A Teaching About Anger

This coming Sunday is the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The gospel reading is from the discourse popularly known as the Sermon on the Mount. In yesterday’s post we will consider how that framework offers a path towards a great righteousness found in covenantal relationship with God. In today’s post we look into one of the five blocks (teachings about the Law, anger, adultery, divorce and oaths) Jesus uses in the Sermon.

As will be evident, the following uses Boring’s model and words as a way to think about the text at hand (described in yesterday’s post)

21 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’22 But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you,24 leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.25 Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.26 Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

The Law Reaffirmed. Jesus begins with a direct quotation of the command in the Decalogue against murder (Exod 20:13; Dt 5:18). The supplementary “whoever kills will be liable to judgment” is not found exactly in the Old Testament, but presents a paraphrasing summary of several texts in the Torah (Exod 21:12; Lev 24:17; Num 35:12; Deut 17:8-13). It is likely Matthew composed it in order to introduce the word judgment, which plays a decisive role in Jesus’ pronouncement.

The Law Radicalized. Some rabbinic texts nuanced OT texts to distinguish between “justified” and “unjustified” anger (others declared such anger the same as shedding blood).  Jesus declares that anger makes one subject to judgment, without distinguishing between “justified” and “unjustified” anger.  One school of scholarly thought holds that the three-part escalation in severity ultimately leading to fiery Gehenna is a parody of a legalistic casuistry among overly zealous/pious Pharisees which Jesus mocks and rejects.

Evidence of such a rejection is seen because (a) there is no clear escalation in the offenses cited, (b) and because Jesus’ demand is difficult or impossible to carry out—becoming angry is not usually a matter under one’s control—and from the absurdly disproportionate punishment, not to mention the fact that taken literally the Jesus violates his own injunction (“fool” in 23:17, 19). Verse 22 is not literally an escalating scale from local courts to the judgment bar of God, but a declaration of the absolute will of God, who wills not only that persons not kill each other, but also that there be no hostility between human beings. “This is not an injunction merely to avoid certain abusive expressions (that would be another form of legalism) but to submit our thoughts about other people, as well as the words they give rise to, to God’s penetrating judgment.

Situational Application. Despite their commitment to live by Jesus’ command, the disciples find themselves involved in hostility. What then? Jesus offers two illustrations that guide the disciples in applying Jesus’ radical demand to their situation of imperfect people living in an imperfect world. They are to consider reconciliation, overcoming alienation and hostility to be even more important than worship at the altar (vv. 23-24); thus they are to work for reconciliation in the light of the eschatological judgment toward which they are journeying (vv.25-26). Simply put: “do not allow bad relationships to remain unresolved” (France, 2000, p.203) – there is an urgency here.

Neither picture is to be taken legalistically as a literal case. The worshiper before the altar can not literally leave the sacrificial liturgy half completed, find the offended or offending brother or (which may require a round trip of several days to Galilee and back), then return to the Temple and complete the liturgy. Corresponding to the antithesis of 5:22, this is not a realistic “case” but a pointer to the kind of greater righteousness appropriate to those who belong to the kingdom of God. Disciples are responsible for using this example creatively to apply Jesus’ teaching in their own situations. As such it is a frontal attack on the legalistic system as an approach to the righteousness God demands. As well it is a pointer to the divine judgment on those whose earthly relationships do not conform to the values of the kingdom of heaven.

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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