Monday, September 21, 2009

But I say to you...

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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.

- Matthew 5:21-26

As Jesus begins his elaboration on the Law, he begins with the ancient law against murder. In this particular place in the Sermon on the Mount, he begins his discourse on what it is to "exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees" (see yesterday's reading). He takes the specific law against murder, and proceeds to extend it into what it is to be in conflict. It's not enough, he seems to say, to simply obey this law. One must also understand what it is to create problems, a conflict which is unjust, the things that lead to such acts.

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; 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. Other translations state "...if you are angry with a brother or sister without a cause..." As I understand this, Jesus is pointing to the actions that are behind murder, the things that lead to it or in some way resemble it in terms of our own actions and choices. This is not righteous anger he's speaking of here. I don't believe he's speaking of a proper expression of a plea for justice. Rather he is emphasizing our need for measuring our anger, understanding it and coming to terms with it in an appropriate way. My study bible says that Jesus forbids sinful anger as opposed to righteous indignation. Psalm 4:4 says, "Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still." Ephesians 4:26-27 reads "'Be angry, and do not sin': do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give a place to the devil." Above all, we are to avoid the exercise of anger that is ill-tempered, without discernment, provoking - and we are to value peace among our brothers and sisters. Jesus addresses the law in terms of the healing of our natures. Spiritually we accept that as Son acting with the Father, he created human nature and gave the Law of the Old Testament. Here the Old Law is being fulfilled in the New Law, and this fulfillment and our healing becomes a central focus of teaching.

My study bible notes that in early Christian worship the liturgical "kiss of peace" took place at the beginning of the Communion prayers. This was a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness, preparing the Church to offer and receive the Eucharist. So we find in this teaching a linking of self-awareness and discernment: how are we expressing a call for justice, do we try to discern between righteous anger and sinful anger? Is reconciliation and peace a true goal and concern? I find often that fights in churches come from a self-centered sense of ownership or entitlement, and an unwillingness to engage in real dialogue. I am certain that any reader of this blog can think of examples they have experienced in their lives and their churches. But most of all there must be a concern for others and for the church as a whole; peace as a cherished goal which is much more than just order or repression but right-relatedness.

Luke 12 puts the teaching on coming to terms with an adversary before one reaches the judge in the context of a discussion on the end of the age. Here in Matthew, Jesus emphasizes the nature of conflict and the importance of reconciliation in this elaboration on the New Law, with a clear reference to Judgment. We are to hold this goal in our hearts - to hold out a hand for reconciliation in a proper and good way. We can add this to the teachings elsewhere on both forgiveness and correction in the church. Above all, I think. the emphasis on reconciliation and self-awareness, discernment when it comes to anger is a teaching about the importance of our capacity as believers to work together. Those who wish to build this kingdom, to participate in it and be a part of it must remember to hold one another within the ideals of respect that demand we see one another as human -- and certainly within the "two great commandments" to love God with all our heart and soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. To provoke conflict, not to hold as a goal the peace that makes our cooperative working together possible, is to violate a law equal to the statute against murder. We murder relationships, we murder the working of the kingdom, our capacity for loving one another. Certainly Jesus knew we would always have disagreements; but we are taught here what it is to understand our goals and what is necessary, and how to hold in mind what it is we need - and to be aware of that which must be discarded in our own behavior and nature.

So we begin with this teaching about murder and our inner natures, with the awareness that life is not only about following the proscriptions of the law but also about what is written in our hearts, about being aware of our own behaviors, and the action we take in attempt to reconcile. We are to practice respect for just treatment of one another, right-relatedness, and the things that make for peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment