Jesus’ uncompromising words against anger in today’s scripture puts us on the defensive: “Yes, in most cases, anger is sinful and unjustified, but not in my case!” We often feel perfectly justified in our anger. What if we’re wrong? What makes anger sinful? What do we need to overcome anger in our lives?
Sermon Text: Matthew 5:21-26
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Big game today. Passions are running high. Even churches are getting into the spirit. Some of you may have seen on “Fox 5” news report that the St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Carrollton posted the following message on their church sign: “Even Jesus rose up. Rise Up, Falcons.” I know the pastor there! Then, the church sign in front of First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs reads, “God has no favorites, but this sign guy does. Go Falcons!”
And I’m excited, too. In fact, this week I even let myself get into an online argument about the Super Bowl. It started innocently enough: A Facebook friend posted his prediction for a Falcons victory. He said he really thinks the Falcons are going to win. And I replied to his comment—voicing my agreement, and offering a few reasons why I thought it would happen. A lot of it has to do with our team’s offense. And then one of his friends—someone I don’t even know—replied to my comment: “It’s easy to have a great offense against teams that don’t have a defense.”
And suddenly, it was on. How dare this person interrupt our happy comment thread with his pro-Patriots ideology! It angered me. And I wanted to utterly destroy him. I wanted to humiliate him publicly. So I posted something back. Then—then!—he had the nerve to start quoting statistics at me! I mean, “Sure, if you want to talk statistics, you might make a case that the Patriots are better.” But statistics can’t measure a team’s heart! Well, since I know very little about the NFL, I turned to my son Townshend, who’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of sports knowledge: “Townshend, here’s what he just said. How do I need to respond?”
So here’s my question: Was this online argument sinful? I’m serious. Did I sin?
And I can guess what some of you are thinking: “Well, Brent, this is no big deal. You were just defending the home team. You were just showing team pride. You were just having some fun. You were just arguing about sports. You were just…” fill in the blank. When it comes to our own anger, don’t we usually excuse it by telling ourselves, “You were just…”?
As if on cue, we have Jesus’ difficult teaching in today’s scripture, which completely obliterates any and all excuses for our anger. As far as Jesus is concerned, there’s no such thing as “you were just.” Anger, even over little things like a football game—along with the abusive thoughts and words that spring from it—is the spiritual equivalent of murder.
Or is that too strong? Have I misinterpreted Jesus?
To be sure, attempts have been made over the years to soften Jesus’ uncompromising words. As early as the second century, some scribe who was copying the gospel of Matthew inserted what’s called a “gloss”—an extra word of interpretation or explanation—by having Jesus say, “Whoever’s angry without cause.” You see this gloss in the King James, for instance. But scholars now know that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel don’t include those qualifying words.
Which is good because if that’s what Jesus were saying, well… we would all let ourselves off the hook: how many of us get angry without a cause? There’s always, from our perspective, a perfectly justifiable reason for our anger.
We also soften Jesus’ teaching on anger by saying, “Well, Jesus himself got angry—for example, when he overturned the money-changers’ tables. How bad can it be?” And I would say a couple of things to this: First, we’re not Jesus. Anger is like radioactive waste—it’s far too dangerous for us mere mortals to carry around. And in truth, this is what Jesus is talking about: He’s not talking about momentarily getting angry—experiencing a momentary flash of anger. He’s talking about carrying around that anger. Nursing a grudge. He literally says, “Whoever is remaining angry.”
What Martin Luther said of temptation applies to anger: We can’t prevent feeling angry any more than we can prevent birds from flying overhead. But we can prevent birds from “nesting in our hair.” And the apostle Paul understands that this momentary feeling of anger so quickly and easily crosses over into sin when he warns, “Be angry and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
But already I worry that I’ve softened Jesus’ words too much: If you get angry, don’t act on it—even for a moment. It’s always sinful. And “acting on it,” as far as Jesus is concerned, includes not merely what you say. But what you think. I didn’t use insulting or abusive language with that Patriots fan the other day. But I certainly thought it. So I’m not off the hook.
But I understand why we disagree with Jesus—not that we would voice our disagreement or even admit it to ourselves. But we show that we disagree with him through our thoughts, words and deeds.
Anger, let’s face it, is a respectable sin—as far as we’re concerned. It’s a socially acceptable sin. Plus, it’s kind of fun, admit it—especially online, especially when we don’t know the person we’re fighting with. I’ve preached before that online pornography represents a deadly serious threat to people in our culture—especially men. And I believe that wholeheartedly! Plenty of preachers agree with me. Plenty of us preach about it. We warn about it. But you know how it is… Online pornography isn’t respectable, so it’s an easier target.
How many of us preachers have ever warned of the dangers of my online anger? Anger is as out of control online as lust! And Jesus is equally uncompromising on both of those sins.
Remember Jesus’ words from last week’s scripture, in verse 20, when he said that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Outwardly, the scribes and Pharisees obeyed God’s law and then some—just to be safe they even added to the law a bunch of other laws that sort of put a protective hedge around each of the ten commandments—just to make doubly sure they didn’t break it. So the Fourth Commandment says keep the Sabbath holy. How do we do that? By not working. But how can we be sure we’re not working? Here are a list of rules to define what constitutes work. And they added these extra rules for all the commandments. It was called the “oral law,” and many of these rules later made it into a book of Jewish writings called the Mishnah around AD 200. To their credit, the Pharisees were sincerely trying to obey God’s law. But obeying God’s law in this way—outwardly—could never get to the heart of the matter, which is the heart.
No wonder Jesus would later call the Pharisees white-washed sepulchers—beautiful on the outside; inside they were as good as dead.
Our problem, like their problem, is the heart. Sin—any sin—isn’t mostly the outward action—like murder; it’s mostly whatever is in our hearts that causes us to do things like commit murder. Which is the same thing that causes us to insult one another, to gossip about one another, to call one another a fool—or worse.
Three years ago, a popular megachurch pastor in Seattle named Mark Driscoll fell from grace—not through sexual sin, as is so often the case. Not even through financial impropriety. It was more subtle than that. Turns out that fourteen years earlier, on his own church’s website, he had posted some comments—anonymously—that used vulgar and abusive language. Like I say, he didn’t attach his name to these comments, so no one knew these comments were his. Until someone did some sleuthing and uncovered the truth. It was deeply embarrassing and shameful for him. And he confessed and repented.
In the media frenzy that followed, a lot of Driscoll’s enemies, our fellow Christians, seemed to enjoy piling on—which itself betrays the kind of sinful anger that Jesus condemns in today’s scripture. And although I’ve certainly been guilty of that plenty of times myself, when I heard Driscoll’s story, it sent a chill down my spine. Think about it: Driscoll wrote these words—which were vulgar, abusive, and angry—with the belief that their author would remain anonymous. As far as we can tell, in other words, this writing represented his private thoughts—and his private thoughts from 14 years earlier. This was, in other words, Mark Driscoll at his worst from 14 years earlier.
His story sent a chill down my spine because I thought—good heavens!—what if someone could have recorded a transcript of my private thoughts from 14 years ago. Or even 14 months ago. Or 14 days ago. Or dare I say it? 14 minutes ago. What would people think of me? We usually hide our worst selves from the rest of the world—we don’t put it in writing for all the world to see. But whether we write down our worst thoughts or keep them hidden, they’re still there… in our hearts. God knows that they’re there. How many thousands of times have we committed spiritual murder through our thoughts, our words, and our deeds? And apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross, we’d all be condemned for them! Justifiably so!
So if we understand that about ourselves—if we understand that we’re all in the same boat apart from God’s grace—then that means that we ought to be deeply compassionate toward and patient with our fellow sinners. Not so quick to judge them. Right?
The English poet Ted Hughes—the author of The Iron Giant, that children’s story that was made into a movie many years ago—helps us to sympathize with our fellow sinners in a letter he wrote to his son:
Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child…
Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. When we meet people this is what we usually meet… [The child] is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced… At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality.
I love that! How much of our anger stems from trying and failing to protect this child within us? We carry around so many hurts from our past—things that happened to us when we were younger—which continue to influence how we respond to situations in the present. When we’re angry, we’re often angry about those things—even though we take it out on the person in front of us.
Whether it’s true that we’re all still children, Hughes is exactly right that there are often deeper reasons for the things we do. Jesus knows that… that’s why he’s interested in the heart.
The good news is that Jesus wants to heal what’s in our hearts! “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
What you’re hearing in today’s scripture is the Law. We usually think of the Old Testament as “the Law,” but Jesus had the Law, too. And if you hear Jesus’ uncompromising words of judgment against our most normal, everyday kinds of thoughts, words, and actions and you say, “Who can possibly live up to these standards? I’m helpless! I’m lost!” Guess what? The Law has done the good work that God intended it to do—which is to bring you on your knees to the cross of Christ, or to bring you back to it again and again. The Law has brought you to exactly the place you need to be in order to let the healing power of the gospel do its good work!
Jesus wants to heal you! And that healing will often be painful—just as a surgeon literally has to injure a patient in order to let the healing begin. If we let Jesus’ words from today’s scripture sink in, they will have a similar effect. These words are painful, but they can heal us!
Here’s some more good news: Jesus is telling us to be like this, to love like this, to show mercy like this, to be gracious like this, to be patient like this—because that’s how he himself is, which is identically equal to saying that this is how God is! Jesus is God. Jesus is describing God’s own attributes here. So even as we fall short of the Law, we can praise God that there is Someone who does not fall short. Rather he has fulfilled the Law on our behalf—which means, among other things, he has suffered the penalty for our anger and our abuse—so that we can be reconciled to God.
Years ago, the author Donald Miller wrote a best-selling Christian memoir called Blue Like Jazz. At one point he describes an epiphany he had while scrubbing his toilet, of all things. He was in the throes of depression at the time. And he told himself what a loser he was, how he was as disgusting as the bathroom he was cleaning. And a Bible verse came to him. It was a powerful sensation: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He didn’t know what it meant at first. Then he realized it was God telling him that he would never talk to his neighbor the way he talked to himself—because the way he talked to himself wasn’t loving. “[S]omehow I had come to believe it was wrong to kick other people around but it was okay to do it to myself.”
All that to say, when Jesus warns us not to get angry with our brother or sister—and not to abuse others, not to put them down—indeed, not even to think evil thoughts about them—he also wants us to apply those words to ourselves. Amen?
1. Ephesians 4:26
2. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 36-7.
3. Mark 2:17
4. Donald Miller, Blue like Jazz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 229-231.