Sermon 03-07-2021: “Murderers Like Us”

March 8, 2021

Scripture: Exodus 20:12-13, Matthew 5:21-26

In last week’s sermon, I preached about the Fourth Commandment—keeping the Sabbath. I talked about friends down the street whose parents wouldn’t let them do anything on Sundays—or at least anything fun… like go to movies, go to shopping malls, go to the arcade, go to sporting events. I talked about how I used to think, “I’m so glad I don’t have to try to observe the Sabbath like that… because, after all, that seems so difficult.

But I said something last week that bears repeating: As Christians, we should never look at any of the Ten Commandments and think, “That’s difficult to obey.” We should instead think, “That’s impossible to obey. Thank God that he became incarnate in Jesus Christ and obeyed all ten of these Ten Commandments on my behalf. Because otherwise I would be judged a guilty sinner and go to hell.”

And as I said those words last week, I anticipated what many of you were thinking. Many of you were thinking, “Well, it’s true that I struggle to keep most of the commandments. But at least I haven’t broken Commandment Number Six! At least I haven’t murdered anyone!”

But that was before we’d looked at today’s scripture from Matthew chapter 5—Jesus’ teaching about murder in the Sermon on the Mount. Look at verses 21 and 22:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother [or sister] will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother [or sister] will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

What is Jesus saying here? Many things, but the most important thing that he’s saying is that you and I are not off the hook even when it comes to the Sixth Commandment. We are guilty. Spiritually speaking, Jesus says, it’s no exaggeration to say that we have committed murder, in God’s eyes, in our hearts, when we decide to be angry.

Does that sound harsh? Does that sound like Jesus is exaggerating—that Jesus can’t really mean that getting angry or being angry is like killing someone… can he? “Come on, Pastor Brent! Let us off the hook! Tell us that Jesus doesn’t really mean what he appears to be saying here!”

I’m sorry. I can’t! Jesus means exactly what he says! There’s no wiggle room here.

It’s funny, though… Some time during the second century, a scribe who was copying the gospel of Matthew was trying to find wiggle room. So he inserted what’s called a “gloss” into the text of verse 22. A “gloss” is extra words of interpretation or explanation alongside the text. This scribe had Jesus say the following: “Whoever’s angry with his brother without cause will be liable to judgment.” In fact, if you have a King James Bible, you will see those words, “without a cause.” But scholars now know that the earliest and most reliable copies of Matthew’s gospel don’t include those qualifying and compromising words.

No… If we are looking for a reason to justify our anger, Jesus doesn’t provide us with one.

We also soften Jesus’ teaching on anger by saying, “Well, Jesus himself got angry—for example, when he overturned the money-changers’ tables. So how bad can anger be?” Have you heard that one before? I have… plenty of times. And I would say a couple of things to this: First, Jesus is not flying-off-the-handle angry when he overturns the money changers’ tables. He is enacting a pre-planned prophetic sign-act. He may be angry, but he hasn’t lost his temper the way we do. Second, if we say, “It’s okay that we’re angry because, after all, Jesus got angry,” we are playing with fire. Because guess what? We are not Jesus! Jesus knows that anger is like radioactive waste—it’s far too dangerous for us mere mortals to carry around safely. 

And in truth, this is what Jesus is talking about: He’s not talking about the momentary emotion of feeling anger—experiencing a momentary flash of anger. He’s talking about carrying around that anger. He’s talking about nursing a grudge. He’s talking about—as one commentator put it—“making a decision to be an angry person.”1 

In the original Greek of verse 22, Jesus is literally saying, “Whoever is remaining angry.”

What Martin Luther famously said of our temptation to lust also applies also to anger: “While we may not be able to prevent feeling angry any more than we can prevent birds from flying overhead, we can prevent birds from ‘nesting in our hair.’” Jesus is talking about letting anger “nest in our hair.” And the apostle Paul means the same thing when he warns, “Be angry and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”2

We have been praying, and we will continue to pray, for Pastor April as she goes before the Board of Ordained Ministry tomorrow to be interviewed. When I was still in the process of being ordained—this was, like, 15 years ago now—as part of the process I had to meet with some fellow future pastors, one of whom had the gall to say to me these words: “Brotherand I say this in the spirit of Christian love.” And I just wanted to say, “Okay, hold it right there.” If you preface your words with “brother, I say this in the spirit of Christian love,” chances are I am not going to hear what you have to say in the “spirit of Christian love” at that moment. So when he said this, my defenses went up immediately. 

He said, “Brother, you have a problem with anger, and you need to get a handle on it.” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah… You’re going to have a problem with my fist in your face if you don’t back off right now… brother! You haven’t seen how angry I can be!”

I mean… I laugh about it now, but maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe “laughing about” our anger is part of the problem! Because it’s not a laughing matter!

Because listen: in all seriousness, I have reflected on this incident over the years. And my future clergy colleague was exactly right. I did have a problem and I do have a problem with anger. And I’m not ashamed to show you the therapy bills to prove it! But one thing I learned in therapy was this… I was in a group with other men my age, and one of these men, Scott, was an ex-marine from Brooklyn who went on to become a very successful, high-powered attorney in Atlanta—he was listening to me tell the group about my latest misadventure in getting angry, and the bad things happening to me because I was angry. And this guy was tough. He was a fighter. He was a scrapper. Surely Scott would sympathize with me.

But he didn’t sympathize. Instead, he said, “Brent, there’s nothing you can do in anger that you can’t do better when you’re not angry.” There’s nothing you can do in anger that you can’t do better when you’re not angry. See, for years, I thought of anger as some kind of superpower, which motivated me to overcome my fears, to speak my mind, to stand up to injustice, or whatever… So I coddled my anger. I treated it like an old friend. 

But anger, as I realized, was not my friend; it was my enemy; it was the devil… The devil was using it to cause me great harm. Scott understood that.

And he wasn’t even a believer; he didn’t understand what you and I say that we understand: that it’s not merely for practical or professional reasons that we shouldn’t be angry: that it’s for the deepest spiritual reason imaginable… that anger is the spiritual equivalent of murder

Granted, we have a hard time seeing it that way. Our culture does not agree with Jesus on this topic. Because, of all the sins, anger is, by far—let’s face it—the most respectable sin as far as we’re concerned. It’s the most socially acceptable sin. Plus, it’s kind of fun, admit it, when we give voice to our anger—especially online, especially when we don’t really know the person we’re speaking against. It’s fun when we gossip about others, or make jokes about others, or put them down—either to their face or behind their backs. It feels good to do that, at least for a few moments.

I’ve preached before that online pornography, for example, represents a deadly serious threat to people in our culture. And I believe that wholeheartedly! But we all know about that danger! Online pornography isn’t a respectable sin, so it’s an easy target for us preachers to focus on. 

But how many of us preachers have ever warned of the dangers of online anger? Anger is as out of control online as lust! And Jesus is equally uncompromising on both of those sins.

As my family will tell you, I’ve become a big fan of the English author John Le Carré over the past year or so. The author died just a couple of months ago. He was 89. But he’s famous for novels about espionage, about spying. He himself worked for the British Secret Service, MI6, back in the ’50s and ’60s. And this world of spies that he documents in his novels—well, it’s not exactly James Bond. It’s as unglamorous as possible. But in one of his novels, set in the late-’70s, a retired British spy chief named George Smiley has come out of retirement to help apprehend his arch nemesis—the Russian man who was the head of the KGB, a man who responsible for the cruel, callous murder of hundreds of Smiley’s agents over the years. The novel is about how Smiley has blackmailed the KGB chief with information that—if the Russians found out—would literally get this man killed. 

So, Smiley tells him, you’ve got a choice: defect to the West or else… or else Smiley will release this information to his Soviet counterparts and this KGB chief will be a dead man. 

And that’s what happens at the end of the novel: this powerful head of the KGB, in disguise as a common peasant, walks across a bridge separating East Berlin from West Berlin—and into the waiting arms of British intelligence. After all these decades of matching wits with his enemy, Smiley finally got his man. He won. The good guy won!

Or maybe George Smiley isn’t such a good guy… as this head of the KGB is walking across the bridge, George Smiley begins fantasizing: He thinks of all the people that this KGB man tortured and murdered over the years… and Smiley fantasizes about the searchlight coming on… from the guard tower on the East Berlin side… he fantasizes about the light shining on this man on the bridge… Smiley thinks, “Shoot him! Shoot this traitor!” And he imagines how satisfying it would be to watch his enemy’s body being riddled with bullets and falling in the snow… just as he had seen happen to his own agents over the years. George Smiley was rooting for his enemy to be murdered like that.

It doesn’t happen. The East Germans don’t find out about the man’s betrayal; they don’t shoot the man. But it didn’t matter… Smiley realized the gospel truth: “I’ve swapped places with my enemy. In my anger I’ve become like him!”

And as a fan and apologist for George Smiley, I wanted to tell him, “You’re not like him at all, George! You’re a good guy! Everyone gets angry! Everyone has evil thoughts! Don’t be so hard on yourself!” 

And that’s what we tell ourselves about anger: “It’s okay. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Everyone gets angry. Everyone has evil thoughts! You’re a good person!”

But no… George was right! He wasn’t a good person. George Smiley knew he had already murdered his enemy… in his heart, at least. He wasn’t letting himself off the hook. Jesus doesn’t let him off the hook. So why should we let him off the hook.

Why should we let ourselves or any of our fellow “murderers in the heart” off the hook?

Now let’s notice the second part of verse 22: “Whoever insults his brother [or sister] will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Whoever insults his brother or sister. Jesus literally says, “Whoever says to his brother or sister, Raca!”—which is an Aramaic word that the Amplified Bible translates as “empty-headed idiot.”

Notice that two of the three things that Jesus warns against in this verse—insulting someone and saying to them, “You fool!”—involve words that we speak. And oh by the way, if Twitter and Facebook existed back in Jesus’ day, he would surely include words we write on social media. And the reason I draw attention to this fact is because I’m about to share with you a biblical truth that I doubt you’ve ever heard any preacher say. At least I’ve never heard a preacher say this: 

When we put into words the anger that we harbor in our hearts, our sin of anger is even worse… than if we keep it to ourselves… and don’t say anything. Speaking angry words out loud is actually much worse than thinking angry thoughts in our heads.

Did you hear that? 

Because I believe this is the clear teaching of scripture—especially in Proverbs, especially in James chapter 3. What does James say? “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”3 He’s referring to the tongue—the things we say out loud—or the things we type or tap on social media or on paper… James isn’t talking merely about the the thoughts in our heads!

But if you still don’t believe me, listen to James 3:4: “Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.” In this analogy, James says, the tongue is the “rudder” of the body, directing where a person’s life goes.

But consider how counterintuitive this is: The tongue—that is, the words we speak—is the “rudder” that steers someone’s life? Why doesn’t James say the “mind” is the rudder—or the “heart” is the rudder? But no… he says it’s the things you say… the tongue. It’s not what’s inside that guides your life nearly so much as what you let come out through words.

Words are a spiritually deadly weapon… We don’t even need a license to use them, and we wield words with such carelessness… and callousness!

For years, in my own life, I justified angry or abusive words I spoke by saying, “Well, the sin of anger is in my heart. So it doesn’t matter whether I use words to express that anger.” And even in our own world today, we speak of “venting anger”: “I’m just venting… I need to vent.” Which makes it sound like speaking the angry, abusive words that Jesus warns against is somehow a good thing. We need to vent or what? We’ll explode, right? “If I don’t let out these evil, nasty, uncharitable, judgmental thoughts in my head right now, I’m going to blow up!” 

That’s better than keeping our anger “bottled up,” right?

Don’t you believe it! Speaking it out loud makes it worse. Jesus says so. James says so. The Book of Proverbs says so. 

Tame your tongue… for the sake of your soul, tame your tongue!

And please hear Jesus’ warning: If you live your life as an angry person, harboring anger in your heart, nursing a grudge, coddling your anger, telling yourself it’s no big deal—and spewing it out through abusive, insulting, and gossipy language—whether you speak that language to the person you’re mad at or about the person you’re mad at—what does Jesus say will happen? You will go to hell. Isn’t that what he says in verse 22?

Anger, and angry talk, is a sign of a deadly serious spiritual problem that, apart from repentance, risks separating you from God for eternity.

And if that thought does scare you into repentance… if it wakes you up to the reality of this particular sin in your life… if it helps you to see how big this problem is and how powerless you are over it… then that’s good. That is the Holy Spirit working in your life to sanctify you, to change you, to give you victory over this terrible sin! Say “yes” to the Lord! Let him do his good work. Confess your sin to God, trust in Jesus to forgive you, and take comfort in these good and soothing words of Jesus earlier in this same chapter, in Matthew chapter 5, verse 6: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

The “poor in spirit” are people like you and me who realize our helplessness over our problem with sin in our lives… who can do nothing but cry out to Jesus and say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner!” If we do that, we can be confident that we will be forgiven.

Finally, notice Jesus’ words in verses 23 and 24:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Notice the context: You’re in worship and “remember that your brother [or sister, in Christ, he’s talking about your fellow Christians. And that brother or sister] has something against you.” There’s something more important for you to do than even continuing to worship in church: go and be reconciled to that person. And get this: It doesn’t even matter whether you’re right or wrong. If you realize someone “has something against you,” Jesus gives you the responsibility to do what is within your power to make your relationship with your brother or sister right. What does Paul say? “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”4

So far as it depends on you… There’s no guarantee that you’ll be successful in reconciling with people who “have something against you.” But you’re supposed to do everything in your power to reconcile.

Besides, in most cases, if you’re honest with yourself, you can probably find some ways in which you have contributed to this damaged relationship. Right?

Well, let me encourage you with this… Remember earlier, I mentioned my fellow future pastor who said I had an anger problem… 15 years ago? He’s now a pastor, like me, and he’s doing very well. But for the past 15 years, I’ll be honest: I’ve had a knot in my stomach when I’ve thought about him and that painful experience that we shared. 

He was right about my anger problem, of course… I’ve known he was right for years. But I never told him that. I never reconciled with him. Even though I only see him about once a year at Annual Conference, there’s something between us that needs to be healed. I’ve known that for a long time.

So last week I did something outside of my comfort zone—and by the way, “outside of my comfort zone” is nearly always where God is calling me to go… But I looked up this pastor’s number on the North Georgia Conference website and called him up. We exchanged pleasantries. Then I said, “Listen, this is a blast from the past, but remember when this thing happened… I got angry, but you were right. And I never told you that I’m sorry for being an angry jerk.”

He graciously forgave me, even though he didn’t remember the incident… But I felt a load fall of my shoulders… instantly. I’m not kidding. This is healing! This is reconciliation! This is what Jesus is talking about! Praise God!

Brothers and sisters, I invite you to do the same. Meet someone in person if you can. Make a phone call if you need to… Don’t delay! I know we didn’t talk about “honoring your father and mother,” but you know these words apply to our relationship with them, too. Be reconciled to one another in the name of Jesus Christ! 

Amen!

  1.  Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 209.
  2. Ephesians 4:26
  3. James 3:6
  4. Romans 12:18 ESV

2 Responses to “Sermon 03-07-2021: “Murderers Like Us””

  1. Bebe Nicholson Says:

    Excellent, thought provoking sermon as always.


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