Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 5:21-26 Concerning Anger
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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. 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. Come 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Today’s reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount. The first part is the Beatitudes... that list of “Blessed are(s)…" where the meek, the mourners, and the peacemakers are lifted up and called blessed. After that, there is a section about how a disciple is to act in the world. “You are the salt of the earth... You are the light of the world.” Then, there’s a section on how Jesus has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, so the religious commandments were still useful and necessary ways to orient your life towards God. Today’s reading is in that part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is talking about the Law.
Beginning with verse 21 and continuing well past what we heard today, clear to the end of chapter 5, Jesus offers up some specific teaching on what it means to follow his interpretation of Jewish religious laws and practice. In his notes on the text, Andrew Overman notes that Jesus singles out the Ten Commandments, as well as some other religious laws from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in his teaching. He explains the law and how one should adapt their behavior in order to follow that religious law. In his commentary on this text, Eric Barreto says that Jesus is helping his followers cultivate a relationship with God through “a faithful recalling of and reinvestment in ancient, trustworthy tradition.” Remember, he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
Interestingly, he doesn’t begin this reinvestment by simplifying the manner by which one can follow any given commandment. He’s not watering down their shared religious traditions. Barreto notes that he’s actually intensifying them... adding additional layers of practice on top of the behaviors usually accepted as evidence that a person is trying to follow a commandment. Jesus isn’t asking for a bare minimum of adherence for the law. He is asking for a rigorous, life-changing commitment. Jesus believes that a relationship with God is transformative. And, also, that each of our relationships with God will shape how we interact with other people. Our faith shouldn’t isolate us but connect us with other people and shape how we interact with other people. As Karoline Lewis notes in her commentary on this text, “ [w]ho you choose to be in the world is not only a revelation of yourself, but also a manifestation of those with whom you are in relationship or claim connection.” How you are in this world says something about the God you believe in and the church you are a part of.
So, how are we to be in this world? Jesus says that we are to be invested enough in our relationship with God that we actively tend to the relationships with other people that shape our daily lives. In a couple different sermons I’ve preached, I’ve talked about how Jesus lumps the Ten Commandments into two sections: one is about loving God and the other is about loving other people. For Jesus, then, when engaging with the commandments, he calls on his followers to really get to the heart of each commandment. There we will find guidance on how to love God through loving our neighbors.
I won’t try to go through all of Jesus’ interpretations of the Ten Commandments today, mostly because our reading for the day just covers one. But, it’s a big one! He starts this discourse with what can seem like a no-brainer: don’t murder people. Perhaps I’m being naïve here, but I think it is remarkably easy nearly all the time to not murder someone. Jesus says that this commandment isn’t just about the act of killing someone. It is about dealing with the anger that can, if unchecked, drive you to harm another person. While it might be pretty easy not to murder someone, it is often very hard not to be angry. And, as Eric Barreto notes in his commentary, some kinds of anger are death-dealing and destructive. Jesus sees destructive anger as the issue to be addressed if one does not want to be tempted to harm another. And, this is what he believes his followers must first address.
It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t put the onus of reconciliation only on the person who has been angered. Instead, it is the responsibility of the one who has angered someone else to go to that person and attempt to be reconciled. We must be aware of the effect that we have on other people. That is what it means to be a disciple. We are a people who seek to repair what we have broken. This section of the Sermon on the Mount is often called the Antitheses. That is a reference to the way Jesus says “you have heard that...., but I say to you....” Barreto invites us to read this portion of the sermon as “you have heard that to follow God, you must not kill, but I say to you, to follow God, you must seek repaired relationship through reconciliation.”
The kinds of wrongs Jesus is talking about here are the kind that might be settled in court. That’s why there is this talk of “favorable terms.” Sometimes reconciliation is hard, and a third party is necessary to help people treat each other fairly. Jesus encourages his followers to try to not let the disagreement go that far if possible. If you have wronged someone, make yourself accountable to them, and work to make amends. This is a significant demand for humility from Jesus. It is not often easy to admit when you have wronged someone else. But, it is necessary if we are to be in relationships with each other that reflects God’s love in the world.
In his commentary on this text, Charles Campbell describes Jesus as “build[ing] up a distinctive community grounded not simply in external actions but in relationships that value and seek the good of others.” These kinds of relationships don’t usually just happen out of nowhere. They must be cultivated over time and with great care. Jesus tells us that the work is worth it. Because, through this work, we grow closer to God. May we be guided by the Holy Spirit as we tend our relationships, making amends, and offering care. For this, as the scholar Carl Works notes in her commentary, is how God’s Kindom will come.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
J. Andrew Overman's notes on Matthew in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)n The New Oxford Annotated Bible
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-521-37-4
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-521-37-2
Charles L. Campbell, "Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.