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“High Maintenance Relationships”

Feb.26, 2017 – Mt.5:21-26


Anger corrodes relationships. And it eats away at the person who harbours anger. It’s been said: “Anger is an acid that can to more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

             The team of Gilbert & Sullivan is well-known in the music world. From 1871 to 1896 they collaborated to produce 14 operas together – Gilbert’s words meshed with Sullivan’s music, to audience’s delight. You’d think, “What a team!”, right? Wrong – the two men detested each other.

             It all started when Sullivan ordered some carpet for the theatre they’d bough; when Gilbert saw the bill, he hit the roof. Neither man could control his temper, and so they found themselves battling it out in court. They never spoke to one another again as long as they lived. This then is how it worked: when Sullivan wrote the music for a new production, he mailed it to Gilbert; after Gilbert had written the words, he mailed it back to Sullivan. Once they were forced to be together during a curtain call, but they stood on opposite sides of the stage and bowed in different directions so they wouldn’t see each other!

             How sad. They knew how to make beautiful music, but had lost the key to true harmony.

             As we continue today to look at Jesus’ magnificent Sermon on the Mount, we find He counsels us to go deeper than keeping the letter of the law when it comes to interacting with those who may differ from us: murderous intentions start in the heart, but can be overcome if we recognize the importance of self-control, reconciliation, and keeping short accounts.


Christ has just underlined the enduring quality of God’s special revelation in Scripture in verses 17-20 of Matthew 5, saying He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, calling people to a righteousness surpassing that of the religious leaders, putting God’s commands into practice. He goes on in the next 6 sections to show He Himself is Lord of the Scriptures: beyond the ‘bare minimum’ of what they’ve heard taught by their rabbis, He calls His disciples to recognize the spirit of the law not just the letter of the law.

             Mt 5:21 “"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” Exactly, this was right in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20(13) and Deuteronomy 5(17). Note the word “murder” is distinguishable from several other Hebrew and Greek words meaning “kill”. No one has the right to take another person’s life (not even in the womb, disabled, or at the end of life by lethal injection). But Jesus goes deeper to examine our impulses that, even if never acted upon, dispose us to treat others abusively or with contempt.

             Mt 5:22 “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin.But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” We see here various degrees of expression of a common disposition. “Anyone who is ANGRY with his brother...” Next, “Anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’” – literally ‘empty’, or we might say ‘numb-skull’, ‘blockhead’. Third, “anyone who says, ‘You fool!’” – Greek moros like in our word ‘moron’. Commentator Bruce notes the term ‘Raca’ shows contempt for the person’s HEAD as in calling them ‘stupid’, whereas the moros term shows contempt for their HEART and character as in saying, “You scoundrel!” There’s a slam to their morality not just their intelligence.

             Jesus emphasizes that, regardless of degree of contempt, all three impulses warrant judgment. The first, mere anger, makes one ‘subject to judgment’. The second “is answerable to the Sanhedrin” – the Jewish equivalent of our Supreme Court. The third expression of contempt, “You fool!”, puts one “in danger of the fire of hell” – literally Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem. In this valley back in the times of Ahaz and Manasseh, fiery altars consumed human sacrifices – people would allow their infants to roll down the arms of the statues representing the foreign god Molech into the flames: how terrible! How devilish! Later reforms desecrated the area, turning it into a public latrine, and in following times a sort of garbage dump, where sporadic fires burned. So it became a symbol of eternal punishment in hell.


Now, it’s all too common a human experience to become angry at another person. We’re tempted to object to Jesus’ words, arguing “anyone who is angry with his brother” is too restrictive, too harsh. Some manuscripts insert the words “without cause” trying to soften it, so it would read, “anyone who is angry with his brother WITHOUT CAUSE will be subject to judgment.” But the best manuscript evidence suggests Jesus did not include those two significant words ‘without cause’ when He was originally preaching. Perhaps He was using hyperbole to grab our attention. Certainly His point becomes clearer in the second and third steps: anger that gets EXPRESSED as in verbal abuse, calling others ‘blockhead’ or ‘moron’ in a degrading, contemptuous way.

             Popular wisdom today is all in favour of maximum self-expression, articulating your emotions, getting it off your chest. You may think you’re better off when you tell someone off; but research compiled by psychologist Gary Emery suggests you’re actually NOT. In his book Rapid Relief from Emotional Distress he reports, “Although a whole school of thought recommends that you verbally express your hostility, a great deal of recent research has found the opposite to be the case.Researchers have found that freely venting your anger corrodes relationships and breeds MORE anger, not less.In one recent study...only one out of 300 happily married couples reported that they yell at each other.”

             Yet, it comes so easily to be angry with someone. It’s human nature: when we feel we’ve been wronged, we react. Isn’t anger part of God’s nature?

             There ARE many verses in the Bible about God’s anger or wrath. Here are a few. Ps 7:11 “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day.” Ps 90:16 “May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendour to their children.” Lam 4:11 “The LORD has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger.He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations.” [Coming to the New Testament – lest you think this is just an OT idea, or that there’s some inconsistency between the God of the OT and that of the NT] Romans 1:18 “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness...” Col 3:6 “Because of these [sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed – and yes, ‘Fifty Shades’ comes to mind!], the wrath of God is coming.” [and right through to the last book of the Bible] Revelation 15:7 “Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever.” (Jesus here is pictured as working out the fury of God’s wrath...) Rev 19:15 “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations."He will rule them with an iron scepter." He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”

             So, what gives? What’s the deal here? God gets to be angry, but not us?! That doesn’t seem right! That’s not fair! Aren’t we supposed to be imitating God? Doesn’t Paul the Apostle implicitly give us permission to be angry just a little bit in Ephesians 4:26, “"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry...”

             But there’s a big difference here. (A) HE is God, and we’re not! He is the Creator, the Judge, the One to whom everyone must someday give account. YOU are not your brother or sister’s ultimate judge! Don’t suppose you can usurp God’s privilege.

             And (B) there’s a big difference between being angry at wickedness vs being angry at a person. We SHOULD be upset at unrighteousness and evil. God’s wrath is against godlessness and wickedness (Romans 1:18) – that doesn’t give you carte blanche to become your brother or sister’s Grand Inquisitor, Judge, and Jury!

             So we find this tension in the Bible: it’s appropriate and fitting for God to be angry and express His wrath, because He is God, and cannot tolerate sin – because He’s holy. Yet for us, the New Testament calls us to resist the temptation to get angry and express angry reactions. Galatians 5:19-21 “fits of rage” is listed in “the acts of the sinful nature” characterizing those who “will not inherit the kingdom of God”. Colossians 3:8 (just 2 verses after noting God’s ‘coming wrath’) Paul writes: “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” Likewise in Ephesians 4:31 “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”

             Anger IS a very ‘natural’ response in some situations. But God’s Spirit helps us have the fruit of patience (long-fusedness), gentleness, and self-control. For parents, anger is never to become rage energizing punishment and discipline. For spouses, anger is never to be allowed to be expressed in words sharp as daggers or looks that could kill or doors that slam, communicating volumes even if we don’t say a word.

             So, what do you do when you feel anger rising up within? How do you stop it from spilling out into words like ‘blockhead’ and ‘moron’?

             Part of it is taking a deep breath and remembering God is God and you are not. Let go of the sceptre of divine eternal judgment which does NOT belong in your hands.

             Thomas Jefferson said: “When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, one hundred.” Fulton Oursler wrote a classic book on the life of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Oursler’s wife once said she used to count to ten when becoming provoked. But one day she thought of the first ten words of the Lord’s Prayer. Now instead of counting to ten, she slowly says: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.”

             Remembering God is sovereign can open the valve and allow the pressure of our anger to slowly dissipate. “HE’s God; I’m not!”

             Scripture repeatedly commands us to be SLOW to anger, not quick to fly off the handle. Pr 16:32 “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” Tit 1:7 “Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless— not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.” Jas 1:19-20 “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”


When it comes to human relationships, Jesus made a tight connection between how we treat one another and how we can expect God to treat us. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said it was about loving God with our whole being, and in the same breath quickly linked to that the command to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:37ff). Another pivotal teaching is the Lord’s Prayer, featured later in this same Sermon on the Mount; at the heart of it we find the phrase, Mt 6:12 “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” And in case we missed it, immediately after that prayer Jesus adds: Mt 6:13f “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” See how closely He’s making the connection between how we treat others and how we can hope for God to treat us?

             The priority of keeping short accounts, of maintaining good relationships with other people, comes through clearly in verses 23-26 of Matthew 5. Jesus seems to be saying resolving outstanding issues with other people is as important, a sort of prerequisite, to being able to adequately worship God. Mt 5:23-24 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

             Amazing, yes? There’s no divorcing your church life and your community life; your Sunday worship from your Thursday workplace. God sees it all! And when you come to worship Him, He wants you to not have outstanding issues with your family, your friends, your neighbours, your relatives, your co-workers. He doesn’t WANT the gift in your right hand if your left hand is clenched behind your back, holding on to some grudge against a perceived enemy, or trying to maintain your innocence against someone who “has something against you” – perceives (correctly or otherwise) that you’ve wronged them somehow. God only wants your offering AFTER you’ve gone and sorted things out.

             It’s a matter of URGENCY – “first go / settle matters quickly” – and of GRAVITY; this is serious stuff, with significant consequences. Vv25f “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” That term ‘penny’ translates a word for one-quarter of the basic Roman small coin.

             In 1Corinthians 6, Paul castigates those in the church who are taking each other to court over certain matters. Settling matters between themselves would spare Christ’s name disrepute. It’s far better to make amends and clear things up just amongst themselves, even if it means taking a loss materially. 1Cor 6:7 “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” John MacArthur notes, “It is better to be wronged than to allow a dispute between brethren to dishonour Christ.”


An illustration from the world of sports, in closing. In the 1975 Masters tennis tournament in Stockholm, Sweden, tennis star Arthur Ashe was winning a feverish battle with Romanian-born Ilie Nastase, sometimes dubbed “Nasty” Nastase for his flamboyant on-court antics. Nastase was at his worst this day – stalling, cursing, taunting, and acting like a madman. Finally Arthur Ashe put down his racket and walked off the court, saying, “I’ve had enough.I’m at the point where I’m afraid I’ll lose control.”

             The umpire cried, “But Arthur, you’ll default the match!” Ashe replied – “I don’t care.I’d rather lose that than my self-respect.”

             The next day, the tournament committee came to a surprising solution: refusing to condone Nastase’s bullying tactics, they insisted that Nastase default the match for his unsportsmanlike conduct.

             Arthur Ashe won both in the game of tennis – and in the game of life. Let’s pray.