Summary: Our natural tendency is to hold on to anger and harbor grudges, but Jesus teaches that if we are to be fully human as God intends us to be, we have to humble ourselves and seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
It happens all the time. We're watching it unfold in Egypt. Some say it prompted the shootings aimed at Representative Giffords in Arizona. It is sadly common. A leading politician makes a gesture of contempt towards the opposition. Someone on the other side reacts angrily. Soon dozens of people are on their feet, shouting. Insults flying to and fro. Out on the street, supporters of the rival parties jeer at each other, then begin to jostle and threaten. Fists start to fly. By the time the police arrive, several are injured, perhaps worse. The next day they are back in force, and begin to attack innocent passers-by. Their families in turn swear to get even. It's an endless cycle. But is this what human life was meant to be like?
Part of the tragedy of all such vicious cycles is that people take their public anger back into the home. We know this ourselves. The executive whose boss has shouted at him goes back to his own office and shouts at the secretary. The secretary goes home and shouts at the children. The children shout at the cat. If part of human maturity is being able to recognize your anger, and deal with it before it gets out of control, we have to conclude that most of us are not very mature. We are called to be the light of the world. This is our true vocation. So, how can all this misguided and very damaging anger be dealt with? How can anger be defused, and prevented from spilling out all over the place? In this passage we heard from Matthew a few moments ago, as difficult and challenging as it is, Jesus teaches us about exactly how to deal with anger.
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes the commands of the law and shows how they provide a blueprint for a way of being fully, genuinely, and gloriously human! You see, it's no secret that every time we decide to let our anger smolder on inside us, we are becoming a little less than fully human. It's a conscious decision to belittle ourselves. And if we let that anger reach a boiling point, it can cause a lot of trouble for ourselves and for others. Such anger might not necessarily result in murder, but by speaking this commandment against murder here, Jesus is making the point that we should never even allow anger to take us to a point where we wish another person dead. And I would even go a step further and guess that Jesus would also say that we should never even allow anger to control us such that we wish ill-will upon another person. If we are all honest, I think we would have to admit that we have gotten that angry at someone before. I think it's fair to say that more than once, each of us has allowed our anger to control us, rather than us taking control of our anger. That's why what Jesus teaches here is so challenging; it reaches deep down to the roots of our personality, and it produces a different pattern of behavior altogether!
The young adults who attended the Divine Rhythm retreat in Pigeon Forge a few weeks ago had the privilege of hearing from Bishop Sally Dyck. Bishop Sally as she is affectionately called, is the United Methodist Bishop of the Minnesota area. One of the topics Bishop Sally tackled head-on during the course of the weekend was "complicated relationships." She talked about relationships that are complicated by addictions, anger, abuse, competition, and just about everything you could think of that destroys human relationships. After taking time to describe the sort of complicated relationships we all have to deal with from time to time, Bishop Sally went on to say that the key to overcoming complicated relationships is forgiveness. And she used this analogy. She said that when you do not forgive others, it is like a backed-up sewer in your heart. And it's the same thing when we hold on to anger, when we don't seek reconciliation with our brother or sister! You know what a backed up sewer looks like; what it smells like. You know how dangerous it is to have all that raw sewage exposed and floating around. When we cannot offer forgiveness and be reconciled with our neighbor, that's what happens inside us. All that junk is being pumped through our body, poisoning every ounce of our being until we are completely ruined. So what's the alternative?
Jesus knows our tendencies, and that's why he makes a point in the Sermon on the Mount to offer two remarkably specific and practical commands. The first is to be reconciled; the second is to make friends. It seems so simple, and yet how difficult is it to go to a neighbor in humility when we know there is a problem, a point of contention. Without really saying it, Jesus makes it clear that no matter who caused the problem, if we are aware that a problem exists with a brother or sister, we have to go to them and be reconciled. It takes great humility and courage to admit to someone we were wrong, and to come to them asking for forgiveness. And it takes a lot of grace for someone to make the decision to forgive us and set us free from the bondage of hostility. But we have to be able to let go of the grudge. We have to step down off our high horse. We have to abandon that position of superiority over the person we're angry with. Sometimes we like to hold on to our anger because we think it gives us power over the other person. But Jesus says if we live like that it's like a sewer backs up in our heart. Jesus says that if we live like that, we can't ever be fully human.