I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where nothing surprises me and few things shock me. When I hear about another act of violence, another shooting, another murder – it hardly phases me. I’ve come to expect it – I’m surprised that there isn’t more of it. Maybe I’ve gotten too cynical, or maybe it’s because we really do live in a fallen world that has decayed to the point that people don’t see any other options for venting their frustration except through anger, violence and murder.
And you’re thinking, “wait a minute, just because people get angry doesn’t mean they’re going to murder someone.” And you’re right, of course. But Jesus recognized the deep connection between the two and warned us that when we allow anger to take up residence in our lives and fester and grow, it is only a couple of steps and a fatal decision away from murder.
And again, you’re saying to yourself, “I would never murder someone.” And I’m glad – most of us won’t ever go that far. But do you ever get angry? Do you ever harbor resentment? Do you ever speak words of contempt and hatred? Jesus says, “you’ve already taken the first step.”
In Matthew 5:20, Jesus has just finished proclaiming that he came not to abolish, but to fulfill the Law. The subsequent six declarations, each preceded by the statement, “You have heard that it was said…” and followed by “but I say to you…” demonstrate in a powerful way precisely what Jesus meant by that.
It would have been striking to those listening, that Jesus begins by saying, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder.’” Without question, Jesus is referring to the sixth commandment delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But whenever scripture was referred to or quoted, the normal phrases indicating that were “It is written,” or “Thus says the Lord.”
But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says instead, “You have heard that it was said…” And that was the problem. The teachers of the Law had taken the Law, and molded it and manipulated it and legalized it and minimized it until what they had always “heard that it was said,” was not what it meant.
Jesus is in no way countering the truth of scripture. He isn’t for a moment changing the Law. But he is challenging what they had made of the Law.
You see, by this time, the oral and written tradition surrounding the Law had grown enormous. Through the years, the teachers – those entrusted with interpreting and preserving the Law – had created a body of regulations around every Law – 640 rules in all, covering every contingency, every possible circumstance. They had precisely and minutely detailed the Law – but they had missed the point of the Law. It was not a matter of needing to increase the number of external prohibitions, but of digging deeper. It wasn’t the breadth, but the depth of the Law they had missed.
And so Jesus, with unparalleled authority, begins, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…”
And when Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount, the overwhelming response will be amazement. Why? “Because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the Law.”
Jesus, in these verses does something remarkable in this teaching – at one and the same time, he challenges the contemporary teaching and understanding of the Law, and then proclaims the very heart of the Law.
The heart of the Law? What does that mean? As startling as Jesus’ authority with which he spoke, the standard which he set was more so.
The common assumption was that the Law was an external checklist of activities to avoid – and having accomplished that – to be declared righteous by God. That was never God’s intention. As Paul would write in Rom. 3:20, “Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the Law.”
They had always assumed that if you kept from murdering another person, if you stayed out of bed with another man’s wife, if you followed the legal procedures for divorce and for keeping oaths – then you were righteous before God. You played the game by his rules – you were declared a winner.
And with those rules they had created the precise demands of action it required and loopholes that could release one from responsibility and guilt, without ever considering that what God wanted was not simply a slavish, legalistic obedience to external rules, but the heart that lies behind the action.
Of all the sins which we can imagine, murder would have to be among the most heinous. To take the life of another human being in cold blood.
It is without question the ultimate act of anger and hatred. And as Jesus points out, the consequence of murder is being subject to judgment. God had said in Gen. 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.”
By the world’s standards, if a man refrains from murder he is guiltless – he is considered a good man. But Jesus drives home the point that while a man might refrain from murder, no man has shielded himself from the feelings that would eventually and ultimately lead to murder.
Murder does not begin when the trigger is pulled or the knife is plunged. Murder begins in the heart. It begins with the anger that blazes up and is fed and fueled and nurtured into bitterness and hatred. And the man who is angry has taken the first step down the path that ends in murder.
Very few of us will ever come to the end of that path and actually consider murdering someone. With God’s grace, none of us will ever be guilty of committing murder. But, let’s not pat ourselves on the back and pronounce ourselves righteous. Because in our hearts – far from the reach of human courts – lie the seeds of murder. And righteousness with God goes far deeper than external compliance with the Law.
Anger is a particularly difficult emotion to deal with. There are indeed some forms of anger which are not sinful – God himself is on occasion angry. Jesus displayed instances when he was angry. But there is a difference between that kind of anger and the anger that we commonly experience. When God displays anger, it is always directed toward injustice and unrighteousness. When Jesus acted in anger, it was selfless – he was in control. But our anger is rarely selfless or justified. James writes, “For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:20).
Our anger is centered inward on something someone has done to us – how they have wronged us or slighted us or inconvenienced us. Our anger blazes out at others for what they have done that affects us. It is first and foremost selfish.
We justify and sanctify our anger: “That’s just the way I am.” “I just fly off the handle.” “I’m Irish/Italian/Arab/red-headed.” “I’ve had a bad day.” “You made me angry.”
Solomon had several things to say about the consequences of anger:
· Proverbs 29:22 An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins.
· Proverbs 22:24-25 Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.
Here in Matthew 5, Jesus takes us on a little trip, during which he looks at some of the expressions of anger – “…But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matt 5:22
There are some words that are used in this teaching that we need to understand and be aware of:
· Jesus uses two Greek words for anger: Thumos (a flame in dry straw – quick to blaze, quick to die down). Orge (hot burning coals, fed and kept alive). Here in vs. 22, he uses the word orge – describing the kind of anger that has settled in and burns long and hot and creates the stew of revenge.
· Raca – the expression of utter contempt (the kind of word that when you used it as a kid, your mouth got washed out with soap). It questions the very essence of a person’s worth.
· Moros – the word for a moral fool – not a criticism of his intelligence, but his moral character. It branded his name and reputation. It was so degrading, so derogatory that it was to say, “you don’t deserve to live.”
· They are cutting and hurtful and demeaning, but the insult is ultimately upon God who created him and Christ who died for him.
Jesus is saying that not only are a man’s outward actions under judgment; his inmost thoughts are also under the scrutiny and the judgment of God. Long-lasting anger is bad; words of contempt are worse, and the careless or malicious talk which destroys a man’s reputation is worst of all. The man who is the slave of anger, the man who speaks with contempt, the man who destroys another’s reputation, may never have committed a murder in action, but he is a murderer at heart.
Don’t misunderstand - Jesus is not creating a gradation of punishment, but saying that all expressions of anger bring a man or woman under the judgment of God.
“Judgment – Sanhedrin – the fire of hell” – they are a reminder that, punishment from a human council is not our ultimate concern, but punishment from God.
This is one of those instances where Jesus speaks of Gehenna – the valley of Hinnom to the southwest of Jerusalem. King Ahaz instituted fire worship to the Canaanite god Molech – children were sacrificed. When Josiah became king, he abolished it and ordered it accursed – the valley became the city garbage dump, a public incinerator – it became identified with all that was accursed and filthy. Fire smoldered, a stinking pall of thick smoke hung over it. It became a synonym for hell itself.
The point is this – lest we think of anger as insignificant and unimportant – God takes it very seriously and imposes serious consequences on it.
Anger is like an aggressive, malignant cancer that destroys every living cell in its path. But it’s worst victim? The one who gives it a place and allows it to grow.
Frederick Beuchner paints a graphic picture of the effects of anger: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” (Frederick Beuchner, Wishful Thinking)
Anger destroys relationships. But when relationships go sour, it doesn’t just hurt that human relationship, it affects our relationship with God – “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Matt 5:23-24.
The apostle John talks about the effect that anger and hatred have upon that relationship – If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 1 John 4:20.
We would like to think of anger as a character flaw, but the Bible pictures it as a relationship destroyer – your relationships with people, but more – your relationship with God.
So, how do you handle anger?
· Do you simmer and brood?
· Do you lash out and inflict pain on others?
· The Bible tells us take care of anger immediately – if that means leaving your gift at the altar to go make amends and reconcile – if it means settling matters on the way to court with your adversary – do it now. There is an urgency to it that is unmistakable.
Regardless of whose fault, who did what to whom – you are responsible for taking the initiative in reconciliation. Paul gives us some outstanding counsel – “In your anger do not sin.” Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Eph. 4:26-27.
I’m assuming that none of you have ever murdered someone – I’ve known some who have. They are people you would never have suspected that they could commit such a violent act. But something snapped, in the heat of the moment, anger burst into flame and consumed them. And their lives would never be the same. The families of the victims they left behind – usually their own families – the victims were their wife or their son or their brother – those families were destroyed.
But lest we pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves that we could never be tempted to murder, I wonder how you handle your anger. Murder doesn’t begin when you put a bullet in the chamber, but when you let anger take up residence in your heart.
More to the point – it’s easy to tear down and destroy with our words – to murder another person’s character, his reputation, his self-esteem – the question is can you build up others with your words, lift up, edify, bring life instead of death?