I and many others similarly intrigued by the Sermon on the Mount find it notable that of all our commonly-shared character defects the ones Jesus addresses earliest are anger and its loathsome roommate contempt. That’s because no other human traits we possess are so easily aroused and so quick to be justified by us, even when they leave destruction in their wake. On that Galilean hillside long ago Jesus first drew in His audience with the incomparable Beatitudes. Next He magnified each person’s immense importance in the kingdom of God by assuring them they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He then told them He hadn’t come to abolish God’s law but to fulfill it. Having succeeded in garnering their rapt attention He then got personal. He preached, “You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). I suspect those radical statements elicited an audible gasp from the crowd. Why would He say such a thing? They thought He was trying to teach folks how to “be good.” It’s because He knew all too well that until an individual gets a firm grip on their anger and contempt, becoming a “good person” is a mission impossible.
Why did Jesus take on anger only a few minutes into His sermon? Frederick Buechner had this to say about it: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” Fess up. You know Buechner pegged it.
Understand that anger, in and of itself, isn’t a sin. It’s an instinctive, built-in reflex. It’s a strong feeling that engulfs us whenever we sense our will is being interfered with. It’s the initial reaction we have when we’re pulled from our mother’s warm, comfy womb. We’re mad about what’s being done to us and we enthusiastically let everyone within earshot know it. For years after birth we don’t hesitate to openly express our anger about being hungry, not being allowed to do whatever we want, wearing a dirty diaper, etc. We don’t give it a second thought. But the problem is that too often as grownups we still don’t give it a second thought. Anger is an emotional trigger mechanism designed by our Creator to instantly put our nervous system on high alert when a threat is detected. Thus it isn’t sinful when acknowledged and maturely dealt with. It’s the “acting out” phase of our anger that causes all the trouble. Too often we viciously lash out, seeking to inflict harmful retribution upon whomever or whatever we’ve determined the source to be. We forget that evil thrives on unbridled resentment. Over 200 years ago David Hume observed, “Some degree of malice is contained in every degree of anger.” That’s why it hurts when someone gets mad at us. They don’t have to get physical for their ire to have an impact, either. A hateful look or word can cause us to experience real pain and we usually know for certain when it’s intentional.
But Jesus was mainly referring to our devilish inclination to willingly choose to spray napalm on our anger. If we’re not vigilant we can become addicted to it and turn into mean-spirited people always on the lookout for a reason to blow our stack. Those guilty of committing unspeakable acts due to their spontaneous “road rage” or “crime of passion” outbursts are an example. The truth is most of us carry around an invisible handgun loaded with animosity all the time. Some of us have learned the hard way it’s best to keep that firearm holstered with the safety on. Others haven’t. But that begs the question of why anyone would allow themselves to be led by their anger impulse when indulging in it never produces anything positive? We’ve all witnessed the dark aura that fans out around someone’s unchecked rage, affecting everybody in the vicinity. Every day we hear of yet another innocent child or bystander killed in a drive-by shooting. So why don’t we glean the most fundamental lesson from tragedies like that?
The stone cold answer can be found in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” While we can’t understand it, Jesus told us that, with God’s help, we can learn how to control it. Anger affects each of us to one degree or another because it knows how to push our vanity-sated “self-righteousness button” and bruise our delicate ego. Some have conditioned themselves via discipline to recognize it for the horrible thing it is. They patiently cope with (in a Christ-like, calm manner) any situation that might cause their anger to rear its repulsive head. Others, because their all-important pride has been injured, not only let loose the hounds of hell to inflict serious damage on their foe but, refusing to back down afterwards, they allow it to morph into long-term contempt. No disease is as deadly.
Anger is epidemic. An average of 25,000 people are homicide victims in the USA every year and anger is involved to some extent in all those murders. The saddest part of that statistic is that in every case the culprit responsible willingly opted to stay angry and feed their contempt until it erupted in violence. Anger can “go viral” and infect entire nations, too. Just look at the ghastly wars waged in the last century alone. It’s miraculous the human race has yet to do itself in! Yet more and more I hear people voicing the opinion that indignation-fueled wrath is what’s called for in desperate times; that it’s a necessary evil in the struggle for justice; that peaceful demonstrations of non-violent civil disobedience just aren’t enough to turn the tide of inequality. Evidently history has taught us nothing because our country is more divided today than ever before. The wisdom contained in the adage “Nothing can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it” is ignored by those who actually get an adrenaline rush out of tearing stuff up or burning things down as participants in a riotous mob uprising. While they may pat themselves on the back for doing something tangible in courageous defense of their cause, all they’ve done is to further incense those who stand in opposition to their cause. It’s the equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot to draw blood.
But as bad as anger is, Jesus indicated that contempt is far worse because it’s an intentional, sustained vendetta directed against another person. When our Savior said that anyone who yells “Fool” at someone is damned, He was talking about the sin of broadcasting one’s contempt aloud. Since the word fool has become so drastically watered down over the centuries it’s beneficial we investigate the Arabic term raca Jesus employed. That harsh word come from the sound one makes conjuring phlegm from the back of one’s throat in order to spit out a hocker. In that era raca was what a demeaning, taboo racial epithet would be considered today. It was about the most deplorable thing you could call someone. It meant they didn’t count. Dallas Willard wrote, “In anger I want to hurt you. In contempt, I don’t care whether you’re hurt or not. Or at least so I say. You’re not worth consideration one way or the other.” He added, “We can be angry at someone without denying their worth. But contempt makes it easier for us to hurt them or see them further degraded.” In today’s lingo I’d have to utilize crass obscenities to illustrate what Jesus was conveying to His audience with raca but I’ll gracefully resist the temptation. Just imagine the most disgusting thing you could call someone and you’ll get the gist. It’s worth mentioning at this juncture the overall desensitization effect that so permeates the world’s languages these days. It’s corrosive. People casually hurl the ugliest things at each other! Is it that they find contempt acceptable or are they simply apathetic about the damage it inflicts on society as a whole? The truth is that filthy language and name-calling is, at its core, an expression of thinly-veiled hatred and a Christian should never take part in that sinful behavior.
Some might say Christ was taking the whole “anger thing” way too seriously. But His motive wasn’t to enact a new law that’d make getting mad a felony. What He was trying to do was to make us appreciate how precious each individual soul is; to comprehend that everyone has incalculable value in the Heavenly Father’s kingdom. Jesus wasn’t a lawmaker. He was the ultimate liberator. He wasn’t down here to force us to stop indulging in our bad habits; He was here to change our hearts and minds. He wanted us to understand that since God loves each person equally and longs to have a mutually respectful, loving relationship with everyone then none of us has any right to treat anyone with a lesser amount of respect and love. In other words, once we get our core attitude towards others aimed in the same direction as God’s the thought of despising someone or calling them something terribly nasty will never even enter our noggin. And then we’ll be more in compliance with God’s laws than ever before. For, as the apostle Paul wrote, “…The one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). And who is our neighbor? Everybody. Now, having said that, suppressing or hiding our anger won’t work. Eventually it’ll eat us alive from the inside out and make us miserable creatures. No, we must confront it, overcome it and defeat it by relying on the divine power only the indwelling Holy Spirit can provide. Merely following the letter of the law or toeing the line religiously won’t cut it. Paul wrote, “For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law” (Galatians 3:21).
But Jesus still had more to say on the subject of hostility. Addressing our anger and contempt was just a setup for the surprising “so then” that followed. Bear in mind that for the Israelites presenting one’s sacrifice before the great I AM at His temple was the holiest, most sacred ritual one was privileged to participate in. It topped their “to do” list. Absolutely nothing was more important in the lives of the faithful. So imagine the shock of hearing Jesus preach, “So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). While this stunning pronouncement surely raised more than a few eyebrows it nonetheless emphasized how much God treasures moral living over allegiance to performing rituals. To God nothing takes precedence over getting differences settled between one another. Now, Jesus wasn’t deeming symbolic displays of worship useless. He was, however, readjusting their priority level in the grand scheme of things.
Sadly, a strict legalist will take Christ’s words to the moon if allowed to. They’ll sarcastically whine, “But what if my neighbor refuses to be reconciled? Does this mean I’m to be banned from church services until he or she does?” Not at all. Again, Jesus isn’t issuing a new commandment here. Willard wrote, “The aim of His illustration – and it is an illustration – is to bring us to terms with what is in our hearts and, simultaneously, to show us the rightness of the kingdom heart.” Look, no matter how hard we try, we can’t predict how others will react in any given situation. We’re only responsible for our own actions and attitudes. God knows whether or not we did our best to obey His will. But if we have the countenance of Christ, “doing the right thing” will come as naturally to us as breathing.
Jesus then took it a step further to include circumstances whereupon we must deal with an adversary who’s filed suit against us. He said, “Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!” (Matthew 5:25-26). What Jesus is saying is that if we can set our enflamed consternation aside and approach the plaintiff in a rational, loving and open-minded manner most of the time we can save ourselves a truckload of grief. Our willingness to humble ourselves is in no way a sign of weakness. He’s not telling us to let our accuser steamroll over us just because they’re upset about something. Understand Jesus isn’t telling us what to do but how to do it. Once again Christ is teaching how we can avoid the dreadful quagmires that’ll loom ahead if we allow our anger and contempt to commandeer the wheel. We must all rise above our volatile emotions by keeping our eyes focused on God.
What too many overlook is that Jesus was a bona fide genius. Believers rightly worship Him as the genuine Son of God and praise His name but we tend to disregard the fact He was also the smartest person to ever trod terra firma. Who else could cover the whole gamut of how to manage our ferocious anger and contempt beasts (the ones that can so thoroughly ruin our lives) within the span of seven concise sentences? I learn so much by studying and contemplating what my Savior taught. Yes, I too have anger issues. I’m a mild-mannered guy 99% of the time but I’ve seen my anger erupt in a flash if someone cuts me off in traffic or when a puffed-up talking head on TV dares to dis my political views. When that happens my Christianity goes flying out the window so I know exactly what Jesus was talking about. I must practice discipline. It’s true I’m a “work in progress” but I’m getting a little better each day because of Christ’s influence.