The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount is about the internalization of religion. Jesus tells us that our religion should be who we are, not just rites that we do. He also talks about sins of the mind: how refraining from sin because of fear of the consequences all the while fantasizing about doing the sin doesn’t win us any points. It’s just as bad as the sin itself. We usually jump to Matt. 5:27-28 which says that looking upon a woman to lust after her is committing adultery in our hearts. We gravely, and appropriately, warn young men about the sin of sexual fantasy. We preach against pornography and urge self-control. We ask our ladies to dress with their poor, weak-willed brothers in mind. And all of this is right. But in jumping to this passage, we jump right over the warning that Jesus gives first.
The first thing Jesus speaks of along these lines is the dangers of anger. Whereas mental lusting, or sexual fantasy, is equated to adultery – which is bad enough – anger with one’s brother is called murder! If there is anything more universally condemned in the Bible than adultery it is murder. This, and the primacy of place given to this topic by our Lord, indicates that we should be even more aware of this danger than that of lusting. And, yet, we seldom talk about this. When we study the Sermon on the Mount we read this passage and quickly move on. This isn’t right. My intent is to write three entries about this issue, studying anger from a couple of different viewpoints. First, let’s examine what Jesus says about the issue.
Matt. 5:21-24 “Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 22 but I say unto you, that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire. 23 If therefore thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, 24 leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”
Many translations have “angry with his brother without cause” and there is some evidence for that reading. There are a lot of ancient manuscripts that include that phrase. Roughly half, in fact. Of course, that means that roughly half leave out “without cause”. Literary professors, whose career is built on reconstructing ancient texts as nearly as possible based not only on the quality of the manuscripts used but also on the known tendencies of copyists, seem to lean to the conclusion that “without cause” was added in. It is the type of thing that a copyist would add to help explain an otherwise hard reading/hard saying of Jesus. On the face of it, we know that anger alone is not sin (Eph. 4:26), but then we also know that merely desiring a woman is not sin either. Men are designed by God to desire women, actually, and that desire has a God-given outlet. So it seems that in both passages Jesus is driving His point home by speaking very emphatically. By exaggerating for the point of emphasis. The dangers of anger are so great, as are those of sexual fantasy, that the warning is equally powerful.
Looking at the actual passage, notice that anger with one’s brother is equated with murder. It isn’t said quite as baldly as Jesus does with adultery in vs 28, but the consequence for murder is named as the judgment, and the consequence for anger is named as. . . the judgment. In giving the same consequence to both, Jesus is making them equal. Just as sinful lusting after a woman is more involved than merely acknowledging an attraction, anger here is more than just feeling the emotion. Have you ever thought “Of course, I’d never murder anyone, but boy what I’d like to do to so-and-so if I could get away with it” and proceed to fantasize about epic beatdowns? “Give me a baseball bat and five minutes alone with him in a closed room, please.” These are the thoughts that are under discussion.
Of course, we need not always murder someone. We can assassinate their character. Jesus deals with this as well. “Raca” is a contemptuous insult. Apparently it doesn’t translate well, but all cultures/languages have their own unique ways of showing contempt. This was the Hebrew way. Jesus also adds in “fool”. Notice the consequences of these: the council and the hell of fire. Someone who won’t kill but doesn’t mind destroying another’s reputation will face the same condemnation as the murderer. The sin is the same, whether we carry it out in our minds, in our words, or in actuality. Anger, and the actions proceeding from it, is dangerous.
Finally, note the urgency that Jesus places on dealing with this problem: “ If therefore thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” If there ever was a time that one might think it appropriate to put off dealing with a brother’s anger, it would be while participating in the worship of God. “Surely I should finish offering the sacrifice first, as God is most important, and then deal with my brother later, right?” But, no, Jesus says drop the offering and go fix the problem with the brother first. Anger is so dangerous that the greater urgency in placed upon reconciliation, even above worship. This should open our eyes to the fact that this is a topic that demands both attention and caution.
Having seen some of what Jesus says on this issue, we will next turn our attention to what can be learned about this from the Wisdom Literature.