The Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany
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,[a] you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult[b] a brother or sister,[c] you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell[d] of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[e] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[f] and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[g] 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.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.[h] 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.[i]
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.[j]
- Matthew 5:22 Gk a brother; other ancient authorities add without cause
- Matthew 5:22 Gk say Raca to (an obscure term of abuse)
- Matthew 5:22 Gk a brother
- Matthew 5:22 Gk Gehenna
- Matthew 5:23 Gk your brother
- Matthew 5:24 Gk your brother
- Matthew 5:25 Gk lacks to court
- Matthew 5:29 Gk Gehenna
- Matthew 5:30 Gk Gehenna
- Matthew 5:37 Or evil
Sermon: “You Know What I Heard?”
Today’s verses from Matthew are a preaching smorgasbord. Jesus tackles anger, lust, and lying in one fell swoop. Each one could be a two-hour sermon. Where to begin?
Let’s start where Jesus started, with anger—in particular, with things that make us angry all out of proportion to what’s really happening. There are lists like that all over the web, of course. This one, from December 2015, mentions:
- People who chomp or chew their food loudly,
- People who talk loudly on the phone in public places,
- A couple or group of people who walk super slowly in front of you while blocking the entire walkway,
- Those who tell us to “calm down” or “cheer up” even though we’re completely fine, and
- The totally irrational and somewhat berserk anger that follows stubbing your toe.
- Last comes someone sitting near or next to you tapping a foot as fast as they can without stopping, or drumming fingers on the table.
Those are all minor things, of course. Still, I think they’re symptoms of a much larger anger that surrounds us these days. In our self-centered, 21st-century sort of way, we naturally assume that no one has ever been as angry and divided as people are today. Of course, that’s wrong. Why, way back in 1976 people were mad, so mad they weren’t going to take it anymore. (Movie Clip)
Let’s go back even further. In 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter spoke of American politics as “an arena for angry minds,” one filled with what he called “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”
Go back further still. In 1901, when an assassin shot President William McKinley, Arthur Brisbane, writing in the New York Journal, said, “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.”
We seldom stop to think of how anger soaked the world really is. Look at the ways anger crops up in everyday speech. We use expressions like, “When push comes to shove,” “Give it a shot,” “Add insult to injury,” “Take a stab at it,” “Beats me,” “Killing time,” “Riding shotgun,” and “Going ballistic.” As for battling violence, well, you know what they say, “Old habits die hard.”
How can we deal with something so ancient, powerful, and all-consuming? Jesus tackles the issue head on.
When you’re 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. (Matthew 5:23-24)
Jesus proclaims God’s good gift of a world where anger has no place and where destructive relationships fall under their own weight. He then challenges us to live out that world in our lives.
How do we do that? A good place to start might be breaking down the difference between reconciliation and forgiveness. Forgiveness is something we each must do in our own hearts. We work through the hurt, try to understand what happened, and let go of our anger as well as our need to get even or to always be right.
Psychologist Lewis B. Smedes once wrote: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” He also said, “It takes one person to forgive; it takes two people to be reunited.” To be reconciled to another person, we have to speak to him or her, talk about what happened, tell how hurt we are, listen for signs of regret and repentance, and then start rebuilding trust.
Sometimes, it’s okay to get angry. Jesus got mad many times in the gospels. When it’s a matter of protecting the weak and the oppressed or of fighting injustice, disciples of Christ should get angry.
As we do, though, we need to remember the warning of Ephesians 4, “Be angry, but don’t sin.”
In the case of an abusive or violent relationship, reconciliation might not be possible. If it is, though, and if we’re willing to do the challenging work of reconciling with our brother or sister, we could do worse than following four steps counselors sum up with just four letters, H-E-A-L.
“H” is for hear. For reconciliation to happen, we have to listen to and hear each other, opening our hearts and letting down our defenses.
“E” is for empathize. Too often, instead of trying to understand how a person feels, we problem solve or give advice. That comes across as criticizing and judging. It only makes things worse. By really understanding how someone feels and showing compassion, we can open the doors to healing, comfort, and connection.
“A” is for act, meeting the other person’s needs and concerns. We don’t have to be perfect at it. In fact, we won’t be. The fact that we care and are trying to change is a good first step.
Finally, “L” is for “love,” God’s love for us as well as our love for each other. Christian love is self-giving and sacrificial, understanding and forgiving. It means giving up our rights, not standing on them. And that, friends, can be hard.
According to the Declaration of Independence, God gave people the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to Jesus, we can’t really follow him until we let go of such things.
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)
For the earliest followers of Jesus, taking his word seriously brought persecution, imprisonment, and even death—miles away from “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy the rights we do have. But our first thought when exercising them should be to use them for the rule and purposes of God, not for selfish or hurtful ends.
God offers us a life rich beyond all measure, not a puny, flat life that slinks along trying to avoid “big sins.” Together, we’re members of a community, the body of Christ. Our actions don’t just show who we are, but also reflect on the family of faith of which we’re a part.
Being part of a community carries responsibilities, but also the assurance that we’ll never be alone. There’s no way we can do what Jesus asks of us unless others are with us and beside us. Once we understand that, we’re on our way to worship freed from anger in any one of its many forms.