YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID — Matthew 5:21-26
The Rev. Dr. Richard W. Reifsnyder
1st Presbyterian Church
February 9, 2014
You have heard it said…’you shall not murder’…but I say to you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment. Matthew 5: 21-22
“Why can’t we all just get along?” It is not just Rodney King that asked that question. It is all of us. Why can’t we all just get along?
When I was 13, we had a conflict with a neighbor—the great basketball war of 1960.It started innocently enough. I was playing basketball on our driveway court when an errant pass got away. The ball rolled down the hill to our neighbor’s driveway where it almost hit their 7 year old daughter. This had happened numerous times before, just the normal fallout of the game, but this time Mr. Taylor exploded, “I’ve had it with you kids. This has got to stop. Your recklessness is going to hurt Patty.” He went on and on, I tried to apologize, but the noise brought my two uncles over from the patio to throw in their two cents. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a basketball game. What’s the matter with you? It’s just kids having a good time.” It was beginning to escalate when my father appeared, and did his best to calm down both the uncles and Mr. Taylor, but the damage was done. The next thing we knew a fence appeared between the two properties, then a bunch of hedges to provide a screen and finally a brick wall. It would have taken a grenade to get through that barrier. (You didn’t know your minister was such a juvenile delinquent, did you?) The Taylors didn’t speak to us for the next 16 years, though I would try, and Patty would say hello when her parents weren’t around.
Why can’t we all just get along?
It’s a very biblical question, of course. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, known as the six antitheses, Jesus is addressing human relationships—what behaviors will facilitate getting along. He gets very concrete, very practical here, as he addresses what this new community shaped by new attitudes is supposed to look like. Jesus is clear it is not just about you and God. The real measure of faith involves how we treat other people. Jesus made the point in last week’s lesson that we’d only get the business of following the Old Testament law properly if we viewed him, Jesus, as the authoritative interpreter of that law. He had come not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill it, that is to say to dismiss those faulty and onerous expectations and fill the law full of its right meaning. It’s a remarkable claim, he’s making, of course, on his own authority. You’ve heard it said, but I say to you. Here’s what relationships in a redeemed community look like.
Jesus takes what is conventional, and dramatically expands it. You’ve heard it said religion is a matter of coming to church, but I say to you, faith involves how you view and live every aspect of your life. You’ve heard it said, it’s about giving your money, but I say it’s about giving yourself, for all that you have belongs to God. You’ve heard it said, “Don’t lie, steal, kill. Following God as only just a few rules to follow. But then look at what Jesus does with the 6th commandment. You’ve heard it said, “You shall not murder or you’ll be liable to judgment.” OK. You haven’t murdered anyone, well, good for you, big deal. I, Jesus, say to you “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
This escalation of expectation is startling and it’s a bit disconcerting. Not be angry? Who can do that? After all Jesus got angry at sin, and injustice, and ignoring the needs of others and trivializing sacred rites. We remember he turned over the moneychanger’s tables in the temple. There are times when we legitimately should be angry. But he is saying, don’t be an angry person. Don’t be someone who nurses anger, who holds on to it. We know people like that, don’t we, who always seem to be angry at something, sometimes the silliest of things. I want to make a distinction here. One of the great, underappreciated virtues in life is “forbearance.” Forbear one another in love, Paul says to the Ephesians. Sometimes things which happen just require us to overlook them, put up with the irritation if necessary, because they are not worth getting angry about. That’s forbearance. Someone from church doesn’t say hello to you in the supermarket. Someone doesn’t send you a card when you are in the hospital though you sent them one. Someone cuts you off, rudely, you think, in a garden club discussion. A neighbor doesn’t invite your child over to play though you know they’ve invited your daughter’s best friend. Is it worth getting angry about, or is simple forbearance required. When your children were little—and that may be right now for many of you—do you remember the little squabbles in the back seat. “Mom, Sarah looked at me funny. Make her stop.” “No I didn’t” “You poked me. You poked me first.” “Peter’s monopolizing the game, it’s my turn now.” And you create neutral zones, and tell them to be quiet, and wonder if you’ll ever take another road trip again. Aren’t you really asking for a little forbearance, not escalating a little irritation to anger—it’s a virtue we need in abundance as adults.
The early church was clearly unsettled by Jesus tough words about anger. Later manuscripts added the words “without cause.” Anyone who is angry “without cause” is liable to judgment. Well that lets us off the hook, doesn’t it? Do we ever think our reasons for being angry are “without cause?” Yours may be. But not mine. I’m totally justified.
And we may be. But that’s not the end of the story according to Jesus’ sermon. There is to be no attempt to lessen the radical implications of his words.
So what is Jesus getting at here? Jesus was well aware of how easily anger gets out of hand. He lived in a community where Romans insulted the Israelites, where Samaritans despised Jews and the Jews fought back, where various Jewish parties—zealots and Pharisees and Sadducees spent a lot of energy picking at each other. Conflict was all around. We know how our anger, unchecked, can create a ripple effect. Our boss reprimands us and we come back and criticize our colleagues, and or maybe we take it home, and yell at the children, or are tempted to kick the cat who is in your way. Anger unchecked can escalate.
Jesus’ concern here is not just to protect life itself, (not just to stop murder—though that is certain worthy)but to protect persons, all persons, protect their humanity, their well being, their value, their dignity. Anger unchecked against another is destructive to another people’s very identity as a human being. Anger deliberate dehumanizes others. Don’t think the words we use don’t matter. If you insult a brother or sister, the text says, —the word is raca (the sounds of it sounds insulting), think of the most demeaning term you could call someone—that’s raca. Words we wouldn’t say in church. If you say raca, don’t be surprised if you wind up in council—demean, insult, belittle, mock, dismiss another and don’t be surprised if things don’t escalate, and you may even wind up in Alex’s courtroom. Don’t think dismissive words are no big deal. They are. Think of the destructive fallout that comes from bullying—and the internet has only made it easier and more disturbing. It’s not enough for Jesus to say we haven’t murdered anyone, Good job! To create the kind of community he desires requires far more.
These six antitheses are not comprehensive. They are illustrative of the kinds of behaviors those called to live in this new kingdom community are to embody. Nor does Jesus give us a complete program of how to get there, but rather provides small steps which move us in the right direction. Notice that Jesus doesn’t begin with providing techniques in anger management, but rather invites some movement toward reconciliation.
Jesus suggests that our relationships with one another are so important, they take precedence even over our worship. He uses a little hyperbole to make the point. If you are coming into church, ready to sing the first song, ready to bow in prayer, ready to present your offering, and you remember some conflict you’ve had with someone, get up then and there, and get reconciled first, and then come back and worship. You get the point, don’t you? We really can’t come to worship with hostility and anger and bitterness in our hearts and really expect to get much from it, can we? Unresolved anger creates impediments which we must deal with first. In the first church I served, I was surprised to get a call Sunday afternoon from a young woman whose first words were “I did it. You made me do it.” What do you mean? “Your sermon—that business about forgiveness and reconciliation.” “Tell me more.” “I’ve been nursing an anger, a hurt from five years again the choir director. Every time I walked into church I smiled, but beneath it, I was seething. Thought I was justified. But you made me do it at church this morning. I knew I had to call him up right after church and we had a good honest talk, and I think things are settled now.” Let me tell you, I didn’t do it. That was the strange, unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit. Why did it take 5 years? I’m sure that wasn’t the first word she had heard about forgiveness in that period.
When we break in worship to greet one another, what if that wasn’t just a time to chat with our friends and get caught up on how your weekend has been, but if we made the focus passing of the peace, being conscious of where relationships needed to be mended, and allowing room for the spirit of the living God to do her work of reconciliation.
We cannot control how others will respond. Romans 12:18 puts it well “if it is possible, insofar as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” We can’t control how others react, but we can make choices ourselves of how we will respond to situations and seek to bring reconciliation where anger dwells.
I love this Peanuts cartoon which expresses so well the importance of choices we make in relationships. Lucy and Sally and Violet and a whole group are racing up to Charlie Brown with venom in their eyes, “you’ve really done it this time, Charlie Brown. There’s no excuse for you. What do you have to say for yourself? And Charlie responds, “You’re absolutely right. I have nothing to say. I should have done it differently. I’ll try to do better the next time.” And the wind taken out of their sails, the girls have nothing to say. And after they leave, Charlie smiles and says, paraphrasing Proverbs 15:1, “my soft answer turned away a whole flock of wrath.”
Relationships matter. Jesus acknowledges straight out that people get into conflict. No surprise there. The crucial thing is not that we never mess up, but that when it happens we make every effort to bring about reconciliation. Human maturity involves learning how to recognize our angers and deal with them before they gets out of control or ruptures relationships. Any time we let our anger get the better of us, any time we let it rule our behavior, we become a little less human. Any time we allow the Holy Spirit to break down those dividing walls of hostility, we become a little more mature, a little more human, a little more like the persons and the community God wants us to be.
THANKS BE TO GOD WHO GIVES US THIS VICTORY THROUGH JESUS CHRIST!