Read Matthew 5:21–26 (CEB).
We are entering a pivotal section of Jesus’ sermon. After Jesus told the people, He came to fulfill the law, He then gave them a series of interesting statements. We know much of this section by heart.
“You have heard it said long ago …”
“But now, I say to you …”
It is kind of ironic. Just after Jesus said He did not come to abolish the law, He challenges these fundamental principles of the Jewish faith.
I have to imagine that some in the crowd that day must have been scratching their heads.
“Jesus, you just said the law was good and perfect.”
“Jesus, you just said you came to fulfill the law.”
“Why are you now changing it?”
But you see, I think Jesus knew exactly what He was doing. I think He anticipated the head scratching. I believe Jesus wanted these people to rethink this whole business of “law.” Because if they believed law was just following a few commands—if they really believed that at the heart of religion was a checklist of do’s and don’ts—they were in for a big surprise.
But what about us? To be honest, I think many of us, when we come to passages like these, are among the head scratchers. We really don’t know what to do with this section of Jesus’ sermon. So, people have concocted all kinds of ways to understand it.
Some people, for example, just chock the entire section up to “high ideals.” Jesus knew these sinful people could not actually live up to these standards, but He wanted to give them the ideal anyway. Though humans cannot proceed through life without anger, God can. And now, this God-made-man would show the people. He came to fulfill it before their eyes. This has actually become quite a popular interpretation of these verses—of the entire Sermon on the Mount for that matter. And it really gives us a “way out,” doesn’t it? If we can’t live up to the ideals, we just say, “Well, Jesus really didn’t mean for us to actually do these things.” “I mean, come on. Who can go through life without anger, right?” That’s one way to approach this text.
Others of us have taken the opposite road. What Jesus did was replace one set of laws with another better set! That old defunct law said don’t murder. But now, I say don’t even be angry. The old system condemned adultery. But now, the more improved law forbids even lustful thoughts!
Jesus came to earth to “raise the bar.” Perhaps the people were becoming too lax in their morality. Sure, they weren’t murdering or committing adultery, but there was a lot of hate and lust going around! People who follow this interpretation believe Jesus came to set the people straight.
What is interesting about those who want to interpret Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in either of these two ways is that they tend to be selective in their interpretation. “I don’t have a problem with making oaths, so Jesus was raising the bar for us when he said don’t make oaths.” “I do have a problem with my anger, so Jesus was just giving us the unattainable ideal when he was talking about anger.” Jesus was presenting a high ideal when he talked about loving our enemies. So, people that wage wars on their enemies are allowed to worship with us on Sunday morning. But, if you’ve ever been through a failed marriage, well, you can’t be in here with us.
Our inconsistencies have led us down some pretty dark paths, church. But, there is no reason to interpret this passage inconsistently.
Jesus follows a very clear pattern in this entire section of the sermon (Matthew 5:21–48). This section tackles some HUGE issues:
- Making oaths
- Love for enemies
You see, we have simply replaced the old law with a new law. However, when we make this move, we entirely miss the intent of Jesus’ words. In fact, we actually make the burden of the Law heavier than it was before Jesus came to earth! Brothers and sisters, I may be unclear on many things in Scripture, but I do know this: God did not come here to increase our burden! He came to bring us salvation from that burden!
Notice that each of these teachings of Jesus in this section has three parts (not just two):
“You’ve heard it said …”
“But now I’ll you …”
Then notice that each of these has a third part. Let’s take our text this morning as the example.
First, Jesus presents the traditional understanding of righteousness: You’ve heard it said, “Don’t kill”. This was the beginning and end of the law. And many a Jew had patted him- or herself on the back for not breaking this sacred commandment. But, then Jesus proceeds to the second part. And most of us treat these words as the heart of Jesus’ “new message” or “new law.” We treat these words as the command, as if Jesus said, but I tell you “Don’t be angry with your brother.” But, guess what? There is no command here.
With this middle section of each teaching, Jesus describes the reality we often find ourselves in. “Being angry with your brother,” Jesus says, “makes you liable to judgment.” “Insulting your brother makes you liable to the council.” “Calling your brother ‘fool’ makes you liable to hell fire.” In this middle section, Jesus is simply describing life as we all know it. If you are angry, if you insult, if you call people names, there is always a consequence! There is no mention here of God punishing people for being angry. What Jesus says is that anger always leads to more problems!
- Broken relationships
Read Matthew 5:23-26 (CEB).
Jesus uses this triad form of teaching through this entire section. The commands always come at the end. The heart of the message is not a new law. The heart of the message is found in Jesus’ commands to restore relationships. For our text today, Jesus’ message is simple. Those bound up with anger and resentment are caught in a vicious cycle that leads to destruction. This anger leads to sick feelings in our stomach. This resentment only festers and destroys you and those around you. Instead of dwelling on your anger, reconcile with your brother and sister. This is the only way out of the vicious cycle. Jesus goes on to say that before we can even approach the altar, we have to reconcile with one another. Before we can hope to have a relationship with our Father, we have to reconcile with our siblings.
After a long night and day of marching, General Robert E. Lee and the exhausted Army of Northern Virginia made camp just east of Appomattox Courthouse. It was April 8, 1865. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had sent him a letter on the night of April 7. That day there had been significant fighting between their troops. Both sides were exhausted. Both sides were ready for the conflict to be over. But Lee wasn’t ready to give up yet.
Finally, however, Lee agreed to meet Grant at 10:00 the next morning to discuss a peaceful outcome. Having watched the battle through field glasses, Lee knew there was no hope for the South. He said, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than to surrender." But meeting General Grant the next morning, Lee said, “We are pressed and are ready to surrender. What are your terms?” Surprisingly, Grant’s terms didn’t include judgment. They didn’t include prison for Lee or his generals. They didn’t include retribution. The terms were: Stop fighting and start living. Give up your weapons, go home and plant your fields. The soldiers who hadn't eaten in days were given meal rations, horses and mules to plow fields. The war was over but for many people, life had just begun.
Brothers and sisters, many of you need to get out of the vicious cycle before your life in Jesus’ Kingdom can begin. Some of you would rather die a thousand deaths than forgive or ask for forgiveness! But, it’s been long enough. This constant anger that you are carrying around is only killing you and destroying those around you. You’ve been in this vicious cycle long enough.
I know what some of you are thinking:
“But you just don’t understand what he did.”You’re right; I don’t know. But I do know one thing. That hate that you are carrying around only leads to destruction. And that anger will build and fester and kill. And more importantly, before you can ever have a relationship with God, you must let it go.
“He destroyed my life.”
“He ruined my family.”
“But you’ve never met her.”
“You don’t understand what she said about me.”
“You will never understand how that act destroyed my life.”
Forgiveness is freeing. Church, reconciliation paves the only road to the Kingdom of God. In this Kingdom Jesus was so concerned about that day on the hill, forgiveness is more important than “being right.” Peace is more important than getting revenge.