21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
3Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
Thank you, Chuck and Donnie for the beautiful solo and accompaniment, and Noah for your very fine reading from the Letter of James. That is powerful stuff!
Would it be okay if I read the 4 verses from Matthew again? [Reread] If I were to assign a subheading to this passage, it would be “Jesus Talks About Violence.” Today, we talk a great deal about violence, about the murder rate and about the number of prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes. Here, Jesus talks about violence. As you heard, the passage begins with Jesus reminding his hearers of the Law of Moses—the Ten Commandments. Christ’s Jewish listeners were very familiar with the Ten Commandments – they were engraved upon their doorposts and wore upon their foreheads. And there was no mistaking the 6th Commandment: “Thou shall not murder.” Through Moses, God had set forth this ordinance: “If someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.” Period. Christ’s listeners knew the judgment and they knew the penalty for murder.
So in his Sermon of the Mount, Jesus reminds the crowd about God’s rule concerning murder. But then he imposes an even broader interpretation of murder that certainly makes his listeners squirm. Murder, Christ said, is not just killing another’s body; it is killing his reputation, killing his spirit, and cursing another child of God. Let me explain.
This weekend, I attended a workshop on Non-Violent Communication. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how the course would be useful for me. I generally assessed my communication as “non-violent.” I typically don’t threaten people or issue ultimatums, or speak harsh words that suggest I want to fight. But in the course of the workshop, I learned that violence isn’t just arguing or fighting. A lot of other behaviors constitute violence. Violence is more than punching, assaulting, and shooting. While these are the final manifestations – the front- page tragedies that grab our attention – violence begins long before they occur. What we hear on the 6:00 news was fomenting and allowed to fester long before. And had we paid attention, we might have observed that it began with unmet needs, violent thoughts, violent speech, and then violent behaviors. Needs to emotions, emotions to thoughts; thoughts to words; words to actions.
Whether by coincidence or providence, today’s scripture is about violence. “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will have to stand before the judge; if you insult a brother or sister, you will be hauled into court; and if you judge your brother or sister by labeling her a fool or calling him ‘stupid,’ you will face the fires of Hell.”
“But, but, but . . .,” we stammer. “That’s crazy! We all get angry, and sometimes for good reason! Who among us can keep from being angry?
It’s a fair question. None of us can. Anger is a primitive response that results when our needs are not being met. A baby enjoying a bottle is content, until halfway through the feeding, the bottle is taken away. The baby becomes angry. An employee is terminated and his need for a source of income and security is no longer met; he becomes angry. A teenager suddenly loses a parent in a car crash, and her need for a mother’s love and nurturing goes unmet. She becomes angry.
Jesus, himself, became angry – most notably, when he discovered that the temple itself had become a corrupt market where vendors extorted money from the poor. Likewise, the Old Testament recounts the story of Israel’s disobedience and God’s righteous anger at his wayward people. In anger, God himself turned his face away from Israel. So, anger – righteous and otherwise — seems inevitable. How can Jesus summarily condemn a basic human response?
The Interlinear Greek Bible helps here: The passage actually reads “whoever is angry with his brother without a cause” is liable to the judgment. So I would propose that it is “misplaced” anger that is the problem. And also sustained anger, clinging to anger, not releasing anger that is equally violent.
“But I don’t misplace anger,” you might be saying. Well, I would have to admit that I do. When my needs have not been met, it is easy to sound off to the first unfortunate person who gets in my path – or to blame someone else for a consequence of my own choice. The report I wrote at work was given only the slightest attention, and my suggestions in the meeting were ignored. So, I feel rejected, and take it out on my secretary. Ever do that? Your daughter brings home poor grades and you get angry with her even though you know you never found the energy to help with her homework or conference with the teacher. We oversleep and leave the house late, but get angry at other drivers for causing us to be late for work. See, I think we misplace anger fairly often.
And do we cling to anger? Absolutely. Perhaps we get attention or derive sympathy from being offended or victimized? By repeating our story over and over, we fan the anger and make it less and less likely we will reconcile.
Christ says this kind of misplaced and prolonged anger is a very real kind of violence that does not lead to compassion or healing or any positive outcome.
How do we keep from misplacing or clinging to our anger? Let’s hold onto that question for just a little while. Because there are other violent behaviors that Christ calls out. In the Amplified Bible, Classic Translation, Christ’s words read, “Whoever insults or expresses contempt for his brother will face the court; and whoever curses his brother will be subject to Hell’s fires.”
“But, but, but . . .,” I say, “I don’t insult people or curse them . . . I don’t think . . . or at least not very much.” And, if I do, I don’t do it to their faces.
“Ah, but that is still violent,” Christ says. Your judgmental attitude presumes that you are in a position to curse or pass verdict on another. You assume the role of God – and that is very dangerous!! It is a very real kind of violence that never leads to compassion or healing or any positive outcome.
As you heard, James observes that the tongue is a small part of the anatomy, yet it has such power. A poisonous tongue can stain the whole body. And bridling the tongue is very hard to do. James says that words can set a forest on fire. They can also set Facebook on fire. They can set the gossip mill on fire. They are the toothpaste – easy to spew out but impossible to stuff back in. Psychologists say that it takes 5 compliments to undo the damage of a single insult. 5:1.
While human brains are wired to classify, sort, and form opinions, opinions/judgments often get in the way. One of the hardest exercises for people to do is to simply observe their surroundings without making judgments. As soon as we see, hear, or sense something around us, we label it good, bad, attractive, ugly, useful, pointless, shallow, brilliant, etc. etc. But, over and over again, Christ’s message is that when it comes to our fellow human beings, our judgment or evaluation isn’t called for and is, in fact, sinful. The scriptures say, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God judges the heart.” “Judgment is mine, sayeth the Lord.” “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Instead, “you are to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Finally, Christ caps off the discussion with, “Unless your goodness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” So, I don’t know about you, but at this point, I’m toast. How do I manage my anger, suspend my judgment, and bridle my tongue. That’s impossible!
Well, the text gives us the answer. If you still have your bibles open, look back at Matthew 5: 23-24. “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, go be reconciled.” Talk. Clarify. Reconcile. Apologize. And come to the alter and ask God to forgive you and fix the situation until, as much as it is possible, you have made a sincere step toward doing so.
Now, I know, we hate that part. Reconciling. And it’s possible that both parties had a hand in the quarrel or the war of words. Why must it be your job to reconcile. Well, Christ is speaking to a group and the command to “go and be reconciled” is a non-specific command. It goes out to everyone. Psychologist Russell Rosenberg says, “ Whoever becomes aware of the hurtfulness between you – and perhaps both parties become aware at the same time– should take the first step toward reconciling. . . . but with the knowledge that an insult or judgment takes only seconds to be spoken, but may require months – sometimes even years—to mend.
And when you go, you will need to humble yourself. To truly give and receive forgiveness requires that we become vulnerable. That word derives from the Latin verb to wound. To be vulnerable is to be woundable – to open ourselves to others – to drop our guard, to bare our souls, to be open-hearted like . . . children. Or like, the little lambs we had running around our fellowship hall Wednesday night.
I immediately think of Christ, the Lamb of God. He was open, unarmed, and vulnerable. I think it took people off their guard to meet a man whose compassion and love were so exposed. I think of the African-American Freedom Riders who sat unarmed at lunch counters and took the abuse without retaliation – open, unarmed, vulnerable. I think of a young man holding a flower who, in 1989, stood in front of a line of moving tanks in Tienanmen Square, China. When we go to reconcile, we go unarmed but we pack two things: compassion & empathy. We make a sincere attempt to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, to try to truly hear what their situation is like. Social worker and writer Renee Brown explains the difference between sympathy and empathy with a little cartoon. A fox and a bear are walking through the forest, when the fox falls down into a deep, dark hole. The fox calls out, “Help, I’m in this hole and it is dark and scary.” A nearby giraffe hears his call and sticks her head into the hole. “Wow. That is a deep hole, and I sure am sorry you’ve fallen in. Bless your heart!” But the bear, on seeing the fox’s plight, climbs down into the hole with him. The giraffe extended sympathy; the bear demonstrated empathy. He got down in the hole with his friend. I think true empathy becomes possible only when we internalize the knowledge that we – you and I — are not perfect. Let’s say that: WE ARE NOT PERFECT. There are not degrees of perfect. There is only imperfect. No one else is perfect, and yet God loves us and forgives us over and over and over. We are not perfect, yet God loves us unconditionally, and, while we were yet sinners, God’s 33-year-old son made himself vulnerable and was mortally wounded for imperfect people.
I am absolutely convinced that if our thoughts and words were less violent and more loving, our culture would be far better, more harmonious. If, even in our teasing, we pledged to never again say things like, “That driver is an idiot!” “She is a waste of good air!” “I could just kill you for doing that!”? What if we vowed to quit cursing and name-calling? What if we taught and exposed our children to only words that were kind and compassionate? What if we could “love our enemies and pray for our persecutors?” What if our goodness was greater than the scribes’ and the Pharisees? Would we enter into Heaven, or would the Kingdom of Heaven come here? AMEN