A sermon preached on February 16th, 2014 based upon Mathew 5:21 – 16.
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult* a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell* of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister* has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,* and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court* with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Oftentimes the Bible in general — and the Sermon on the Mount in particular — can be challenging to read, to say the least. We hear some very extreme things said here, and what are we to make of them? It’s easy to get led astray.
In the passage that directly follows the one we heard this morning Jesus talks about cutting off parts of the body that cause us to sin, and an early Church Father from the 3rd century by the name of Origen apparently took this quite literally, for he is said to have performed some surgery to render himself a eunuch in order to remove the source of his feelings of lust.
Don’t do that.
But our passage has its own challenges, the first of which is that it seems to conjure up a rather ruthless image of both God and Jesus himself speaking of guilty parties being condemned to prison for what sounds like might be eternity. And for what reason? Simply because the guilty parties are found to have anger within them.
The response to reading this might be to throw the Bible up against the wall (in anger), or worse, perhaps, to set before ourselves the impossible task of attempt to rid ourselves of all anger.
But there are two things to keep in mind. First, it’s hard to know for sure what words Jesus himself spoke and what words the Gospel writer added. This is not to say that we don’t need to take seriously the words added by the Gospel writer, because the Holy Spirit can work in the writing process. But sometimes the writers have their own axes to grind.
Matthew, for instance, seems to have a particular fondness for putting into the mouth of Jesus words that describe people being cast into the outer darkness where they gnash their teeth for eternity. I say they are Matthew’s words and not Jesus’ because these sayings don’t show up in the other three Gospels, and in particular, Mark’s Gospel, which was written the earliest, and which Matthew used as a primary source. So why does Matthew add all these nasty threats? In order, I suppose, to make the point, “This is serious business, so pay attention!”
The second thing to keep in mind was that Jesus often used what is known as “hyperbole” in his teachings – meaning he would exaggerate a point in order to emphasize a point. For instance when he said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” he didn’t really mean that it’s impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, but that wealth brings some pretty dangerous temptations in regard to the health of our souls.
So what is Jesus trying to say in this passage? I think he’s saying that anger is a really big deal, and we do well to give some serious attention to how we relate to anger, because anger has the potential to do us in, even when we don’t act on it directly – that is, murder somebody, or even, scream at somebody.
Now if you’re like me, anger isn’t a subject we like to think about; especially in regards to our own anger. If someone senses we might be angry, and asks us, “Are you angry?” our first instinct is to say, “Angry? No, of course not. What ever gave you that idea?”
But the thing that gave them the idea is that even though we weren’t directly acting out our anger, it was showing up somehow in our body language or tone. It was having a toxic effect on our relationships, as well as on our sense of belonging in the world.
It’s helpful to step back for a moment and consider the role of anger from a scientific point of view – that is, of how it evolved in human beings.
It serves a very practical purpose and that is to mobilize our energy rapidly to act in response to a threat. Fear has the same function.
Back in cavemen times, when a threat suddenly arose in our environment to us or our offspring — a saber-toothed tiger say – survival required a quick, focused response. A very primitive part of the human brain switched into action that immediately decided without conscious thought for either fight for flight. Fight was experienced as anger and meant attack the tiger; flight meant fear and meant retreat from the tiger.
The emotions, and the energy they provided to act immediately, were often the difference between survival and being a tiger’s lunch.
In such a simple and stark environment, both anger and fear would be experienced very intensely, but also very briefly. Once the threat was no longer present, the emotions would quickly fade.
Fast forward to Jesus’ day, and human society had become much more complex and controlled. Being threatened by wild animals was a much less common experience, but other more subtle and complicated threats had come to be common place. The threat, for instance, of somehow being humiliated by your peers, and losing your place of respect in the community.
In such an environment, both anger and fear would tend to be experienced less intensely, but the possibility of experiencing these emotions in a way that wouldn’t easily come to an end became more commonplace.
Fast forward another 2000 years, and here we are today with a far more complex society, where the actual physical threats to our survival are far less, but the perpetual, more subtle threats — the things that cause what we call “stress” — have become all the more common.
But still we tend to respond to these threats with the same basic fight or flight response-mechanism; the same instinctive reaction of anger or fear.
This is a side thought, worth noting. Our bodies are designed with two parallel nervous systems. One kicks into gear when there is danger, mobilizing our energy for action. The other nervous system might be called the default system for it focuses on healing and rejuvenating our bodies. Unfortunately in our modern worlds, when our bodies sense a perpetual sense of threat, they never fully shift back into that state in which they recuperate, wearing down our immune system and making us vulnerable to disease.
But today let’s stick to the subject of anger.
This primitive brain that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years had great survival value in caveman days, but it’s more often a problem when we’re in the middle of a tense conflict with our boss, our spouse, or our teenager. There is a need for a third choice besides attacking or retreating, which is exactly what Jesus is calling us to.
But this doesn’t come easily to us. We tend to deal with our anger in one of two ways that draws from the primitive fight or flight dichotomy: We lash out, speaking words we often later regret, causing a wall to go up between ourselves and the other person.
Or aware of the destructive potential of our anger, we try and pretend is that we’re not angry at all — to try and convince not only others but ourselves as well that nothing’s bothering us about the way others are relating to us.
Sometimes this leads to the unacknowledged anger growing in intensity until something happens that catches us off guard and we lash out in a way we wouldn’t have imagined possible.
In this passage part of what is so challenging is that Jesus seems to be saying that if there is unaddressed anger within us, we are essentially no different from someone who commits murder. I think he’s pointing to the fact that given the wrong circumstances, the anger churning inside us potentially could lead us to commit acts of violence that would horrify us – that in a certain sense, we’ve managed to avoid getting locked up with people who have committed murder by what could be called either the grace of God or simply fortuitous circumstances.
But more often the result of the choice to retreat in our anger is no overt act of violence; it is simply the covert form of violence in which our relationships are undermined. We withdraw from the other person, both physically and emotionally. And we get depressed. It is common for psychologists to refer to depression as anger turned inward.
I would argue that almost every marriage that ends in divorce is a case of anger poorly dealt with, either through destructive rage filled fights, or, as was the case with my own parents, an inability to express anger at all.
We were created by God to live vibrantly in loving relationships, and so for Jesus seeking reconciliation when relationships are broken is supremely important. As he said in this morning’s passage,
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
It is more important to active seek reconciliation than to go to worship.
Jesus himself got angry, and on occasion he didn’t deal with his anger in the manner he set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. He lashed out at the Pharisees, and even his disciples felt the sting of his anger from time to time.
It’s helpful to remember that the only people who find anger easy to deal with are probably the bullies of this world — people who are well on their way to losing their souls as the result of the hardness of their hearts.
But here’s a couple of thoughts.
It’s harder to deal with the anger that arises within us when we’re in a hurry, and modern life has a way of tempting us into believing that if we’re not in a hurry, we’re simply not in touch with reality.
Not all anger is justified, but when we’re in a hurry, we don’t stop to consider whether what we are feeling is something that requires some action on our part. When we racing down the highway the other hurried person who cuts us off seems deserving of an attack from us. If we hadn’t allowed ourselves to be in such a hurry, we would have realized it wasn’t so.
Though there are exceptions, generally speaking when we are aware of anger arising within us it is better to step back and get some perspective.
I once heard somebody say that “taking offense” occurs far more often in this world than “giving offense.” The slights we feel often have more to do with us and our own insecurities than they do with the person in whose presence we felt slighted. We conjured up in this person an active intention to harm us that simply wasn’t there.
Maybe the other person was simply thoughtless, and sometimes the thoughtlessness of others does need to be confronted. But it is important that we not fall prey to our own fantasies in which we imagine other people as having no other purpose in life than to diminish our life.
But there are times when our anger requires some expression, and at such times it is important to realize that anger can be expressed lovingly. The person who is acting in a way that is inconsiderate or even cruel to us or others needs to receive some feedback that confronts them with the fact that their behavior needs to change. And the question for us becomes: how can this be expressed in a manner that is most likely to be received?
There is plenty that could be said in this regard, but suffice to say we need to remember that the offending behavior and the essence of the person are not the same thing. This is why Jesus said not to call others words like “Fool,” which convey the message that their very identity is that of a Fool. It’s not. They are a child of God, even if their behavior fails to live up to their true identity.
And finally, we shouldn’t get attached to our anger, as though it is some kind of god that we must bow down and worship — that to offer forgiveness would be some kind of great betrayal of the core of being. We feel anger — our essence should never be anger.
Let me end with a quote from Frederick Buechner:
“Of the Seven Deadly Sings, 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.”