February 13, 2011

Concerning anger

Passage: Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37, Matthew 5:21-22

21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement...

Last week a Chicago man named David Welles posted a video on YouTube of his revenge taken against a person who stole his snow shovel from his front door porch. Mr. Welles sells video surveillance cameras; he has eight at his house and was able to determine that a woman had taken the shovel to move snow around her car parked on the street near his home.  She didn’t put the shovel back; using his snow blower Mr. Welles retaliated by covering the woman’s car with snow.

Response to Welles’s posted story was mixed; he was a villain to some and a hero to others.  After posting the story the shovel mysteriously returned to Welles’ property.  I found his comment interesting: “I got my justice that I think was fair”.  So what do you think—hero or villain or a little of both?  “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement”, said Jesus.

The reason I highlight Welles’ comment on what he had done is because it mirror’s all too closely the sorts of things that bubble up in my own heart at wrongs done to me (some of them simply perceive wrongs).  Do you find yourself talking the same way?  We often tell stories of how we pushed back, gave comeuppance, insisted on our rights, sharply rebuked with crushing words the rudeness of another—do we not?

“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.” Jesus’ sermon has a lot of troubling material—can he really be saying that I should never be angry?

“Wait a minute”, I can hear you say, “I distinctly recall a story of Jesus being angry with some folks at the temple one day”.  “In the temple he (Jesus) found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple ... He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. ...‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’” (John 2:14-16)

Mmm ...so is this a case of Jesus failing to practise what he preached?  To draw such a conclusion is to misunderstand what Jesus says in his sermon.  There is no hypocrisy in Jesus; we need to ask ourselves some questions about how we are reading Jesus’ sermon.

1. Immediately prior to the text we are considering today Jesus has announced that far from coming to abolish the law given through Moses he has come to fulfil—that is to bring the purposes of the law to complete expression.  He further said that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We reflected, in last Sunday’s sermon, that the Pharisees were the good guys; they were the ones with the public reputation of being outstanding law-keepers.  Jesus is not recommending that the solution is to double-down your efforts and become better law-keepers.  What he is saying is that something further is needed—as he said the Pharisee Nicodemus—you must be born again.

Jesus then takes up various points of the law and shows them what he means by “fulfil”—what he means by the complete expression of the law.  It becomes readily apparent that something further is needed by us.

Jesus states: ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” Clearly Jesus is referring to one of the ten commandments.  The second part—“whoever murders shall be liable to judgement” –is an application of the command not to murder; this legal statement is not strictly paralleled in the older testament, yet it does summarize accurately elements of the law.

It is this—the application of the law not to murder—that Jesus wants to talk about.  He juxtaposes what he wants to say over against what is typically said.  The conventional wisdom was that the law meant murders are to be subject to judgement (punishment).  Another way to say this is that conventional wisdom considered this command is obeyed as long as you don’t murder anyone.

What does Jesus say?  His assertions show that this understanding falls far short of appreciating the thrust of the commandment; it is inadequate as a complete expression of the law’s fulfilment. His point is that expressions of anger can operate at a whole range of degrees of severity and all are in view in the law.  Is it ok to be angry with someone as long as you draw the line at murder?  Is this all the law is saying?  Those of ancient time said yes; Jesus says that the law properly understood—understood from God’s perspective—implies something far more comprehensive in scope.

Indeed—“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.”

The fate of the angry person is deliberately expressed in exactly the same words at the fate of the murderer—liable to judgement.  Clearly some sort of equation is being made between expressions of anger and murder, but no matter what kind of equation might be involved, the imagery remains that of the human justice system; as a legal principle Jesus’ statement is a recipe for disaster.
“Added to prosecution of outbursts of anger”, Jesus continues, “would also be utterance of insults and name calling”.  Jesus expresses an impossible legal principle. Imagine the spike in court cases if all these cases of outbursts of anger were tried by the legal system.

If effect Jesus is saying: If you want to apply the commandment solely within a legal framework, then you need to feed into the legal system every case where there has been a rush of anger or words of insult; what is more, you will need to treat all these as capital cases, or, more exactly, your courts will need to be able to sent the culprits to hell.  For Jesus the commandment can have its proper force only if it is allowed to speak against every expression of human hostility towards another and if its proper sanction is viewed as the judgement of God.

Clearly, Jesus teaches that to approach the law as a code for moral living is inadequate; the requirement of such an approach is impossible.  The complete expression of the law—its fulfilment—cannot be reduced to a manageable list of do’s and don’ts.  To attempt this is to expect the law to perform a service it was never designed to carry.  Something—or more accurately someone--else is needed.

2.  Returning for a moment to Jesus’ anger seen that day at the temple; Jesus was angry on more occasions that this.  He was livid whenever he saw religious hucksters fleecing defenceless people; livid again whenever he came upon church leaders who caused followers to stumble; livid once more whenever he ran into hard-hearted people who cared not a whit about the suffering of those who had suffered for years.

Too often the church, misreading Jesus’ sermon, assumed that anger of any sort is sinful.  This is what happens when we read his sermon as a code for law-keeping; we read them merely as rules.  In jettisoning anger we end up fostering the pseudo-virtue of apathy.

It is crucial to note that, angry as our Lord is on many occasions he will yet die for the very people who have enraged him.  We must always remember this and take it to heart concerning our own anger.  Our Lord’s anger at people never inhibits his love for them.  He will give up his life -- gladly give it up -- for the same people who have infuriated him.  Having been angry with them (rightly angry with them), he yet never disdains them, doesn’t ignore them, doesn’t dismiss them, doesn’t write them off as lesser creatures not worth his time and attention and energy.  The people who have made him boil he will yet love with his last breath.

God is slow to anger but abounding in steadfast love—the scripture teaches us—capable of anger nonetheless.  The Apostle Paul wrote: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26).  Clearly the Apostle Paul did not consider the implication of Jesus’ sermon that all anger is sin; neither did Matthew who recounts Jesus’ angry clearing of the temple.

3. I remind you of the overarching message of Jesus’ preaching that is always the context of the particulars of his preaching.  Jesus, in his sermon, is announcing that because he, Jesus, is here the kingdom of heaven is breaking in upon the world—a new reality is come to pass.  Through faith in him we are freed from the bondage of sin that bedevils every human attempt at being truly human.  By the power of the Spirit of God we are released to reach for and live the habits of heart that are the very character of the heavenly kingdom.  This is nothing less that the very restoration of the image of God in us defaced in the fall.

These habits of heart Jesus’ outlined in the beatitudes—humility, mercy, meekness, purity of heart and so on—have the effect of promoting mutual support, strong and healthy human relationships—dare I say the very fulfilment of the law.  It is worth noting that in Jesus application of the law his focus is on rejecting that which destroys relationship and promoting the things that build relationship.

Notice how he moves from the futility of the law to restrain anger that destroys relationship and proceeds immediately to talk of living life that seeks reconciliation of hurts we inflict.  So what is Jesus’ response in light of his analysis of the conventional understanding of the law?

He sets before us two examples of setting right rifts our outbursts of anger cause. First: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  Worship of God cannot take place against the backdrop of a damaged human relationship which is being ignored; love of God and neighbour go hand in hand.  Typically the rifts we cause we forget; the much deserved dressing down of the other person is long forgotten by the person who did the dressing down.

Jesus then cites an example of our actions that have harmed another financially; “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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”  The accuser is finally angry enough to take the person the court. Don’t miss the opportunity to reconcile things—says Jesus—before it costs you dearly

This is hardly an exhaustive list of things that need reconciling but they do point us in the direction of life that promotes the very kingdom of God; the character of living that is blessed by God.  We often read these texts as if the holiness of life Jesus’ enjoined were a matter of moral reinvigoration (an achievement).  We read the text, figure out what Jesus wants us to do, and go do it.  The gospel shows us that something much more profound is at work in the life of the believer.  The context of our following Christ is God himself forging himself within us as he forms us and fits us for intimacy with him.  Intimacy with this God who loves his creatures will always push in the direction of love of the neighbour.

4. As I read Jesus’ discussion of various aspects of the law I am struck by the importance he places on the human heart.  He talks of how anger can become a destructive force destroying human relationship; he declares the devastations of lust that ruin the most intimate of human bonding; he speaks of how duplicity of heart destroys trust—let your “yes” mean “yes”—the price of duplicity is the isolation borne of mistrust.

John Wesley wrote: “Resentment of an affront is sin. ... This has existed in me a thousand times.”   We must be careful not to nurse such resentments lest carefully nursed anger become our characteristic mood.  One of the signs that anger has become a person’s characteristic mood is that they imagine slights where there is none.  They speak of themselves as “sensitive”.  But in fact they aren’t sensitive at all; they are merely “touchy”.  Genuinely sensitive people, like Jesus, are moved at injustice, injustice that principally victimizes others.  Touchy people, on the other hand, can think only of themselves.  Sensitive people forget themselves in their outrage at manifest injustice.  Touchy people focus on themselves in their never-ending narcissism.

The thing that helps me put all my touchiness in perspective is to stand for a while the foot of my Lord’s cross.  As he forges his own life in me I want to learn his heart discipline.  As I hear Jesus talk of anger in this sermon it is apparent that if our heart is attuned to his we shall not nourish our anger, not gloat over it, not allow it work evil and therein intensify the world’s misery.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.