Anger – confronting ourselves (Matthew 5:21–26)
“I hate you!” “I wish you were dead!” “You’re stupid!” “You’re worthless!” “I want a divorce!” “I wish we never had you!” “I wish you weren’t my parents!” Have you ever uttered any of these statements? If we’re honest, at one moment or another we have all spoken hurtful and hateful words. Yet, typically, most of us dismiss such comments by saying, “You really made me angry.” “I lost my temper.” “I didn’t really mean it.” Or the ever pathetic, “I was just joking.” While it is tempting to minimize our angry words, thoughts, and attitudes, the truth is there can be danger in anger. This is fitting since anger is only one letter away from danger.
In one of the old Peanuts comic strips, Charles Schulz shows Sally trying to locate her memory verse for Sunday School. She has forgotten it, and can’t locate it in the Bible. She is lost in her thoughts trying to remember the reference when she suddenly says, “Maybe it was something from the book of Reevaluation.”1 Sally’s butchering of the book of Revelation is apropos, for the entire Bible is aimed at getting people to reevaluate their lives. In Matt 5:21–26, Jesus forces us to reevaluate our conception of anger. In these six verses, Jesus imparts two exhortations that will help us have healthy relationships. He says, “Nurture and esteem your relationships.”
1. Recognize that unrighteous anger is murder (5:21–22). Previously, in 5:20, Jesus said that our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now He stops preaching and starts meddling! Seriously, Jesus could have tackled any subject but He begins the body of His sermon by dealing with anger—a sin that many of us struggle with. In 5:21 Jesus says, “You have heard that the ancients [the Israelites] were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’” The opening phrase “you have heard…” alerts us to the fact that Jesus is going to quote from the Old Testament. Here, He quotes the sixth commandment: “You shall not commit murder” (Exod 20:13). He then reminds us of the penalty—“you shall be liable to the court.” At this point, Jesus’ listeners must have been thinking, “Yup, we got it. We’re not supposed to murder anybody. We’ve heard that one before. And we’ve behaved. We’re not murderers. We’re not guilty. We’re good, moral, ethical people. So preach on preacher!” You’ve got to admit, it’s always more comfortable when the preacher talks about other people, right? You’ve probably heard people say, “I’m not a bad person; I mean, I’ve never killed anyone.” Even as Christians, it’s easy to be smug and think that since we haven’t physically murdered anyone this commandment doesn’t apply to us. But Jesus undoes this thinking. He presses the sixth command inward when He drops a preaching bomb.
In 5:22 Jesus declares, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry7 with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good–for–nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” Jesus begins by saying, “But I say to you…” He is affirming everything in the Old Testament, but He is also fulfilling it. That is, He is “filling it full” of meaning. What was implicit in the Old Testament Law, Jesus is making explicit. He is giving insight into the original purpose of God’s Law, a purpose that had been lost among the teachers of His day. Jesus is saying, “I’m going to the very heart of the Law to show you how you can live out its deepest meaning.” In doing so, He moves from the fruit of murder to the root of murder—an evil heart attitude. Jesus insists that we are all guilty of murder because we’ve been angry in word, thought, attitude, or action. In other words, refraining from homicide does not impress God.
On the contrary, since God looks upon the heart, unrighteous anger can render one subject to God’s judgment. The terms “court” and “supreme court” refer to God’s heavenly court since no human court is competent to try a case of internal anger. Jesus goes even further when He states that the offender is guilty enough to go to hell. Have you ever been angry with anyone in word, thought, or attitude? Jesus says, “You deserve to go to hell!” Fortunately, Christ’s death has made salvation available to those who believe. If Jesus hadn’t paid for your sin with His death, you would spend eternity in hell, not just for murder but even for speaking insults. Thus, nurture and esteem your relationships.
Let’s break down these insults quickly. The phrase translated “good-for-nothing” is the Aramaic term raca. Take a moment and pronounce this word. It sounds wicked, doesn’t it? It also sounds like you’re about ready to hock a logy in someone’s face. YUCK! In Jesus’ day, raca was an Aramaic insult that meant something like “You worthless son of a motherless goat.” (This is not a literal translation!) The word means, “You brainless blockhead,” “you empty–headed fool,” “you idiot,” “you imbecile.” I think you get the idea. You used the colorful description raca when you were angry and wanted to attack a person’s self–worth and dignity. The same is true of “You fool!” The word behind “fool” is the Greek noun moros, from which we get “moron.” In Jesus’ day, moros was used to describe a person’s mental abilities; however, it was also used to describe a person’s moral character. If you referred to someone as moros you were calling that person “a stupid liar,” “a stupid cheater,” or “a stupid infidel.” It was an insult on someone’s morals as well as their character. Although raca and moros seem to be synonymous, raca seems to express contempt for a man’s head (his intellect), while moros expresses contempt for his heart (his character).
The problem of name–calling was far more serious in Jesus’ society than ours. Theirs was an honor–and–shame society. Most people had little to trade with except their honor, and to belittle other persons publicly was a serious matter. If a person were to lose his or her good reputation, it was about the same as dying. Jesus seems to say that when you treat persons as nothing by calling them names, you have in effect, already murdered them. Character assassination is just another type of murder.
It’s interesting that Jesus includes the phrase “with his brother”—“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother…” Isn’t it true that our anger tends to flare up most often against those we know the best and love the most? It’s hard to get angry and stay angry at people we don’t know. But let a friend or a relative do something we don’t like, and suddenly we blow our top.19 We tend to have little patience with our loved ones. Yet, Jesus’ primary concern is our relationships with those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. He cares about how we treat our spouse, children, siblings, and fellow believers. In Col 3:19 Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them.” Although this verse is directed to husbands, it is applicable to wives as well. We need to stop our guilt trips, fault-finding, name-calling, yelling, sarcasm, and blaming. Speaking once again to husbands, Peter says that if we don’t treat our spouse with love and respect, our prayers will be hindered (1 Pet 3:7). In Eph 6:4 Paul writes, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (cf. Col 3:21).
As parents, we need to make sure that we show our children God’s love and compassion. In 1 Tim 2:8 Paul states, “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” The qualification for me to pray is to forsake ungodly anger. If we are angry, our fellowship with God is adversely affected, which means we lack power. The next time you become angry at your spouse, children, or fellow believer, think long and hard before cursing them. Don’t be lulled into thinking that it’s no big deal if you shout at your spouse or kids. It is a big deal.
So does this mean that every expression of anger is sin? No! Jesus and Paul both called people “fools.” But this was not flippant name–calling. Jesus and Paul labeled people “fools” because they were blindly allowing their religious practices to distort their lives with God. They were simply making statements of fact. Moreover, Jesus did get angry in the Gospels. He was angry when He cleared the temple (John 2:13–22). He was angry with those who assailed Him for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5). Yet, His anger was not a personal attack. When Jesus was angry, it was because of injustice and sin. Jesus exercised righteous anger. Like Jesus, we should exercise a righteous anger (Eph 4:26). We should be angry with abortionists, drug peddlers, pornographers, racists, and vicious world dictators. When others pervert and destroy God’s purposes, we should have a sense of righteous indignation. Unfortunately, most Christians don’t struggle with righteous anger; we tend to struggle with unrighteous anger.
So how can you get a grip on your anger?
Stay tuned for the exciting finish next week!