Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
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Good morning friends. Well, okay. Wow. There’s a whole lot to unpack here, isn’t there? This section of Matthew, plus the preceding and following passages, are all about Jesus expanding on the ancient laws and commandments of the Jewish prophets. And they aren’t easy.
Let’s start with an overview: last week, we read in verse 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
In today’s passages, and in those which follow, Jesus directs us, point by point, on how he will build on the ancient teachings.
I think we can all agree that “thou shall not kill” is – or should be – a pretty straightforward commandment. But Jesus doesn’t do what teachers call “scaffolding” when expanding on the commandments; he doesn’t say “Okay, now that you’ve mastered ‘do not kill’, let’s add on ‘don’t beat anyone up’, and when you’ve mastered that, we’ll add on more advanced stuff.” Nope. He goes hard, right away. It’s not enough simply not to murder someone; if you lose your temper and holler or call someone a name, apologize – immediately.
He talks about lying, adultery, and divorce.
In the verses immediately following, he expands on the Hammurabic code of measure for measure: instead of an eye for an eye, if someone slaps you, turn the other cheek. If someone sues you for your shirt, don’t fight it – give them your shirt AND your coat.
However: we can’t dig into all of this in 15 minutes, and frankly, I’m not equipped to cover most of these topics! So we’re going to stick with just one on which to dive in deep: today we’ll focus on anger and apologies.
Why is it so darned hard to apologize?
Anger can feel pretty good, can’t it? Exciting. The rush of adrenaline. Maybe a little catharsis, some righteous indignation, perhaps the feeling that we’re better than someone else. Sometimes, right after we’ve lost our temper and snapped at someone, and the adrenaline surge has passed, we feel ashamed and apologize. But many times we stomp off, and keep stoking its flames; we keep going back over it, revisiting it, firing ourselves back up, reliving it and thinking about all the other things we wish we’d said. Sometimes when we lose our temper with someone, we don’t back down – we keep going, escalating the situation. Sometimes the other person apologizes to us for the role they had in the situation, and instead of saying “I accept your apology. I also apologize”, we unload on them some more. I wonder why we do that.
I love this quote I found about anger from psychotherapist Angela Buttimer: “When we hold onto grudges and resentment, it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.”
Why is it so hard to apologize? Sometimes we kid ourselves into thinking it wasn’t so bad, and the other person wasn’t really harmed. Maybe they didn’t really notice! Sometimes we tell ourselves that we were justified, so it’s okay. You know, “but they started it!” or “they wronged me”. But the bottom line is that it’s really ego-based; we don’t want to admit we were wrong. We think it would be humiliating to apologize, to admit that we were wrong in any way. And worse, a lot of times we act like jerks to someone when we are in a position of power and can get away with it – someone who can’t talk back. We are unkind to store clerks, waitpersons, customer service reps, our children, our pets. The person who reports to us at work. And do we apologize afterwards? Sadly, no, we do not.
But Jesus is quite unequivocal about it: apologize. He doesn’t say you don’t need to apologize if they really were a jerk to you, or if they started it, or you were just having a bad day, or they weren’t really hurt, or they understand.
He says, in no uncertain terms: apologize RIGHT NOW. Don’t bother coming to the altar and acting like you’re right with God, apologize and then come back.
Now, clearly, this is a very challenging, hard directive. But it’s important to note that it’s not impossible. Jesus doesn’t demand that we never lose our patience or get angry – now that would be REALLY hard!. Rather, the directive is just to apologize.
And we know that our Creator, through Jesus, will be there to help us do it. Thank you, beloved Creator, for giving us the strength to do the work of loving one another, as we love ourselves, no matter how hard it is. Amen.