21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Matthew 5:21-26I’ve just got back to work after collecting my suit from the dry cleaners. I tried to collect it a couple of days ago but the man who has just taken over the running of our local dry cleaners has a new policy of only accepting cash for payments below £10. Since my cleaning came to £9.95 he would only take my card if I paid him an extra £1.50, which I refused to do. I stormed out and was so angry that I returned to work and started ranting at my colleagues about the preposterousness of this situation. Anger for me, as you might be able to tell, is a real challenge. I find that sometimes even trivial matters make me really angry. That’s why this particular passage of the Sermon on the Mount is so challenging to me.
Immediately prior to this section of teaching, Jesus stated that he had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfil them. He went on to say that we should both practise and teach the commandments of the Old Testament. In this next section of scripture, he develops the Old Testament teaching even further, beginning with murder.
Confronted with the commandment ‘you shall not murder’ most people probably find their consciences clear. Murder is (thankfully) not particularly common, and few of us would have any difficulty obeying this commandment. Jesus does not view the commandments as a legalistic tick list, though, but as deeper guidance for life. If you have ever found yourself getting angry with another person, then you are subject to the same judgement that a murderer faces. In the spirit of verse 20 (‘for I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’), Jesus has far higher expectations than adhering merely to the letter of the law; he expects the law to shape our character and to develop our righteousness.
Jesus continues by showing the importance he places on eradicating anger from our lives. He says that if someone is worshipping and remembers that they have a broken relationship with someone else, then they are to immediately stop what they’re doing and go and ‘be reconciled to them’. Reconciliation is viewed by Jesus as being even more important than worshipping God. And this makes sense when you think about it. How can you truly worship God when inwardly you are seething with anger at another person? Reconciliation takes precedence even over worship since if we are angry with a neighbour, our sinful behaviour simply serves to build another wall between us and Jesus Christ. Worship in this context is not so much genuine worship but merely going through the motions.
Jesus offers a further example concerning the importance of right relationships with our neighbours. If we find ourselves being taken to court by an ‘adversary’, perhaps over money we owe them, we should endeavour to solve the problem before reaching court. We should aim to find a peaceful out of court settlement to our difficulty. If we do not, then we may find that the judge punishes us to the fullest extent, perhaps throwing us in prison. We’ll still end up paying every penny of the debt that we owe, but we’ll also find ourselves also serving time in jail. Clinging to a belief that we are right and our neighbour therefore is wrong is sinful, since it is based on our own sense of self-righteousness. Not only is this harmful to our relationship with God, it also serves as a very poor witness to those around us.
In this passage Jesus offers some practical examples of how we are to live lives marked with righteousness. We must ensure that we do not simply follow the letter of the law laid down in the Bible, but ensure that the law percolates into our hearts, our minds and our souls, and shapes our actions. In particular, Jesus speaks here of the importance of maintaining good relationships with our neighbours to prevent small issues spiralling out of control. In addition, Jesus warns that we must ensure that we do not allow anger with another person to cripple us and to darken our souls. We must make reconciliation with those with whom we have damaged relationships an absolute priority. Only then can we ensure that we are living lives marked with righteousness.
Is there anyone that you can think of with whom you need to be reconciled today? Why not make this a key priority. If you can’t think of a particular person, why not pray that the Holy Spirit will direct your relationships with others and help you to avoid anger in the weeks ahead.