Matthew5v21to26: THE FORBIDDEN ANGER

(A) Introduction.

There are three things to note by way of introduction to the next six pieces of teaching by Jesus:

(1) He used a formula by which he assumed greater authority than the Law given to Moses by God. He said, "You have heard that it was said ...... But I tell you that ... ."

The Scribes either appealed to the Law directly or more commonly various rulings on the Law made by famous rabbis through the years. Jesus did not follow this procedure. He simply pronounced on his own authority how we should behave.

(2) Jesus demanded a much higher standard of behaviour than the Law of Moses. For example, it was insufficient to refrain from physically murdering a man or woman; it was as wrong to be angry with someone.

I used to think that Jesus was setting such an intolerably high standard of conduct to drive us in despair to rely on grace. It is certainly true that a person like the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy who tried to live scrupulously by the Sermon on the Mount failed miserably. According to his wife it made him intolerable to live with.

(3) After further study, and with considerable help from William Barclay's commentary on Matthew, I have come to the conclusion that like the Beatitudes the rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives us a code of conduct to aim at without being legalistic about it.

If this is the case it is important to properly understand the teaching of Jesus. It is no good putting an interpretation on his words that makes his teaching undoable. Every school teacher knows that it is folly demanding such incredibly high standards that no pupil can aspire to them. The end result is disillusion and despair. Leo Tolstoy's failure must have been in part due to a failure to understand what Jesus desired.

(B) What Jesus forbids.

Jesus forbade:

(1) Long-lived anger. "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." v21.

In Greek there are two words for anger: 'thumos' and 'orge'. Thumos is the anger that quickly blazes up and just as quickly dies down. As a school teacher I displayed this kind of anger again and again. There were an endless variety of incidents that triggered it off. For instance, a boy might have failed to do his homework for the fifth week in succession or a wilful girl might have skipped detention. I am hot tempered and sometimes the anger I displayed was disproportionate to the offence. However, on the whole, this anger did no lasting damage and was accepted by my pupils without complaint. It never affected my long-term relationships with students. Indeed, some of the boys I was angry with frequently were my biggest fans!

I had tea recently with two Christian friends who were looking after their two-year-old grandson. He kept looking with evil intent at the sugar bowl. His grandfather warned him to leave it alone. Twice he ignored his grandfather, picked up a handful of sugar, and threw it on the floor. The little boy's grandfather was angry, picked him up and slapped his legs. This didn't do the toddler any harm because his grandfather was soon playing with him again. He knows granddad loves him.

Orge is a very different kind of anger and it is of this that Jesus spoke. It is, to quote William Barclay: The anger of a man who nurses his wrath to keep it warm; it is the anger over which a person broods, and which he will not allow to die. It is the anger that lurks in the heart of a man awaiting the opportunity for revenge. It is long lived anger.

This kind of anger is produced by:

(a) Someone being preferred before you and as such it is closely allied to jealousy. Ten of Jacob's sons had this kind of long lasting anger because Joseph was the obvious favourite of his father. He didn't help the situation by recounting dreams highly favourable to himself.

There are many opportunities in both the work place and the church for this kind of thing to occur. Someone is passed over for promotion and some younger colleague gets it instead. Perhaps a church needs two new deacons. Three are proposed for the position and you are the one who is rejected. I was only made a deacon by my church in my mid-forties when there was absolutely no other candidate for the office.

(b) A person always doing better than you and as such it is closely linked to envy. I used to play for a cricket team for whom Bill and Ben opened the batting. Bill had played for the team a long time and was a very good batsman. Ben was a new arrival and was even better than Bill. Ben hated Bill!

There is scope for this kind of anger in churches where ladies compete to make the tastiest cakes for the chapel tea or the most splendid flower arrangements.

(c) An injustice or an insult. Esau hated Jacob for a long time for cheating him out of his birthright. The elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son had a festering hatred of his brother because he thought he was treated unjustly by his father.

Long lasting anger is condemned be Jesus because:

(a) It can lead to murder. Cain hated and murdered his brother Able. Haman hated Mordecai for not kneeling down and paying him honour. He planned to revenge himself by wiping out the Jewish people. Many murders are still committed all over the world because of long-lived hatred.

(b) It results in broken relationships. Hatred destroys relationships. It ends friendships and in the church sets brother against brother and sister against sister. King Saul had bitter anger against David and this led the younger man to leave the palace and take refuge in wastelands of Judah.

(c) It puts to death finer feelings. Instead of sympathising and helping the person you hate you will exult in his downfall and rejoice in his suffering. I don't imagine Sarai showed much sympathy with Hagar when she fled into the desert to escape her mistresses ill treatment. Abraham did not come to her rescue either. It was left to God to take pity on Hagar.

It is little wonder that Jesus said: "Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to the judgment." By this he meant that any collection of sensible men, such as a council of village elders, would agree that long lasting anger was something to be deplored.

(2) Contempt. "Anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca' is answerable to the Sanhedrin."

William Barclay writes: Raca is an almost untranslatable word, because it describes the tone of voice more than anything else. Its whole accent is the accent of contempt.

In the New Testament the Pharisees held three groups of people in contempt: tax collectors, prostitutes and Gentiles of whom the Samaritans were particularly despised.

Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and tax collector at prayer in the Temple. The Pharisee prayed: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector." We can detect, all of 2000 years later, the contempt in the Pharisee's voice as he said: "Or even like this tax collector."

I feel sure that Pilate had nothing but contempt for the Jewish leaders. I think we can hear the contempt in his voice when the Chief Priests and their allies drag Jesus before him. He said: "What charges are you bringing against this man?" He immediately antagonises the Jewish leaders who retort: "If he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you." Jn18v29and30. Pilate's contempt for the Jews undoubtedly contributed to his mishandling of the trial.

Treating others with contempt is a grave sin. That is why Jesus said offenders should be tried by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. Long lasting anger is bad but treating others with contempt is worse. One only has to be a student of recent history to know this. The Nazis held the Jews in contempt and treated them as non-humans. The Japanese held their prisoners of war in contempt and treated them with outrageous inhumanity. The situation is little better today with militant Muslims crucifying Christians and blowing up Westerners.

We should beware of treating anyone with contempt. I would upbraid my pupils for laziness, disruptiveness, rudeness and the like but I very, very rarely treated anyone with contempt. It would have resulted in intense resentment. No teacher today is safe if he or she kindles bitter resentment in his pupils.

(3) Passing Judgment. "But anyone who says,'You fool' will be in danger of the fire of hell."

Jesus is addressing a very serious offence because the punishment for committing it could not be worse. 'The fire of hell' was the fire of Gehenna - the Jerusalem rubbish tip. It burned day and night and destroyed all the rubbish consigned to it. So Jesus warns that the man who calls his brother a fool is in danger of the ultimate destruction.

It must be obvious that Jesus is not referring to those occasions when a friend or brother does or says something silly and we respond in a fairly light-hearted way by saying, "You are a fool ..... ."

We should also remember how Jesus addressed the two on the road to Emmaus who could not make head nor tail of the events of that resurrection morn: "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken." Lk24v25.

Once again it is important to study the Greek word 'moros' which is translated fool in the NIV. According to William Barclay it means a moral fool - someone who is written off as beyond redemption. The person who was a fool in this sense was ostracised and excluded from the synagogue. There was no way back to God's favour. The Pharisees made this judgment of tax collectors, prostitutes and incurably sick people. The illness of the latter was considered to be a punishment for some great sin.

We need to be very careful to avoid writing someone off - adjudging them to be a lost cause. I am afraid some conservative evangelicals are inclined to do this with those they consider, 'unsound'. My services as a preacher have all but been dispensed with because of my views on heaven and hell, the Genesis flood, creation and unconditional election. There is a type of Christian who loves to trash the reputation of those who in their opinion are doctrinally unsound.

Jesus took the gravest view of people who murder the reputation of others. I know from experience that the worst thing a teacher can do is write a pupil off and treat him or her as a brainless retard. Students will forgive their teacher many fiery outbursts of temper but they will be bitterly resentful of any teacher who gives up on them and treats them as a waste of space.

(C) Some good advice.

Jesus gives us two excellent pieces of advice:

(1) Make righting a wrong your chief priority.

Jews made sacrifices in the Temple to atone for sin and to be reconciled to God. You would expect Jesus to say that this took priority over everything else. Instead,Jesus told his followers that a sacrifice to God should be postponed until a man atoned for wronging his brother.

We should be very quick to take appropriate action if we have wronged anyone. Very often all that is required is a sincere apology. Many years ago I used to arrange field work for my A level Geography students during the Easter holiday. My colleague, Mrs X, rather than help me organised a boating trip on the Norfolk Broads. As Easter approached one of my students piped up in class to tell me that he couldn't go on the Geography field trip because he was going boating with Mrs X. I was furious. Unfortunately, just at that moment Mrs X came into my classroom. I ticked her off in front of all my pupils. Now this was a mistake! I should have discussed the matter with her in the staff room. Mrs X was very upset - and went home!! I knew that I must apologise in front of the same students that had witnessed her ticking off. God made me pay - because half-term intervened. However, as soon as we were back at school I called Mrs X into my classroom when I was teaching my A level set and apologised wholeheartedly. I was forgiven!

Endless trouble occurs in churches because some folk are too proud to admit they are wrong, too proud to say sorry and too hard-hearted to ask for forgiveness.

We need to follow the example of Jacob. He knew that he had wronged his brother Esau. Jacob made three presents of goats, sheep, camels and cattle to Esau and said to himself: "I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later when I see him, perhaps he will receive me." Gen32v20.

(2) Settle your differences without recourse to a third party.

Jesus tells two parties to a dispute to settle out of court. This particularly applies to the person in the wrong. If a man knows that he is wholly or partially in the wrong he is foolish looking to settle the matter in the court. Jesus warned against this. He said: "You may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny." Mt5v26.

Yet people ignore Jesus' advice and go to court over divorce settlements or the contents of a will. The only ones to benefit are the lawyers who charge thousands of pounds for their services. Costs mount up and bitterness abounds.

Jesus gives excellent advice on how Christians should resolve their differences. The first step is the best: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." Mt18v15to17.

If this does not work Jesus described what should happen next. However, it is by far the best for two brothers to sort things out between them. As soon as others are involved there is the danger of people taking sides and the church being divided.