By Pamela Lewis
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 5:21-26
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
These verses follow almost immediately after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ great exposition of the nature of perfect righteousness, which contrasts so markedly to the self-righteousness of the gnat-straining and camel-swallowing scribes and Pharisees. In those nine sublime verses known as the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches the hard truth of the world that the unrighteous will condemn and persecute the righteous, whose poverty of spirit, mercifulness, and purity of heart glorify God.
Here Jesus begins with the subject of murder and hatred, punctuating his discourse with the phrase, “You have heard,” or “It has been said,” making reference to rabbis of past generations, on whom the Jews of the day relied to read the Scriptures in the synagogue and explain what they meant. There was no questioning, no investigation, and thereby no basis on which to judge what was imparted. The teaching about murder only said that whoever committed this act was liable to the court (or, in some translations, “in danger of the judgment”). Jesus posits that God is also concerned with the motives for murder (Prov. 16:2), which originate in the heart and are frequently kindled by anger or hatred.
To hate another human being, to insult her by saying “You fool” (maybe we could also include “idiot” and “jerk”), is tantamount to murder. This is the anger of the unrighteous, in that it is resistant to forgiveness and reconciliation, and slanders God. Righteous anger, however, is purposeful, in that it identifies and seeks to remove injustice, which will be replaced by God’s justice.
Jesus wants us to move from stifling legalism into the expansive mind of God by recognizing that anger and hatred against another (one’s “brother”) is more than a crime to be tried in a court of law. Insofar as not all anger is sinful, we must learn to distinguish between wrongful and rightful anger and act quickly to reconcile with those whom we have offended in our anger. Otherwise, our worship will be worthless.
Pamela A. Lewis taught French for thirty years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.
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