Because people respond to anger with reciprocity, or worse. Not grace.
Matthew 5.21-26 • Luke 12.57-59
In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, after explaining he’s not come to do away with the Law, he proceeded to give his commentary on the Law. These are the bits which follow the pattern of “You heard this said... and I tell you.”
Typically bibles translate Jesus’s followup as “But I tell you.” (
- “And” if it’s connecting similar ideas.
- “But” if it’s contrasting dissimilar ideas.
- “Or” if it’s comparing options.
- “Then” if it’s showing a sequence of ideas.
Yep, it can be translated whatever way the interpreter thinks would make the clearest English. But really it’s got no more meaning than a semicolon. (I’d even translate it that way… if it didn’t wind up producing giant run-on sentences.)
Here’s the problem: Interpreter bias. When we correctly recognize Jesus isn’t throwing out Old Testament commands and replacing (or significantly updating) them with his; when we realize he’s explaining the L
But. If we incorrectly believe Jesus is inaugurating a new dispensation—or we at least think Jesus is trying to add to the Law, despite Moses telling the Hebrews they don’t get to do this
On to Jesus’s lesson. In Matthew he began his commentary on the Law with the “Don’t murder” command from the Ten Commandments.
Matthew 5.21-24 KWL
- 21 “You heard this said to the ancients: ‘You will not murder.’
Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17
- Whoever murders will be subject to judgment.
- 22 And I tell you this: Everybody angry with their sibling will be subject to judgment.
- Whoever tells their sibling, ‘You dumbass,’ will be subject to the Senate.
- Whoever says, ‘You moron,’ will be subject to a trash-heap of fire.
- 23 So when you bring your gift to God’s altar,
- when you remember your sibling has anything against you,
- 24 leave your gift there, in front of God’s altar.
- First go make up with your sibling. Then come back and bring your gift.”
Popularly, this passage is interpreted all kinds of wrong. Namely it’s explained, “Hating your fellow Christian” (or hating anyone) “is just as bad as murder. Because you’ve spiritually killed them.”
Yeah, it’s in that way where “spiritual” means “imaginary.” You were so angry with ’em, you killed them in your mind. You imagined them dead. Maybe even imagined you killed ’em. For extra fun, maybe imagined it was gruesome, painful, slow torture. In any event the usual Christian teaching is you were bad for doing that, and should feel bad.
Then we wonder why so many Christians feel incredibly guilty all the time. It’s because we’ve basically taught them that whenever they’re tempted, whenever we permit one of these fleeting violent or vengeful thoughts to pop into our heads, it’s sin.
No it’s not sin. It’s temptation. And everybody gets tempted. Even Jesus got tempted, remember?
We know the L
I know; a number of Christians are gonna insist, “But he’s Jesus! He’s an exception.” No he’s not an exception. That was the whole point of him becoming human: So he could live an authentic human life, yet do it right. So he could demonstrate how we should behave.
Now, this doesn’t give us license to let our imaginations roam wild, and plot the violent destruction of everyone who annoys us, on the grounds that if we never act on it, it’s all good. There’s a vast difference between our minds wandering thataway, and us guiding our minds thataway. Fantasize about murder long enough, and the moment we lose control of our faculties for any reason—we’re drunk, stoned, medicated, senile, sleepwalking, out of our minds with fear or rage—we’re gonna murder. Happens all the time. It’s why God hates when we plot evil;
Don’t indulge temptation, and you’ll be fine. When your mind wanders there, rein it in. Pull it back. Resist. And relax; you didn’t sin. Yet.
Subject to judgment.
Under Roman occupation, Jews weren’t permitted the death penalty. When murder happened, one of four things happened:
- Neither the Jews nor the Romans cared about the death, so no consequences.
- The Romans cared. So they found suspects and judged them. If found guilty, death penalty: Beheading for Romans, crucifixion for non-Romans.
- The Jews cared. So they found suspects and dragged them before the Romans, who judged them. Sometimes leniently: Instead of the death penalty you’d have to pay a fine. However, the only way to pay certain hefty fines was to be sold into slavery, which is what the ancients did instead of life in prison.
- The Jews cared a little too much, and a mob killed the accused—usually resulting in a Roman crackdown, with crucifixions all around.
So when Jesus speaks about a murderer being “subject to judgment,” this is what he meant: Roman judgment. Not the Law’s procedure. The Law has a procedure, but the Romans didn’t bother with it.
What was the Law’s procedure? Revenge.
Yeah, God forbade revenge,
Only the victim’s goel/“next of kin,” usually the patriarch of the family or someone else he designated, was the goel haddám/“next-of-kin of blood,” whose job was to track down the murderer. And kill them.
If it was an accidental death, the accused was ordered to go to one of six villages owned by the priests.
What’s all this stuff have to do with Jesus’s teaching? Plenty.
See, when we get angry, how do people usually respond to us? With patience? Grace? Forgiveness? Nah. At best, they avoid us till we cool down. Often they mock us and try to get us even angrier—so angry we do something stupid, which they can mock even further, or use to get us into trouble. Just as often, they get angry right back at us… and either of us could do something stupid. Or destructive. Or even deadly.
People will use our anger to justify any horrible thing they wanna do to us. Just as people, in bible times, used murder to justify revenge.
Now, we Americans live in a nation with a fairly stable government, with civil liberties, with a criminal justice system rigged to favor the innocent. Doesn’t always work, but tends to work. So if you wanna make serious trouble for another person, you can get in serious trouble yourself. If you’re angry with someone, and try to ruin their lives, they can get a restraining order against you, and get you prosecuted.
But we Americans live in very unique circumstances. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, for centuries it was entirely the opposite. If you wanted to make trouble for another person, you absolutely could. You could easily get them killed. In many parts of the world, it’s still easy to get your enemies killed. All you gotta do is bribe the right ruler. Or make a paranoid ruler think your enemy might be a problem.
That’s precisely how things worked in the Roman Empire. It was a totally corrupt government. Civil liberties were only for Roman citizens: If you weren’t Roman, you were at the utter mercy of any Roman who had it in for you. So enrage the wrong person—call them a raká/“dumbass” or moré/“moron”—and they could easily use their connections to get you hauled in front of the Romans, accused of treason or disturbing the peace, and doomed to either crucifixion, prison, or slavery.
So you really didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes back then. Your anger could get you killed. And no, Jesus wasn’t speaking in hyperbole. Literally killed. His listeners needed to clamp down on their own anger, and they needed to make absolutely certain nobody else had anything against them. ’Cause if they did, it’d be trouble.
It can still be trouble for us nowadays, if our enemies wanna strive hard enough against us.
Make peace with your enemies.
In the scriptures, sins against others tend to be compared with debts. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Yeah, today we don’t think like that. We abolished debtors’ prisons and banned indentured servitude. Nowadays the only debtors who go to prison are people who won’t pay their taxes. For the rest of us, most debts are owed to faceless financial institutions. The worst they can do is repossess our property, garnish our wages, and make it impossible to borrow any more money—but not that impossible, ’cause anybody can get a payday loan. (Not that you should.)
But in Jesus’s day, debt was to individuals, and if you couldn’t pay them, they could sell you into slavery to get their money back. Debt was a big deal. You never wanted to get on the bad side of the people you owed. They could do horrible things to you.
Sins and offenses against others are much the same way. You never know what people might do to you. Especially when they feel justified in doing terrible things to you. As they will.
So Jesus used the example of someone taking you to court. And in his lesson, he made the assumption you were guilty—or at least the judge would rule in favor of your opponent, whether it was a fair ruling or not. Either way, Jesus instructs us to work things out with our opponents. If anyone has something against us—éos ótu ei met’ aftú/“until as far as you’re with him,” which I translated “as much as you can”
Don’t make the common mistake people do of figuring, “Well, that’s their problem. I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m in the right. I’m good. (And just in case I’m not good, Father, forgive me.)” That’d describe the self-righteous person who’s bringing a gift to the altar,
Wrong. As much as we can, we’re to live at peace with others.
So examine your life. Is there anyone you hold a grudge against? Forgive them immediately. Is there anyone who might hold a grudge against you? Track them down and make it right. Apologize if you have to. Pay them back if you need to. Restore that relationship.
Restore it before it becomes something destructive and wasting, and even gets in the way of your growth as a Christian.