You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or a sister, will be subject to judgement. 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.
Matthew 5: 21-26
The reading for this study is longer than usual, but is important to be seen as a whole. Whenever looking at any teachings in scripture, it is important to look at the context, because without that it is very easy to even say the opposite of what is intended. There have often been times when people have been led astray by having a verse taken out of context and then forming doctrine that is neither the truth nor divinely inspired.
This section of the sermon serves two purposes. It extends the teaching we looked at in the previous study, which deals with how it is impossible to please God through enslaving yourself to practices of legalism. Today’s passage also looks at how we relate to others, something that is a big feature of most of the Sermon on the Mount.
There is one big problem with legalism and spending inordinate amounts of time and energy in trying to please God in this way – it results in enslavement to the letter of the law indiscriminately. It does not allow for ‘common sense’ (dismissed by legalistic Christians as ‘the error of situational ethics’, which is a gross over-simplification to put it mildly) or the ‘spirit of the law’. And with Jesus, this ‘spirit’ is a two-edged sword. It is both to do with the perfection that is in the Godhead, and it is a standard that is impossible for humans to achieve in this life. It is also to do with the loving father heart of God, who desires to see this aspect of His character displayed in the lives of His children.
It can be obvious to follow the letter of a law that states don’t commit murder. Yet Jesus follows this by saying we are equally subject to judgement when angry with a brother or a sister.
I don’t want to enter the arguments that I have seen from others about whether this is talking about a familial relationship, or about someone of the same faith, or same racial group, and so on. It is my personal view that, to get bogged down in such arguments is to miss the point of this passage of scripture entirely.
This is a clear demonstration of the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of it, as desired by a loving father. Any father would be sad to see his children bickering and arguing. He would be even more sad to see it turn to anger, or to hear the words, ‘I hate you!’, or to see it turn to actual fighting. We all want peace in the home, whether or not we are parents. And especially in the family, we are placed together with folks who we have not chosen for ourselves, yet it is expected and desirable to have love there and not hatred. To have peace in the home, and not bad feelings or anger.
When we are angry with someone, part of our soul imagines life without the other person in it. Yes, you can deny this if you want, but you will only be kidding yourself. It sounds scary because, in your imagination, you have imagined how much ‘better’ the world would be without the other person. How many degrees or steps between such a thing and the actual physical act of murder? One thing is for sure: anger is the first step along that path.
Anger can be difficult to control in your own strength. The increase in the number of anger management classes in most countries of the world is evidence of this. Wife beatings and child cruelty often result from uncontrolled anger. (And as an aside here, I think it is nothing short of absolutely and completely disgusting, a source of shame before God and man, when Christians justify this through verses of scripture – and especially certain scriptures I can think of from the book of Proverbs. These same scriptures, just as the obvious verse from the Ten Commandments, become subject to what Jesus is saying here, like it or not. And if you wish to be a New Covenant Christian and not in danger of being subject to judgement through legalism, you had better pay attention to what Jesus is saying here!)
I can ask the obvious question here: who among us has never been angry? I think most would agree with me that, for the person who says they have never been angry, I would not believe you. It is a normal reaction of all human beings. We defend our ‘territory’, whatever that means for us, and if there is too much of an ‘encroachment’ by someone else, the natural defensive reactions come into play. And anger is part of this.
Perhaps it may be that you defend your ‘right to be right’, and so when you are in a discussion with someone about something, you have a problem if they disagree with you, and especially if they begin to try to show you how you are wrong in your own beliefs and logic. It may be that you are possessive about your relationships, and so you do not like it if a close friend spends a lot of time with someone else. You may begin as a child, defending your toys, and being angry or jealous when a visiting child is playing and using your toys.
Some try to teach the logic of no possessions. You know what I mean here and are sure to have heard it before: that we have entered this world naked and with no possessions, and that we will leave it in the same way. That any possessions gained in this lifetime cannot be taken with us into the next life. So it is ‘harmful’ to develop an attachment to things. I would say about this that it is one thing to teach about it, but another thing entirely to live it out. Some can enter into the spirit of this and feel ‘released’ as a result. For others it will simply become another form of legalism, and so will be enchained by this – resulting in harsh judgement of self when there are perceived ‘failures’, and with the discouragement following on from such.
Others, myself included, try to avoid consequences by removing yourself from the situation when you feel angry. I simply go out and take a walk, not wanting others to face my anger. It is such a negative emotion, and in my experience pretty much anything said or done in anger becomes something to regret later on. But this is only a partial solution, and still leaves you subject to the judgement by my understanding of the words of Jesus.
One thing is clear: not only is it important to see that the law extends much further than the statutes as written in the scriptures, but also, because of this fact, we are all guilty and we all fall short of the standards that are expected.
And all of this brings us back to the surprising statement of Jesus from yesterday’s study, that our righteousness should surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. There is only one who fulfils all the law and the prophets, and that one is Jesus. As we give our lives to Him, and accept that wonderful sacrifice of love for us, so we identify with Him and receive His righteousness which has much greater effect and power than the filthy rags of legalism.
And so to today’s subject of anger. We can try legalism to deal with it, but before God we will fail. We can try therapy or methods, attend anger management groups or whatever, but these things will not defeat the problem of anger and they will not make us right before God.
What is certainly needed is a daily placing of our selves on that cross. And when we feel that anger rising up, perhaps it is safest to first extract yourself from the situation so that you can be alone before God. And now it will be time to pray – and at this moment the anger would make it natural to ask God to correct the problem in the other, that thing that made us angry in the first place.
But why should God even listen to such a prayer? The anger exists inside you, and this is what makes you subject to judgement. It is you, and not the other person, that needs to become right with God at that moment. It is you, and not the other person, who needs deliverance from sin and sinful thought.
Only when you have dealt with the sin in your own heart and soul, when the anger is washed away by the power released on the cross, only then will it be right to begin to pray for the other. But watch your words! To dwell on what it was that made you angry can easily begin to stir those same feelings again. Instead, you should be praying love and blessings on your brother or sister. Pray for their well-being and their increase, desiring nothing but good for them.
As you pray for the other, begin to enter into the love that the Lord has for the other person. This is a person God created, and who Jesus went to the cross to die for. Your release will be found by entering into this love, and the realisation that it was while you were still a sinner, and unclean, that Jesus loved you and died for you.
So, before you finish this time with God, allow there to be gratitude in your heart. You will find that it is actually possible to be grateful to the Lord to have that other person in your life! Praise God!