I deliberately included verses that were included in my previous post, because they serve as a preamble to what Jesus teaches in this post concerning anger and “the Way.” In fact, we will revisit that preamble for the next few posts, because it’s good to be reminded of Jesus’ position about the Law—that he has not come to abolish it but to perfect it—before hearing him speak about how his followers ought to live the Way in their lives. After all, we are reminded, the Kingdom of Heaven is out of reach for us, unless we learn to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.
The reason why this is important enough to repeat is that when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you,” he is not merely contrasting an old interpretation of the Law with a new one, or even replacing the old with the new. Rather, he is using the old interpretation of the Law as the basis for illustrating a new Way that is more radical, because it is as much about the character of believers as it is their actions. Rather than “go through the motions” or check off boxes on a checklist of do’s and don’ts, Jesus wants the Law to be inscribed on the hearts of his hearers, so that the Law—the WAY—becomes more than a list of rules: it becomes an attitude, a change of heart, a “new and right spirit” within us.
This method of internalizing God’s Law, turning it into the Way of life, is deeply challenging to every one of us, reminding us of how woefully inadequate our efforts at righteousness often are. Just when we might pat ourselves on the back and say (only half jokingly), “Welp, I managed to not kill anyone today. Guess I can check the sixth commandment off as done,” today, we read from our Savior’s own mouth, that we’ve actually probably completely missed the mark on that one.
Here’s how I might paraphrase Jesus’ teaching: “You have been hearing since the old days that, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say that if you are angry with a brother or sister, the Session ought to haul you in! If you so much as call someone a fool, your salvation is at stake! So when you come to the Lord’s table, and are reminded that you’re at odds with a fellow church member, leave the table and reconcile with your brother or sister. Then you can come to the table knowing that you are truly united with one another in Christ, which is what communion really means!
“And this doesn’t just apply within the church, but outside of it as well. If someone has accused you of wrongdoing, reconcile with him or her by all possible means. Your relationships—even with those outside the church—are more important than ‘who’s right and who’s wrong.’ Judges aren’t interested in reconciliation, only justice, which isn’t the same thing at all.”
I am reminded of the most memorable passage in the Old Testament book of Micah. In the 6th chapter of that book, Micah portrays a court scene, where God accuses Israel of transgressing their covenant with God. Israel, chastened by these accusations, asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
And the righteous judge responds, saying, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8). Here, just as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, Micah is pleading with Israel to think of the Law not as an economic transaction—not a question of how many sacrifices will be necessary in order to compensate for their sins—but as a way of life that transforms attitudes. “I don’t want sacrifices,” says God, “I want your heart. Live justly, keep covenant with one another, take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Jesus connects the dots for his listeners from outward acts to internal orientation, from murder to anger. It is one thing to behave rightly. It is another thing entirely for one’s heart to be oriented toward love. Just as it is easier to make a sacrifice at the temple than it is to do justice, so it is easier to keep the commandment against murder than it is to avoid anger in one’s heart. Jesus offers a more radical ethic, a reign of God ethic, one already hinted at in the beatitudes. The righteousness of Jesus’ newly inaugurated kingdom of God is about more than “following rules.” It requires and empowers a life surrendered to God and neighbor.
The New Testament contains two different words for “anger.” One is simply the kind of passionate energy that causes one to act. Think of it as “righteous indignation.” The word that Jesus uses, however, means rage: the brooding, pervasive animosity that can eat away at us—a kind of leprosy of the soul. This toxic poison destroys relationships and leads to malicious gossip, to character assassination, to the destruction of lives and reputations, and even, as we were reminded this week, to truly murderous rage. We’d like to imagine that we are above such base behavior, but I ask you: Who was the last person you gossiped about or maligned? How frequently do you label or stereotype others; not just in conversation, but even in your own head? How easy it is to turn other people into a category, rather than seeing them each as a beloved child of God who just happens to see things differently than we do.
More than this, the labels we use dehumanize others, because we allow a descriptor to replace their personhood. When we identify people with labels instead of personhood—Conservative, Liberal, Democrat, Republican, Black, White, Latino, Homosexual—we dehumanize them; we make them less than people, objects worthy of derision or distrust. They are not. They are people created in the image of God and for whom Christ died.
A year ago, I preached a sermon in response to the mass shooting that took place in the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people during a Bible study for no other reason than that they were black. Within days of the anniversary of that tragedy, the country was reeling from the largest mass shooting in our nation’s history, involving the deaths of 49 people, for no other reason than that they were gay. When we utter epithets under our breath, we dehumanize someone whose culture or behavior is different from ours—and it doesn’t matter one whit whether you think that behavior is right or wrong, because the behavior of our neighbor does not change their status as a neighbor, and it does not decrease their humanity in the slightest. Jesus preferred the company of those whom society rejected. So ask yourself: would Jesus rather eat dinner with us, or with those we belittle?
Jesus’ teaching shows us just how readily we compromise our discipleship, while at the same time calling ourselves Christian. We congratulate ourselves for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker, or belittle a family member’s best efforts, or betray someone’s trust with harsh words, or call someone we don’t know or don’t understand despicable names. But it never occurs to us that we have flouted God’s law, gotten lost along the Way, and betrayed our union with Christ or our unity in Christ. The notion that we must reconcile with anyone who has something against us before we can give our gifts to God, should stop us in our tracks. There is no easy, private relationship with God in these words. There’s no easy, private confession of sin to God and no easy, presumed pardon. Resentment, alienation, and estrangement from others prevent us from giving our gifts to God, or communing with Jesus and our fellow disciples at his table.
There is a story—I understand it’s a true one—about two farmers in Canada. One day the dog of the one farmer got loose and mauled to death the two-year-old child of his neighbor. The devastated father cut off all relationship with his neighbor, and the two men lived in cold, defiant enmity for years. Then one day a fire devastated the property of the dog-owning farmer, destroying his barn and all his equipment. He was unable to plow and plant, and so his family’s future appeared doomed.
Except that the next morning, he awoke to find his fields plowed and ready for seed. Upon investigation, he discovered that his grieving neighbor had done this good deed in the middle of the night. Humbly the rescued farmer approached his neighbor and asked him if he had plowed his fields, and why. The answer was clear: “Yes,” his former enemy said. “I plowed your fields so that God can live.”
God’s in-breaking presence in Jesus Christ re-orders the relationships of this world and re-orients the internal landscapes of our lives. We proclaim that ours is a living God, incarnate among us, not some far-off potentate who must be humored with occasional acts of obeisance. We proclaim that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), the Word embedded in real, everyday life, in outward actions and inward attitudes. We proclaim a God present in the flesh and bone of our lives, and not a mere keeper of check-lists. And in order for this incarnate God to live, we must “live out,” or embody, his Way of life.
Jesus challenges us in this post, as he will in the next few posts, with the question, “Are you called to a love of law, or to the law of love?” The Pharisees—to their credit—loved the law, but Jesus said that righteousness would have to exceed this if we want to inherit the Kingdom. The irony, of course, is that many Pharisees accused Jesus and his followers of being lawbreakers. He didn’t observe the Sabbath in keeping with their traditional understandings. According to Mark, he completely disregarded traditional rules about fasting (cf., Mark 2:18). He and his disciples were accused of openly defying time-honored traditions about ceremonial hand washing before meals. Worst of all, he associated with social outcasts, and even ate with them.
But Jesus cannot be judged by the standards of the Pharisees because Jesus’ Way is more righteous than theirs. It wasn’t, and isn’t, enough to live life “by the rules;” Jesus came to establish a new society—a new world order—not based on a checklist of laws, but on living out the very ethic of love for God and love for one another that he said the entire Bible hinges upon. “Out with the old, in with the new,” Jesus was there to proclaim. That didn’t mean that the old rules no longer applied, but rather that the old attitude about the rules no longer applied. The Law—as presented in the Old Testament—is not a legal requirement. It is God’s gift to humanity of a Way of Life. The Kingdom of God is not intended to replace Israel, it is intended to restore God’s people to an understanding of God’s Way of life. The very intent of God’s law is to cause people to live together in peace with one another and with God.
And this is good news! God, in, through, and as Jesus Christ, enters the messiness of life in all its dimensions, seeking to heal and save. This God offers a life that is deep and wide, where light shines into every nook and cranny, rather than a puny, flat life, reduced to “avoiding the big sins.” Jesus gives us disciples a new Way of life, not rejecting tradition, but building upon it and moving beyond it. It is a Way of life that both demands more and promises more. And it is “life abundant.”