Louis L’amour sums up what Jesus says about anger brilliantly in this quote ‘Anger is a killing thing: it kills the man who angers, for each rage leaves him less than he had been before - it takes something from him.’ It’s best left to Corrie Ten Boom the Dutch Christian whose family died in Nazi concentration camps and yet after the war worked tirelessly to house and help resettle displaced German people to sum up our response to anger "Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hate. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness."