“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. 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. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” — Matthew 5:21-24
I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t directly quote the Ten Commandments when he is talking about murder. God gave the law “thou shalt not kill” through Moses on the mountaintop millenia before Jesus walked the earth. But Jesus only says “you have heard that it was said long ago…”. Had ‘not killing’ become a tradition rather than a law? The passage doesn’t say. Just an interesting observation.
Jesus goes on to say judgment will fall not only on murderers, but on people who are angry with their brothers. The word ‘brother’ is meant in the broadest possible way, to include both blood relatives and people who are not actually related to us, of both genders. “Raca” is a slang term of contempt that might be roughly translated “numbskull” or “idiot”, similar in meaning to Jesus’ last example, “you fool”.
So if we’re heading out to church to worship God, and remember someone has something against us, we are supposed to make up with that person first and then worship God. A right relationship with God is directly related to having right relationships with our relatives and neighbors. In fact, Jesus seems to be saying here that God can wait, our fellow human beings come first. Why? Perhaps because God is eternal and we and our neighbors are mortal. We have all of eternity to worship God; we have only this brief life, the here and now in which to set things right with others.
And most of the time this makes a lot of sense, and I recommend the teaching be taken literally — do what Jesus tells us to do! Don’t pretend we can be at peace with God when we have unfinished business with others.
But there are other times when I find this an incredibly hard teaching. Anger is equivalent to murder? Yes, in that persistent anger is, or can become, a wish to get rid of another person. The Greek verb indicates a state of chronic and continued anger. Other verses of scripture offer some detail. Both Psalms and the apostle Paul in Ephesians say “be angry and do not sin”. Paul adds “do not let the sun go down on your anger,” which gives some additional insight. “Strive for peace with everyone,” the writer of Hebrews says.
Putting all this together, it seems that experiencing a flash of anger — and expressing it — when someone causes harm or takes advantange is not a sin; it’s the holding on to anger that is the sin. Those who follow Jesus seek reconciliation with others, not by overlooking wrong or harmful actions but by confronting them with the goal of peace and brotherhood in mind.
Part of what makes this teaching so hard is that relationships are a two-way street. Not everyone wants peace; not everyone wants to see good prevail; not everyone wants to stop doing the wrong they’re doing; or (when we’re the ones who caused the harm) not everyone wants to forgive. Anyone who has dealt with a person who is hard-hearted, or caught in abuse or addiction of any kind, or dealt with a cheating spouse or an obsessive/compulsive personality [etc] knows that there are times when it simply isn’t possible to have peace with another person. And constant exposure to the situation will almost inevitably lead to chronic anger. The kind of emotional detachment needed to survive these relationships and remain spiritually healthy (as taught by 12-step programs) is not easily learned… and is meant only to be a temporary measure. In a fallen world, sadly, sometimes “goodbye” is the most loving thing to say.
It’s at those times — when through no fault of our own reconciliation simply isn’t possible — that this passage really stings. What should we do? Should we fast from the Lord’s table until reconciliation *becomes* possible, reminding God in prayer of a situation only He can set right? Or should we continue to offer our worship and observe the sacraments, praying for His forgiveness that we have a relationship that is broken and beyond our ability to repair?
I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions… and maybe that’s because we’re meant to wrestle with them… or more accurately we’re meant to wrestle with God over them. At times like these the most important thing to remember is that even though we can’t forgive perfectly, and others can’t forgive perfectly, God can — and does. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Keep on wrestling, and trust Him.