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19 September 2016

When our anger gets us into trouble.

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.” (KJV, NIV, ESV, NLT, etc.) It’s because the generic Greek conjunction de, which is meant to connect sentences to one another, can be translated…

  • “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 LORD’s (i.e. his) original intent when he handed ’em down, we’re gonna translate de generically. Sometimes “and,” sometimes a semicolon, sometimes we’ll drop it ’cause it’s redundant.

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 Dt 4.2 —we’re gonna wind up with the usual “but.” True, interpreters may only mean Jesus is just expounding on the idea—“You oversimplified it this way, but here’s what this really means”—dispensationalists can still claim the “but” backs their bad theology. So I went with the simplest option, and dropped de as redundant.

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 LORD certainly felt like smiting the Hebrews more than once. Ex 32.10 We know Jesus has this nature; he never give up his divine nature to become human. Cl 2.9 When stubborn Pharisees made him angry, Mk 3.5 or his doubt-filled students frustrated him, Mk 9.19 no doubt Jesus was tempted to smite ’em in one way or another. No doubt the devil tried to capitalize on Jesus’s emotions: “Elijah called down fire. So can you, y’know.” But no matter how Jesus felt, he was in total self-control. Temptations didn’t faze him. He 4.15 They don’t have to faze us either.

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. 1Jn 2.6 We’re gonna be tempted to smite people. We’re gonna want to imagine them dying in nasty ways. That’s life. Not sin.

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; Pr 6.18, Zc 8.17 this sort of stuff overflows into the rest of our lives in all sorts of ways. Mk 7.20-23 Don’t go there when you can help it.

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:

  1. Neither the Jews nor the Romans cared about the death, so no consequences.
  2. The Romans cared. So they found suspects and judged them. If found guilty, death penalty: Beheading for Romans, crucifixion for non-Romans.
  3. 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.
  4. 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, Lv 19.18 which is why most Christians have no idea he authorized revenge when it came to murder. But there were no sheriffs, marshals, nor cops back then. If you wanted justice, you had to get it yourself. And that’s what people will naturally do when there’s no criminal justice system: Round up a posse and go get the murderer. (Heck, sometimes they’ll do that even when there is a criminal justice system.) So the LORD put restrictions on this behavior.

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. Nu 35.19 Not torture them; not let them pay a fine. Nu 35.31-32 Nor kill them based on hearsay: There needed to be at least two witnesses. Nu 35.30

If it was an accidental death, the accused was ordered to go to one of six villages owned by the priests. Nu 35.9-15 If the city leaders ruled the accused as innocent, the city provided them sanctuary, Nu 35.24-25 ’cause you know how vengeful people can get. Of course, if the accused left the city before the death of the then-current head priest, and the goel haddám found them and took their revenge… well, that was on the accused. Nu 35.26-28 They were supposed to stay in the sanctuary city, where they were safe.

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.

Matthew 5.25-26 KWL
25 “Be quick to cooperate with your prosecutor as much as you can on the way to trial,
lest your prosecutor turn you in to the judge,
the judge to the bailiff, and you’re thrown into prison.
26 Amen! I promise you you’ll never come out of there till you work off your last quadrans.”
Luke 12.57-59 KWL
57 “Why can’t you judge rightly by yourselves?
58 For when you go off to the ruler with your prosecutor,
make an effort, on the way to trial, to be cleared of his charge.
Otherwise he could drag you before the judge.
The judge will hand you off to the executioner, and the executioner will throw you into prison.
59 I tell you, you may never come out of there till you pay your last lepton.”

In the scriptures, sins against others tend to be compared with debts. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Mt 6.12 KJV This was because the ancients believed if a debt wasn’t paid off as quickly as possible, it was theft. In other words, sin.

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. Mt 18.32-34

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” Mt 5.25—make things right. Work it out. Make peace.

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, Mt 5.23 figuring all they need do is be right with God, and screw anybody else. Too many of us think exactly the same way. It’s their problem, not ours.

Wrong. As much as we can, we’re to live at peace with others. Ro 12.18, He 12.14 Jesus wants us to stop, make things right with others, then make things right with God.

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.