Summary: Jesus helps us see the seriousness of sinful anger.
A local family resource centre regularly advertises a seminar for children entitled: A Volcano In My Tummy. The program description reads in part: “This course will teach children…how to handle their anger using the anger rules; anger can then become a motivating force that will help them build healthy relationships and lead successful, happy lives.” As a Christian what do you think of this course’s stated aim? Can anger be managed, even harnessed to build healthy relationships and happy lives? Or in our Gospel Lesson this morning does Jesus dismiss such anger management and instead teach anger banishment? Finding and living the right answer to this question won’t just make you into a person others will like better; it will determine with whom you spend eternity.
But why should we care about what Jesus says? That’s what many religious leaders of Jesus’ day thought. But listen to the way in which Jesus begins our text. He said: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21, 22a).
Jesus’ audience knew well the laws God had given to Moses on Mt. Sinai fifteen hundred years earlier. Those laws had been received with much trembling, for God had appeared in fire, smoke, and earthquake, impressing upon the people that these were indeed the Ten Commandments and not the Ten Suggestions. Well now, on another mountain (as our text is from the Sermon on the Mount), was the Son of God himself who was further defining those commands given to Moses. In other words whenever Jesus tells us something, we better sit up and listen. His pronouncements might not be accompanied by fire, smoke, and earthquake, but something much scarier awaits those who ignore Jesus: the permanent fire and smoke of hell.
So what does Jesus tell us today that’s so important? He debunks the myth that if you just refrain from the “big” sins like murder, then you are a pretty righteous dude whom God admires. With his opening words to our text Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, quite literally. He explains that sin starts not with the hands but in the heart. To be sure, strangling your brother with your bare hands is a sin which invites God’s judgment, but so does anger even if it doesn’t show its ugly face in the guise of a clenched fist. As the Apostle John put it: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him” (1 John 3:15).
I haven’t shared with you anything that you don’t know already, but don’t tune me out. Jesus isn’t done. He is desperate for you to know just how serious the sin of anger is. Jesus went on to say: “Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22b).
Nobody seems to have yet discovered what the word raca means. One scholar thinks that it was a filthy four-letter word that would not have found its way into any literature. It was so bad, in other words, that no polite writer would explain its meaning. It’s also been suggested that raca wasn’t even really a word but a sound of disdain one might make with accompanying gestures. Whatever its meaning it was such an insult that you could be hauled before the Jewish court for using the word. On the other hand yelling “Fool!” was mild in comparison (humanly speaking) yet in Jesus’ full disclosure of the law someone who calls a fellow Christian a fool is liable to hell fire!
We might be too polite or perhaps too cowardly to call anyone a fool, idiot, or moron to their face. But if we’re honest, we’d readily admit that these words run through our mind as often as the traffic report on talk radio. And if we’re guilty of saying or thinking such words even once, God treats it as seriously as the Prime Minister’s body guards will if you even threaten to blow up his motorcade.
But how can anger and name calling really be that bad? Didn’t Jesus himself call the Pharisees fools? (Matthew 23:17) Didn’t he on two different occasions explode against the moneychangers in the temple? He did, but consider his motivation: love. Jesus called the Pharisees fools because anyone who veers from God’s Word and the heaven it offers is as foolish as someone who trades a gift certificate from a five-star restaurant for a single Tim Horton’s donut. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to ponder their foolishness for turning from God’s Word and repent of it before it was too late. And when Jesus drove out the moneychangers with a whip he did so because he was concerned by what those moneychangers were doing to those who had come to worship. They were distracting them. And Jesus was also concerned for the moneychangers themselves. He wanted them to wake up and realize that the temple offered a better, more lasting treasure than the gold coins they could squeeze out of the hapless worshipper there.