“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny."
The story was frightening and sad. It had been one more explosion of his hair-trigger rage. Now he quietly and condescendingly explained that he was justified in smashing his dining room chair. His long-suffering wife had hidden from the fierce outburst but then had called me for help. Her unrepentant husband, a part-time theologian and would-be preacher, had no remorse. After all, even Jesus had broken furniture when He cleared the temple of the moneychangers. If Jesus could vent His anger, why shouldn’t he? The marriage didn’t survive.
Maybe you’ve heard the same kinds of arguments to justify unjust anger. Or maybe trying to parse out righteous anger from unrighteous anger has been a distracting discussion. But Jesus makes clear in His Sermon on the Mount that those who are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven shouldn’t be complacent or self-righteous in the matter of their own anger. He says so by reminding the disciples that murder is merely the visible fruit of a heart filled with fury. And it’s the disciple’s heart that the Lord came to renew.
As with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches startling things about a topic that the teachers of the Law believed they completely understood. The Law was good and right and true, but abiding by the law on the outside and being a lawbreaker on the inside would always lead only to self-righteousness and never to true righteousness. It was a hard lesson for them. It’s a hard lesson for us.
So Jesus emphasizes three foundational ideas about anger in this part of His sermon.
First, unaddressed and unresolved anger is equivalent to hatred. The Lord highlights the reality that such anger will inevitably ooze out in the way we speak, in the way we belittle, and in the way we murder the character of our anger’s target. So Jesus reminds His disciples, and us, that there really is no such thing as hidden anger. We don’t just get over it. In fact, Jesus says, the judgement deserved by murderers is also deserved by those with smoldering anger. Can you imagine the disciples glancing furtively at one another as they squirmed on that hillside?
Secondly, the Lord makes clear that it is the believer’s responsibility to be intentional about seeking resolution and reconciliation. We are not to cross our arms, lift our chests, and wait to be appeased. Anger toward us requires prayerful action, just as does anger from us. “First, be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Both the angry and the aggrieved are to be on guard about our own feelings and mindful of the feelings of those around us. Then, the believer is to act by moving toward rather than away. Matthew brings up the same idea later in his Gospel.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. Matthew 18:15-16
Paul writes to the church in Ephesus about the matter.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Ephesians 4:25-27
Who do you need to talk to?
Finally, that business about leaving your gift at the altar and going to the brother reminds us that our anger impedes our worship. If nothing else, unresolved angry conflict is a distraction. But worse, as Paul says, the devil delights in destroying the unity and love among believers. Our unresolved smoldering anger is the raw material for the devil’s nefarious handiwork.
Jesus’ little brother James helped lead the church in Jerusalem. And his part of the Bible is probably the earliest New Testament book. Guess what James brings up in the first chapter of the first book of the New Testament?
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. James 1:19-21
Quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; may those be more and more true in my life and yours. Soli Deo Gloria!