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Matthew #15. Matthew 5:21-26
Let’s do a quick review to set the stage for this next section of the sermon on the mount. Jesus began the whole discourse by describing several character traits that are the manifestations of his own life, flowing through the lives of people who follow him. He promises that letting him live through us in that way brings blessing. Next, he points out that when we let him live through us in that way, it is salt and light to the world. Last time, we saw how he goes on to declare that he does not abolish the law, but rather, affirms it and complete us.
Now, Jesus explains what he has been saying through several examples. He starts with the issue of anger and hate. Jesus is fleshing out everything he has said so far. He is showing how it looks to be meek, to show mercy and to be a peace-maker. He is explaining how “salty” (think “counter-cultural”) it is to let him work through us, and he is affirming and further explaining the teaching of the Old Testament on this issue, and showing how the Jews in his days were actually straying from the law.
The rest of chapter five is divided into six segments, starting at verses 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, and 43. Each segment begins with the same phrases. Jesus starts each one by saying, “You have heard that it was said…” and then he mentions a common Jewish teaching; after this he completes the phrase with this: “…but I say to you…” This little structure is more important than we realize. By the time of Jesus, Jewish Rabbis had begun to the adopt the practice of quoting other Rabbis and commenting on what they had said. In other words, when a Rabbi taught about the Sabbath, he did not teach directly from the Old Testament scriptures that talk about the Sabbath. Instead, he might read a scripture about it, and then comment on the teachings of other Rabbis – not on the Old Testament text itself. He might say something like this: “Rabbi Hillel taught that to keep the Sabbath holy it was necessary to…” Or, “It has been said that these four things are essential to the proper observation of the Sabbath…”
Jesus was rejecting this kind of teaching. He says “You have heard it said…” but then, “I say to you..” In other words, he isn’t quoting someone else, or citing some other Old Testament authority. He is teaching on the basis of his own authority. He is clearly saying that it doesn’t matter to him what someone else might have said about it.
There is one more thing we should notice with each of these six segments. The Jewish teaching was focused on outward behavior. For this example (in verse 21), if you just didn’t murder someone, you were fine, according to the Rabbis. But Jesus was focusing on heart-attitudes. Good outward behavior is great. But Jesus is pointing out that sin begins in the heart. You might refrain from murder, and still have murder in your heart; according to Jesus, that is just as much a sin.
Let’s continue on by looking today at this first segment, where Jesus explains how a disciple relates to anger and hate.
The story goes that when Sinbad and his sailors landed on a tropical island, they saw high up in the trees coconuts which could quench their thirst and satisfy their hunger. These coconuts were far above the reach of Sinbad and the sailors, but in the branches of the trees were chattering apes. Sinbad and his men began to throw stones and sticks up at the apes. This enraged the monkeys and they began to seize the coconuts and hurl them down at the men on the ground. That was just what Sinbad and his men wanted. They got the apes angry so that the apes would gather their food for them.
In the same way, the devil can often use our anger to provoke us to harsh words, rash actions and sinful behaviors. When we give in to these impulses we are just like Sinbad’s monkeys – we are being used by the devil for his purposes. Scripture warns against this in numerous places, and Jesus reiterates the seriousness of anger here in Matthew 5:21-26.
The Pharisees and teachers of the Law were content to judge only external behaviors – in this case, murder (v. 21) and a particularly bad insult (“Raca”, v. 22). The Jewish leaders, in taking this approach were in accord with years of rabbinical commentary on the Old Testament. But Jesus insists that the root of the problem is anger, held in the heart. Murder and insults were only manifestations of sinful anger. Therefore Jesus announces that anger itself is a problem. In so doing, Jesus cuts through years of Jewish commentaries that led people away from the scripture, and reminded them of the many scriptural warnings about anger.
I personally was shocked when I began to research what the Bible has to say about anger. I think I had become a little like the Jews, and had, in my mind, softened what scripture really says. In Genesis 4:6 God speaks to Cain about his anger against Abel, and cautions him that unless he masters it, sin will master him. Job 19:29 explicitly states that a person’s wrath will bring him punishment. Psalms 37 warns against becoming angry. The book of Proverbs is also full of warnings against anger. Here are four of them that are representative of the rest:
“A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.” (12:16)
“An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins.” (29:22)
“For as churning the milk produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife.” (30:33)
“Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” (16:32)
The New Testament also warns against “fits of rage” (Galatians 5:20) and tells us to get rid of anger and rage (Colossians 3:8). James has a very strong statement about anger:
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. (James 1:19-20)
So anger is indeed a serious business, and as James points out, it does not lead to righteousness. But some of the Biblical record about anger is confusing. After all, God gets angry, so how can anger be a sin? Not only that, but when someone does something particularly hurtful to us, can we really stop that first initial burst of anger?
I think that scripture is actually pretty clear about the answers to these questions. When we look at what the Bible as a whole says about anger, I think a good statement that summarizes it all goes something like this:
Anger, when it is not dealt with, leads to sin and strife.
The emotion of anger, because it is an emotion, is not in and of itself a sin. But anger tempts us to sin. Think of a time when you were so mad, you just wanted to haul off and hit someone. What you were experiencing was a temptation caused by anger.
Anger tempts us in many other ways – it tempts us to use hurtful words, or to take spiteful actions, to damage the property of others or to take revenge in some way. Anger also tempts us to hate, or to become bitter. It tempts us to not forgive others.
So even though the feeling of anger in and of itself is not sin, it can very quickly lead to sin, which is why the Bible warns so strongly against it. And there does come a point when we move from feeling angry to being angry. We can get to this point very quickly. Being angry happens when we choose at some level to hold on to anger. We choose (perhaps even unconsciously) to not resolve our anger as soon as possible. Being angry is a sin. If you are wondering how to tell if you simply feel angry (which is not a sin) or if you are being angry (which is a sin) you can ask yourself a few important questions:
What efforts have I made to resolve the feelings of anger? (i.e. have you expressed it to the person you’re angry with? Have you prayed about it? Have you, after venting your anger, forgiven the person? The more efforts you make to resolve it, and the sooner you make those efforts, the better off you are.)
How long have I felt this way? (the longer it is, the more likely you are being angry. In fact, the Apostle Paul suggests that being angry longer than one day gives a foothold to the devil [Ephesians 4:26]).
What is my underlying attitude toward the person I’m angry at? (If you wouldn’t cry to hear she lost all her fingernails in a freak bowling accident, your anger is probably sinful).
What have I done with my feelings of anger? (If you have expressed them clearly to the person without deliberately trying to hurt them, you probably just feel angry. But if you have bottled up your feelings and still think about them often, you are probably being angry).
It seems to me that Jesus was talking about being angry (rather than only feeling angry) when he said “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” He was also, of course, talking about the many sins that feelings of anger tempt us to commit. In any case, Jesus’ antidote to anger (which the rest of scripture also affirms) is to settle it quickly.
He gives the example in verse 23 of someone in an act of worship who remembers a dispute. Jesus actually recommends that such a person leave the middle of a worship service to go and resolve his anger and dispute with a brother (fellow Christian). Jesus knows that unresolved anger quickly leads to being angry, as well as a host of other sins. Therefore he emphasizes the importance of resolving differences as quickly as humanly possible, even if it means leaving in the middle of church! Anger is like fire, and if you try to hold on to it for even a little while it will burn you and destroy your surroundings.
Now it is important to learn to express anger. Holding it inside will not resolve it. Pretending we don’t feel angry will not solve anything. But we must learn to express anger in a way that does not try to hurt others, but only explains how we feel. And once we have expressed it in this way as fully as we can, we must learn to let go of it. Because simply expressing our anger won’t fix things either, if we don’t then release it. I know people who have been expressing anger for years, but never letting go of it. They are living in the sin of being angry.
One more brief observation. It seems to me that often we think we are angry when we are really just hurt. We express ourselves angrily, and we even embrace anger (sinfully) but the original problem was that we were hurt deeply. Once again, avoid being angry. Learn to express your hurt without trying to hurt the other person back. As Paul writes:
“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. (Ephesians 4:26-27)
One thing that has helped me to let go of anger is the realization that God has been angry at all sin – including the sins perpetrated against me. God didn’t overlook what was done to me by others – he punished it, the same way he punished my sins – which is to say, the punishment fell upon Jesus.
If I believe that my sins were justly paid for and punished in Jesus’ death on the cross, I must also believe the same is true of the sins committed by others that directly hurt me. The sin that I want to be angry about has already been punished. God’s anger has already been unleashed on it. Now it is a matter between the person who did it, and Jesus. Knowing this helps me to let it go.
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