As our society increases in its technological savvy, many things are becoming far easier than they once were. Communicating with someone half a world away can be done nearly instantaneously. Fifty years ago, if someone in, say, Missouri, wanted to communicate with someone in, say, China, they would have had to write a letter, mortgage their house in order to afford the postage, and hope and pray that the letter arrived sometime in the next year. Now, if both parties are connected to the internet, they could speak electronic face to electronic face in seconds. Preserving memories used to be a chore. You had to buy film (consider this: if you ask the current group of kids tearing up the nursery in ten years what camera film is they are going to stare at you blankly), load the film into the camera, take 24 to 32 pictures, wind the film back up, take the film to the photo shop, wait a week, and you had pictures. My mom has two huge boxes under their bed full of old pictures of my sister, Jamie, and me. That’s the other thing: who has room to store all those pictures? Now, you purchase a micro SD card (raise your hand if you don’t know what I’m talking about), slip it in your camera, take a few hundred to a few thousand pictures, load the pictures onto your computer, and upload them to Facebook for all the world to see. Not only is all of this fast and convenient, but it’s easy once you know how. I remember a Microsoft commercial from a few years ago that featured a four-year-old talking the camera through how she took some picture files and made an animated slide show to share with her friends and family. Now, I know that some folks are slower than others to adapt to the wonders of technology (and not all of them are old—Lisa and I have recently acquired the ability to text on our phones and yet I still couldn’t tell you how to send one…nor do I plan on learning any time soon), but this doesn’t change the facts of what technology allows to happen.
On the other side of these positives of the unrelenting advance of technology, a number of problems have arisen apace of the benefits. Studies have shown that people texting while they drive are actually more dangerous on the road than drivers whose BAC is well beyond the legal limit. I saw a headline the other day that the city of Philadelphia has apparently at least considered ticketing pedestrians texting while walking. Kind of sad that we have to use legislation to get people to be fully present in their surroundings… Another problem, and one which has probably proven a great deal more tragic to more people than texting, is identity theft. Identity theft can happen completely without our knowledge and has left people who have spent a lifetime working hard to build a financially secure life for their family staring up from the bottom of a financial pit out of which they may never climb. The problem here is that nearly everything we do on the internet leaves little tracks—evidence that we were there. Someone with the right skill set can find these tracks, trace them back to our personal information, take hold of that information, and use it to destroy a great deal of our lives in this world. This problem is such that a company called LifeLock was started a few years ago whose mission is to prevent identity theft. They made a splash when they emerged onto the scene by promising to cover the damage of identity theft up to a million dollars for any of their clients whose identities are stolen on their watch.
Thinking about this whole idea of identity theft, there is more than one way to steal someone’s identity. It can certainly happen electronically, but our entire identity is not rooted in our social security number, our credit card number, our bank account number, or our drivers license number. You and I are more than mere numbers. In the bigger picture, all of those things—while devastating to our plans for life if lost to the wrong hands—are merely externals. None of them have any impact on who we are. Our real identity is rooted in the image of God. And attacks against this identity can prove far more damaging than those against our financial identity. Attacks against this identity are really attempts to alter a person’s fundamental constitution. For example, if I were to take a nice, clean piece of paper and wad it up into a little ball, that would obviously be damaging to the paper. It’s not nice and neat anymore. But, it’s still a piece of paper, capable of all the things a piece of paper can do. If I were to attack its fundamental constitution however by say, burning it, it wouldn’t be a piece of paper anymore. It would be a pile of ashes. Now, a person created by God is always going to be a person, but attacks on a person’s fundamental identity are a pretty serious business. In fact, when carried to a certain extent, we have a name for them: murder. Murder is an unmitigated attack on a person’s very identity as such. It is to treat them as an object that can be carelessly tossed aside onto the garbage heap. This is indeed serious business. And as we continue our journey through the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, the next thing we are going to take a look at are Jesus’ words on the subject.
Last week I introduced you to the idea that according to Jesus, we are to be salt and light in a bland, dark world by perfectly keeping the Law. Instead of giving us some easier route to get to God, when Jesus came to earth He made it so that we could successfully walk the path God had already laid out. A case in point here was when we heard Jesus let us in on the unfortunate secret that in order to gain entrance to the kingdom of heaven, our righteousness, our right-relatedness to God and others, has to exceed that of one of the most externally righteous religious groups of people ever to walk on the earth. Thankfully, Jesus didn’t leave us to figure out how this works on our own. In the next part of the Sermon Jesus goes on to give some examples of how this greater righteousness might play itself out in our lives. He does this by setting up a series of six contrasts. In each one He contrasts how someone focused on this external, religious righteousness might interpret one of the commands of the Law with how a person determined to emulate this greater righteousness might go above and beyond merely the call of duty. In each contrast what we come to discover after studying them for a time is that the commands Jesus appears to reinterpret are not the real focus of His attention. Instead, He is laying out some pictures for us to follow of how we can live out the greater righteousness that gains us entrance to the kingdom of heaven. He begins with what seems like the easiest command to honor: don’t murder. But as it turns out, according to the greater righteousness of the kingdom, things aren’t quite so easy as they appear.
If you have your Bibles with you, open them up to Matthew 5:21 and follow along with me there: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders will 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.”
So the command Jesus deals with here is very simple: Do not murder. This is, on the surface, perhaps the easiest of all of the Ten Commandments to keep. I mean, it’s as simple as not ending another person’s life in a premeditated, non-defensive manner. We are not supposed to murder other people. And, for people who do commit murder, they should be judged as such. I’m not really sure why Jesus would need to give this one any attention. But then Jesus pulls a…Jesus…on us and things get tougher. “But I say to you…” Think about this for a minute. If I were to stand up here with my Bible open and say to you: “You have heard that the Bible says this, but I say to you…” you would rightly want to know on whose authority I am speaking. You would want to know my source for such a reinterpretation. The idea is that you don’t really trust that I have authority to make such a statement. This is not the only realm in which such an attitude is present. When I wrote papers in college and seminary, the more sources I could work into the document the better. One paper I wrote had 58 references. I’ve read 5-6 page journal articles with over 100 sources. This practice lends greater credibility to a work. No one writes a research paper (a good one anyway) without any sources. It’s a way of saying, “You can accept what I’m saying because all these other people who did their research too agree with me.” When I talk to you in this format my source is the Bible, but also the variety of commentaries and others works I use in studying the passage. There are only two exceptions I can think of. When Albert Einstein wrote “The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity,” he included no citations. The paper changed the face of physics and really our entire culture forever and it was all original to Einstein. Other physicists initially had trouble getting over the lack of references before they could accept the brilliance of what he wrote. Einstein was seen as preposterous and arrogant for speaking as such on his own authority. The only other person to do something like this was Jesus. Usually when other rabbis taught, they cited all the other famous rabbis of the day. Jesus simply said, “But I say to you…” Jesus taught as one with the authority to authoritatively interpret Scripture because He was.
So, understanding that no one else was saying the kinds of things Jesus said, everyone else in the world heard “Do not murder,” thought, “I haven’t killed anyone. Check. I’m righteous on this point,” and went on to something else. Then Jesus came along and said, “…if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” So then, how about it? Have you ever been angry with anyone in this room? I might as well ask if the sky is blue. There are husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters in here. Of course we’ve been angry at each other. We’ve probably insulted or other called people in this room some not so nice names. Are we all liable to judgment in the same way as a murderer? Are we really liable to the hell of fire? Well, if you look closely at your Bibles you might see that my translation either excluded two important words that yours includes or else you can find them at the bottom of your page. You see, there are some ancient manuscripts that included the words “without cause” there such that Jesus is condemning being angry without cause. That’s a lot easier. I can always find a good reason to be angry at someone else when I’m angry with them. Except that one of the basic principles of picking out which version of a text is most likely the original is if a text is more interpretatively difficult it’s probably original. Later copyists weren’t likely to add to or otherwise change a text to make it harder to interpret. Jesus probably didn’t add “without cause” here.
Is that it, then? Did Jesus really set the standard for us at not ever even getting angry at our fellow believers? Well, yes and no. The reality is that the textual gloss “without cause” probably really does capture the heart of what Jesus is saying. I mean, when He said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan,” He seemed pretty angry. When He called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” and whipped the money changers out of the Temple after knocking all their tables over, He seemed pretty angry. Besides, Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they should go ahead and be angry, but not sin in their anger. So no, Jesus is not prohibiting anger here. He is speaking against the kind of unrighteous, self-centered anger that can lead to physical murder. What we do in our minds is no less damaging to our souls than what we do with our hands. In some ways in fact it is more damaging because we carry the illusion of being able to hide it and don’t feel the need to confess and be rid of it. Murder begins in the heart. But, neither should we allow such an interpretively smoothing gloss let us find ways to wiggle out from under the weight of Jesus’ words. The reality is that we are so rarely angry with just cause (and we are not the final arbiters of whether or not our cause is just) that Jesus is right to speak against all anger. The truth is that in the vast majority of cases, it is not appropriate for believers to be angry with other believers. In the same passage in which Paul instructs us to be angry without sinning, he also tells us not to give the devil a foothold. Our anger does just that. Our hurt feelings do it. Our wounded pride does it. Our grumpy moodiness does it. Because we are broken by sin these feelings are almost never righteous. Indeed, in each of the three examples Jesus offers, we are doing something that is an attempt to diminish the humanity of another person. In our anger we see them as less of a person than ourselves. In insulting or calling them a name we are reducing their humanity to something less than God intended. This makes us identity thieves. This is stealing someone else’s identity in a way different only in its lack of raw physicality from murdering them. We are not called to be identity thieves of any kind. We are called to a greater righteousness.
Well, after setting the standard for us, Jesus goes on to give some illustrations to show what we should be doing instead. He starts by picturing this scene in which someone is in the process of offering a sacrifice in the Temple. Just as the sacrificial rite is about to begin, she remembers that a friend is really angry with her. As a result, she leaves everything at the altar, goes and makes things right with the friend, and then returns to complete the sacrifice. Anyone ever given much thought to just how wild this kind of a thing would look like if we actually practiced it? Consider the historical context here and this becomes even more radical than it initially sounds. Few of the people listening to Jesus lived in Jerusalem—the proper place to offer sacrifices. Most of them went up to Jerusalem once, maybe twice a year if they were well-off. When they went, they had to wait in a long line of people who were all in the same position as them. And if their sacrifice was lost, stolen, or died during the journey they either had to go back home or purchase one from the Temple using the proper Temple coinage (these were the moneychangers Jesus harassed). Jesus’ illustration opens here with the worshiper waiting in line to offer his sacrifice. Just as he gets to the front of the line, he remembers that his cousin is still really angry with him over the broken fence and lost goats. Remembering this, he’s not content to stay there and make the sacrifice. He leaves everything (meaning it will probably be stolen, resulting in a waste of precious money), makes the two- or three-day journey back home, fixes the fence, works hard for a few months until he can make restitution to his cousin for the lost goats, and then the next spring, returns to repeat the process…assuming he hadn’t offended someone else in the interim. Or perhaps let me put it like this: Imagine you are going to worship at the altar of entertainment in Williamsburg (also known as Busch Gardens). You make your pilgrimage, wait in the long line to get on a ride, and just when it’s your turn, you remember that you cut in front of your best friend last time you were there. As a result, you leave the line, drive back to Dinwiddie, apologize, and wait until you go again next year before you get to ride again. Let’s just call this what it is: crazy. We would say such a person is crazy. We would tell them to go ahead ride the ride, make the sacrifice, get things right with God and this other person later. What poor stewardship of God’s resources to waste the time and money involved in such a convoluted process. Just have fun and make things right later.
And yet, that’s not what Jesus says. He says make it right now. This is the greater righteousness played out. Greater righteousness is not content to let anger remain any longer than is absolutely necessary. And so we’re clear: not even participation in an act of worship that is both time consuming and costly counts as a sufficient condition for delay. The reason for this is that anger could give way to murdering the object of our anger in our heart. Or, as is the case here, we could be leaving someone else in a state in which they are angry without recourse. This isn’t often thought about much, but in Jesus’ illustration here, we’re not leaving the altar to make things right with someone else at whom we’re angry. We’re going to make things right with some who we know is angry with us even if we don’t have any fault in the issue. We may have even made our peace with the situation and forgiven them. The path of greater righteousness, though, isn’t content to let hostility remain in the body of Christ if they have it within their power to stop it. The initiative is with us to see things through to reconciliation. We can’t wait for the other person to ask.
This, then, gets to the heart of why Jesus reinterpreted the command to not murder. Yes, the command itself is, “Thou shalt not murder.” But the real issue here is: honor life. Even that may not capture the fullest expression of God’s intention. Let’s be even clearer: honor the image of God. Put this in the context of the first command to have no other gods before the one true God. Honoring God before all else means honoring His image before all else. His image is found in the face and in the heart of every person walking on this planet. For us to be angry at another person for what they have done (which is always unrighteous anger) instead of the sin which is at the root of the problem (which is righteous anger) is to enter the territory where the potential for attempted harm of the image of God residing in another person becomes high. This is dangerous ground and we simply should not walk it. Our concern here, however, is not merely ourselves. We don’t want to leave anyone else in such a place either. We should not be the cause of anyone else’s sinning as far as it depends on us. Not taking steps to be reconciled to someone we have offended—even if we did so unintentionally and only learn of such a state well after the fact—is to leave them in this dangerous place and to contribute to the potentiality of their sinning. Worship should be one of the last things on our mind in such a case. For us to not drop everything and go to make things right with this other person is merely a symptom of our own selfish pride. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” we think, “it’s this other jerk who has the problem.” Yeah, but if this “other jerk” is your brother or sister in Christ, then you do have a problem. You have a problem because by this person’s hard feelings the body of Christ is weaker than is could or should be. If you have the opportunity to fix that, there’s no good reason in the world not to take it. If anger is found among the ranks of the righteous, let us not wait a while, but be reconciled. Don’t wait awhile, be reconciled.
Let me give you one caveat and one more illustration this morning and then we’re going to get out of here. The caveat is this: It is very important here that we understand both what Jesus is saying and what He isn’t saying. We’ve talked about what He is saying. What He is not saying is that every time we have an issue with another person we should go tell them about it. Some people pursue this kind of a practice under the guise of confession. Such a practice is not confession, though, it is most often an unhealthy expression of selfishness, personal failings, or judgmentalism covered with a holy blanket. It is more likely to contribute to disunity and strife in a body than contribute anything positive. If you have a problem with someone else in the body and they don’t know about, if it was a one-time deal, there’s no reason for them to know about it. (Now, if it is an ongoing issue, then that’s a different story.) Forgive them in your heart, get over your own pride of thinking things should all fit a single mold (yours), and move on. The reality is that most of the time we are offended by the people around us they don’t even know about it. In college, I struggled with being jealous of a guy named Jim Moss. Jim was a great guy and a way better drum set player than me which I really didn’t care for. After dealing with this for a couple of years, I stopped by his apartment one night, confessed, and apologized. This “confession” did little to build a better relationship with him and probably only revealed how petty I was. Thankfully, Jim was a much more gracious guy than me. He took it in stride and treated me no differently than before I stopped by. What Jesus is talking about here is getting things right with others when we have wronged them, not the other way around. If they’ve wronged us we should have already forgiven them. This is a big part of what reconciliation is all about. And we can’t wait to see this happen. Don’t wait awhile, be reconciled.
Because, if we leave this alone and go on about our business like nothing has happened, we run the risk of things getting out of hand. This is part of the point of Jesus’ last illustration. Here, a person has offended another, left it alone, and now the offended person is bringing the offender to court over it. About this situation Jesus says, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court…” If we fail at reconciliation to the point that someone else has to get involved, things are probably not going to go as well as they could. Reconciliation is still possible, but it’s going to take a lot longer to happen. Folks, don’t wait awhile, be reconciled. And by the way, the other notable feature of Jesus’ last illustration is that the accuser is not called a “brother or sister,” but simply “your accuser.” You may be thinking, “Big deal,” but it kind of is. This suggests that the accuser is not a believer. In fact, because the case is headed to a secular court the accuser is almost certainly not a believer as believers are not supposed to sue other believers in a secular court. They should instead pursue godly reconciliation. Do you see what this means? Not only should we be actively pursuing reconciliation with other believers whom we have wronged, but we should live with the same ethic towards the world. Godly reconciliation that saves people from the temptation to murder in any fashion, to steal another person’s identity, is a must among believers, but it is also something we should be pursuing in the world. This is because not only is it right and will prevent us from dealing with the headaches of letting things go too far, but it is an excellent way to let our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. Friends, don’t wait awhile, be reconciled.
Be reconciled, because the potential consequences of not doing so are simply not what you want to be dealing with in your life. Come around with me back to what Jesus said at the beginning of this little passage. He said that if we are angry with a brother or sister we are liable to judgment. The phrase there, “liable to judgment” is the same phrase used to describe the fate of one who murders. In fact, when Jesus goes on to describe insulters as liable to the council and name-callers as liable to the hell of fire, He isn’t trying to say that name-calling is worse than anger. He is using figurative language to make His point. And His point is this: murder isn’t something that is done only physically. Attempting to steal someone’s identity as a bearer of the image of God is just as serious an offense as murder and yet often results in no physical harm to the victim. This identity theft often happens when we are angry. When we are angry with another person for reasons that are not ultimately righteous (which is usually the case) we stop seeing them as a person and start seeing them as an object of our ire. As soon we move a person out of the category of “person” and into the category of “object,” ending their earthly existence isn’t seen as murder anymore. You can’t murder an object. Objects are only casually tossed aside as garbage to be eventually forgotten and destroyed. The only real antidote to this is reconciliation. Don’t wait awhile, be reconciled. Don’t let anger linger any longer than it has to—either in your own heart or in someone else’s. Don’t let anything get in the way of seeing a relationship with another person broken by anger of any kind reconciled as soon as is possible—not pride, not fear, not unforgiveness, not bitterness, not anything. There are few things in this world more important than seeing this done. Not even coming to worship God ranks above this. If you are coming each week to worship and you know of someone who has an issue with you let me give you a challenge: get that addressed before you come back next week. Experience worship for how it was really intended. You can’t until reconciliation has happened. Don’t be murderers. Don’t be identity thieves. Be reconcilers. And don’t wait on it. Don’t wait awhile, be reconciled.