Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:21–24
Ryan Diviney was a star athlete in high school before enrolling in West Virginia University in Morgantown. He planned to go into law and dreamed of becoming a judge or even a US senator.
On November 7, 2009, he and a friend got into a verbal altercation with some young men outside a Dairy Mart convenience store in Morgantown. Then a WVU student steaked up behind Ryan and punched him in the face. He fell to the ground, then another student kicked him in the head.
Ryan’s jaw was broken, his skull was fractured in two places, and he began bleeding from the brain. For nearly a decade, he lived in a vegetative state. His father quit his job to devote himself to Ryan’s daily care at home. His mother kept working, in part to maintain the family’s health insurance. His sister, inspired by her brother’s plight, became a special-education teacher.
Ryan died 10 years later at the age of twenty-nine.
The student who punched him spent a year in prison; the one who kicked him spent four years in prison. All these years later, Ryan’s father says he remains angry at the two. Any father would feel the same.
But imagine the difference if the two men who attacked Ryan came to his family today and said, “I’m sorry.” Or better, imagine the difference if they had said those words rather than attacking Ryan in the first place.
Imagine the difference in marriages if every couple sought reconciliation rather than pursuing retribution. Imagine the difference in friendships and employment relationships. Imagine the difference in national affairs and geopolitical challenges.
Is there a place in your life where you need to hear those words? Where you need to speak them?
Let’s see how two words can change the world, and how they can change your world and mine.
Refuse to hate or hurt
Jesus continues his Sermon: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment'” (v. 21).
They “heard” this because the rabbis read the law to them in the synagogue each Sabbath, including this Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13). A murderer was “liable to judgment,” the local tribunal composed of seven persons. These tribunals inflicted punishment for capital crimes.
Now we find Jesus’ commentary: “But I say you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (v. 22a).
Jesus is not dealing here with the simple emotion of anger. This is an inevitable human reaction to hurt or harm. And it was an emotion Jesus felt himself. In Mark 3:5 Jesus “looked around at them with anger” for their unbelief; in John 2:15 he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. Ephesians 4:26 tells us, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” The emotion of anger is not a sin.
He is dealing with a different thing here. In the Greek language, thumos describes the spontaneous and unavoidable emotion of anger; it is not the word here. Orge is this word; it means anger that is long-lived, cherished in the heart, nursed and kept alive. The deliberate choice to continue holding onto your anger. Absolute unwillingness to pardon and move on.
Such cherished anger makes us “liable to judgment.” In other words, hating my brother is as wrong as the murder which hate spawns.
Jesus continues: “Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin” (v. 22b NIV). “Raca” was an Aramaic term of contempt which literally meant “empty-headed” or stupid. In ancient Judaism names were much more significant than they are for us. A name denoted a person’s character, and a word took on its own life and power.
So expressing your cherished anger by a term of contempt made you answerable not to the local tribunal but to the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. They typically required reparations in money for such an insult to a person’s reputation and status.
Jesus then adds, “and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of hell” (v. 22c).
“Fool” was the worst, most slanderous term you could use against a person in ancient Israel. It comes from the Greek word for “moron,” and meant a person who is morally deficient, corrupted, immoral, a person with no character or value whatsoever.
This level of anger deserves “the fire of hell.” The Greek says, “the gehenna of fire.” The Valley of Gehenna stood to the south of Jerusalem. During the reigns of wicked kings Ahaz and Manasseh, children were sacrificed to idols there. King Josiah stamped out such heinous sin, and make the valley a trash dump. Fires were kept burning there constantly to consume the trash; worms lived there and lived off the refuse. Jesus would later make Gehenna a metaphor for hell “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48).
What is Jesus teaching us? Refuse to hate or hurt your brother. No matter what he may have done to you. In a moment Jesus will teach us how to reconcile with him. For now, how do we handle the anger our pain has caused?
Act on your anger immediately, before it takes root in your soul: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26–27 NIV). Deal with this infection before it spreads. Admit it and give it to God.
Guard your tongue, especially while you are angry: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). What we say shows who we are.
Choose to pardon, for your sake and his. Tim Stafford: “I would rather be cheated a hundred times than develop a heart of stone.” A wise old saint added, “I will never allow another person to ruin my life by making me hate him.”
The Didache is the oldest theological document outside the New Testament. It gives us good advice: “Love those that hate you, and you will have no enemy” (1.3). Ask God’s help, and it will be yours.
Who has made you angry this week?
Make things right today
Now, how do we reconcile our relationship with this person? Jesus will tell us: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (vv. 23–24).
“Offering your gift at the altar” describes the holiest moment a Galilean peasant might ever experience. Very rarely were non-priests allowed before the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem, and only when they were bringing animal sacrifice for a very special occasion. Some would prepare for years or all their lives for this moment. This is something akin to baptism for us.
There you “remember that your brother has something against you”—not just that you have something against him. “Something” is anything. There is no distinction here as to whether this is just or not, whether you are wrong or wronged. If anyone has anything against you today, you qualify.
Leave your gift. Don’t give it to the priest but leave it where it is. Despite the holiness and significance of this moment. The person comes first: “go and be reconciled.” Take the initiative to make things right. Only then can you give your gift to God. You cannot be right with me if you are wrong with one of my children. Our heavenly Father feels the same way.
How do we attempt this reconciliation? I recently read an article in Psychology Today entitled “Making Amends.” It suggests that a meaningful apology requires three steps:
Regret: recognize that your action or inaction hurt this person, whether you intended such pain or not. Empathize with the pain they feel.
Responsibility: accept total responsibility for your actions or inactions.
Remedy: offer restitution or a promise to take action so that you do not repeat this behavior. Find a way to resolve the situation and restore the relationship.
Take the initiative to reconcile with your brother. Go to the person directly: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). Don’t talk about the person, but to him.
Do it now. The poet Edwin Markham lost everything when an unscrupulous banker betrayed his business confidence. He hated that man. And he could not write poetry, but doodled circles on paper for hours. Finally, he realized he must forgive the man or die. He said aloud, “I forgive him.” For the first time in months, words began to flow. Looking at the circles on his paper, he wrote:
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.
Start your circle today.
Many stories have been told about the painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. One of my favorites is that da Vinci made the face of Judas similar in appearance to a personal enemy. As the artist thought of how much he disliked this man, it was easy to paint him as the traitor of our Lord.
However, when he turned to paint the face of Jesus, he could not. His eyes wandered to the face of his enemy, creating thoughts within his heart which made it impossible to concentrate on the beauty and purity of Jesus. He painted the face of Christ only after he painted out the face of Judas and reconciled himself with his enemy.
To paint the face of Christ tomorrow, whose face must you change today?