Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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.
In a commentary on this scripture, Karoline Lewis describes Matthew 5 as not just being about what a disciple believes but how those beliefs will shape how the disciples will engage with the broader community. She puts it this way: “Who you are as a disciple is not just about you, but about you as a disciple in community.” Matthew 5, more commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, is very much about what beliefs Jesus finds to be central to faith. But, more importantly, I think, is about what kind of right action grows out of those beliefs. While many people are familiar with the first part of Matthew 5, the list of blesseds... blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek... today’s reading is less familiar. But it is no less important. It shows us how to practice what Jesus preached.
An important issue during the era in which the Gospel of Matthew was written was the relationship between following Jewish religious laws and following Jesus. Most of the Sermon on the Mount is dedicated to clarifying this issue. The 20 verses before today’s reading do a few things: clarify God’s special consideration for people in distress and on the margins of society, offer the metaphors of salt and light, ubiquitous and necessary aspects of daily life, to help disciples understand their place in the world, and affirm that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. That is a lot to do in 20 verses! That much stuff would take me at least 4 sermons. He does it in 20 verses! Maybe I’m chattier than Jesus. Anyway... All those blessings and metaphors are there to demonstrate how Jesus’ teachings are aligned with the Law. It’s like he is building up to the portions we listened to today, the portion about how to actually live out the values you say you believe.
What is most challenging about Jesus’ teaching in this portion of Matthew is that he knows he is asking for a pretty rigorous set of behaviors from his disciples. He compares the behavior he is expecting of his disciples to that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Scribes and Pharisees, known community leaders who led lives of strict religious adherence, were understood to be people seeking righteous lives... people who put a lot of thought into how their religious beliefs shaped their daily actions. While we Christians have often inherited an idea that the Pharisees were somehow bad examples of faith, in reality, they were respected religious interpreters in their community. They were likely what we hope to be... people understood to be devout and faithful and examples to be emulated. When Jesus said that he wanted his disciples to act even more faithfully than the Pharisees, he was intending to set a high bar. In her commentary on this text, Carla Works said that it was like he was saying, think of the most righteous people you know and do even better than them. That is quite the demand!
Dr. Works invites we who are “would-be disciples” to consider what it means to “be bearers of God’s kindom.” To bear something is to carry it forth into the world. What would it mean for us to truly pay attention to how our faith shapes our actions and how those actions help to bring this world closer to the Reign of God. We do not exist by ourselves in the world. Therefore, we must consider how our faith shapes our interactions with other people and other parts of creation. Jesus invites us into a faith that is attentive to relationships. How we are with each other says something about what we believe about God.
In some Bibles, the reading for today is given the subheading “Concerning Anger.” If our faith is to build what Charles L. Campbell calls life-giving relationships in his commentary on this text, we must tend to the things that can keep relationships from being life-giving. While we know anger can be righteous and a reasonable response to injustice, we also know that anger can cause harm and destroy connections among people. So, Jesus, tackles anger through the lens of the commandment against murder. He acknowledges, rightly I think, that murder is often rooted in intense and unmanaged feelings of anger. So, if you want to be more righteous than the most righteous person you know, you won’t just not murder people, you will also make amends with those whom you have wronged or made angry.
He asserts that reconciliation should be a foundational religious action. To do so, he starts with the commandment not to murder. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘you shall not murder’ and ‘whoever murders shall be subject to judgement.” Then, he goes on to set this commandment as the not the pinnacle of faith to which you are trying to send, but as the floor. This is the place where you start. You build higher expectations on top of this foundational action. From this starting point, you tend to your anger and how it impacts your relationships. Jesus notes that calling someone names out of anger as an example of bending yourself towards the force that could entice you to break your foundational commandment and not to the faith that builds life-giving relationship. If you feel this happening, you should take stock of what is going on and begin to work for reconciliation.
In her commentary on this text, Wil Gafney notes that it is clear that it the duty of the one who has done wrong to begin the amend-making process. That’s what the part that says “if you remember that your sibling in Christ has something against you” means. If you know that you have harmed someone, it is your responsibility to go to them to make amends. In many Christian circles, and in society writ large, it often seems that the ones who have been wronged are pushed first to forgiveness, without asking the ones who have done wrong to initiate an act of reconciliation. Dr. Gafney describes this a “disruption of a power curve: it is not up to victim to demand justice, nor should it be; rather the moral imperative belongs to the one accused of wrong.”
I find Dr. Gafney’s point to be both challenging and faithful. What does it mean for Christians, and Christian institutions, to understand that acknowledging and seeking reconciliation for the ways we have participated in wrongs is an act of confession and repentance that is at the heart of our worship. Jesus says if you find yourself preparing to enter into a time and space of worship, and you know that you have wronged someone, rather than prioritize that rituals that bring you closer to God, you should prioritize the reconciliation with your neighbor and sibling. In fact, he says that you can't truly fulfill your religious obligations until you've done this work.
This week, a Jewish colleague, Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, shared an article called “The Year of Better Apologies” by Lauren Cohen Fisher and Andrea Hoffman. It is written specifically for a Jewish audience that is celebrating the current holy season of amend-making and penance before the upcoming Jewish new year. I’ll share it with this sermon, because I think there is real wisdom we can learn in it about how to offer more sincere and faithful apologies. Dr. Gafney rightly notes that Christian traditions have too often neglected the practice of apology in our rush to receive grace. And, we all know that a good apology can be hard. But, it is worth our attention, and, according to Jesus, necessary for us to help bear the reign of God’s love and justice into the world. May we make better apologies and, in so doing, find ourselves growing closer to Christ and to each other.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3157
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033
Charles L. Campbell, "Sixth Sunday After 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)
Wil Gafney, "Proper 21 (Closest to September 28)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
The Year of Better Apologies: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-year-of-better-apologies/?fbclid=IwAR3aklAvO1TgT37sPqjke6TlpaKakny4fHRkrZnL2QlX7b5LtCTT_AbtxlQ
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.