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SM #19: Murder in the Mind & Mouth

Updated: May 15

You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the hell of fire. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go away and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. Work kindly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Amen I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:21-26)

No plague has cost the human race more dear. ~ Seneca the Younger (Roman Philosopher, 4BC-65AD), De Ira (On Anger)
Anger and contempt are the twin scourges of the earth. ~ Dallas Willard (20th Century Philosopher)
Every time you decide to let your anger smolder on inside you, you are becoming a little less than fully human. ~ N.T. Wright (Theologian)

SUMMARY: Read this and skip the rest (if you want)

  • All people are infinitely precious image-bearers of God. Our response to them should be awe not anger.

  • Anger is the emotion associated with judgement. The same Greek word is translated "wrath" when applied to God. Anger (or wrath) is always presented as righteous for God, but unrighteous for us, since we are not the judge.

  • Love is a better motivation to work for a better world.

  • Jesus prioritizes reconciliation above all religious ritual. Whether we have offended someone or they have offended us, the next move is always ours.

  • An initial flare-up of anger may be like a dashboard warning light - not yet sin, but warning us that something under the hood needs attention.

  • Sorrow is a more appropriate emotional response to sin than anger.

  • The Christian Church has often clouded this teaching of Jesus with poor Scripture exegesis and a sub-culture that confuses anger with a zeal for holiness.

CORE (The heart of the message)

Every person's identity is ultimately this: being an infinitely precious image-bearer of God. Anger, outrage, contempt, and judgementalism rob them of this identity and strip them of their dignity. Anger is identity theft. Our response to all people should be awe, not anger.

Our world is full of good-hearted people who are pursuing God-honouring goals but doing it in soul-damaging ways. That’s what happens when we pursue justice, righteousness, holiness, and any societal change via today’s zeitgeist of anger and outrage.

Thankfully, Jesus offers us a better way.

According to Jesus, whatever it is we think anger and outrage are helping us accomplish, love (including truck loads of grace, mercy, and forgiveness) will do a better job. In other words...


In the words of Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy: "There is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it."

NOTE: In this deep dive into Jesus' teaching on anger, outrage, and contempt we will learn about our own emotional lives, the priority of loving relationships, and how to rightly read our own Bibles. This study attempts to understand, interpret, and apply what Jesus actually said, not what we wish he said. For instance, Jesus says that anger is sin (i.e., murder) not that anger might lead to sin. What do we do with that? As followers of Jesus, we need to understand this teaching so we can apply it, rather than bypass it or treat it as though Jesus said something different. Because Jesus' teaching on this topic is soooo counter-cultural, including counter church culture, we should be aware that our mental excuse-making machinery will likely be on overdrive in the background as we read on. For that reason, this study aims to be fairly thorough and to reinforce Jesus' teaching from many angles which will give us the time and resources to do some important processing. In other words, prepare yourself for quite a long read. #SorryNotSorry

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage)

Just prior to these words, Jesus has laid out his central theme: real righteousness (the Beatific Way of grace, mercy, and peace) goes above and beyond religious righteousness (the way of law, judgement, and exclusivism). He declares that, while he has not come to abolish Scripture, he has come to fill up its true meaning. Then he offers a serious warning: our understanding and practice of righteousness must go over and above religious norms to being redefined and reshaped by Jesus or else we will be outside the kingdom of God. [For more on this see our study called "SM #17: Above & Beyond (Real Righteousness, Part 4).]

Jesus does not define real righteousness in dictionary style, but he has already described it in the Beatitudes and now offers six illustrations (often called "the Six Antitheses") of what this real righteousness looks like in the life of a believer. Each of these illustrations deals with an ethical issue (horizontal relationship) and not worship laws (vertical relationship). This tells us a lot about the emphasis of Jesus' teaching.

All of Jesus' examples of real righteousness prioritize horizontal ethics over vertical worship.

In each of the Six Antitheses, Jesus will assert his absolute authority by following the verbal pattern of "you have heard that it was said... but I say to you...". This first antithesis about anger and murder, like the second about lust and adultery, does not override, abrogate, or end a scriptural teaching (the way later antitheses will). Instead, Jesus reaffirms and then radicalizes the command. Jesus does not say, "You have heard that it was said you should not murder, but I say go ahead and kill whoever you want." Instead, on this point Jesus internalizes and principlizes the letter of the law to emphasize the spirit of the issue.

This theme of obeying God from the heart is a repeated motif in the Hebrew Bible as well (e.g., 1 Samuel 15:22; 16:7; 1 Kings 8:61; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Psalm 26:2-3; 40:6-8; 51:16-17; 139:23; Proverbs 21:2-3; Isaiah 29:13; Jeremiah 31:29-34; 32:39; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:25-27; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8).

“These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. ~ Yahweh (Isaiah 29:13)
I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. ~ Yahweh (Ezekiel 11:19)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching us how to live the loving lives God always wanted for his people. Later Jesus will tell us to "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33), and choosing love over anger is one of the ways we do this.

(For more on the Six Antitheses, see our post "SM #18: HOW TO EAT THE BIBLE".)

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage)

You have heard. Not "You have read". This reminds us that most of Jesus' audience were unable to read. And even if they were literate, they would not have had access to their own copy of the Scriptures, but heard them read at their local synagogue. Personal Bible study is a modern invention. Community learning is the historical norm.

Throughout history most believers gathered to hear Scripture read and explained.

Ancient ones. Jesus is clearly making a contrast with the old ways given to the Old Covenant people, and his new way of the New Covenant. That was then, this is now.

You shall not murder. Not murdering is a good idea, but just not doing bad things will never qualify as the real righteousness Jesus wants for us. The way of Jesus is the way of love, and love is always about actively initiating honour toward someone in attitude and action. So it is possible to keep God's laws and still break God's heart. The added "and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment" is not a direct quote from the Torah, but it accurately summarizes a Torah theme. Perhaps at this point in the sermon the religious leaders may have been happy to hear Jesus finally start to quote Scripture: "Took you long enough Jesus. Glad you're finally getting to the Good Book. And you're starting with the Ten Commandments! This is excellent." But then...

Jesus quotes Scripture, then adds "But I say..."

But I say to you. Jesus has just referenced Scripture and then follows it up with the word no one could have anticipated: "But". This is one of the biggest buts in the Bible. And Jesus says this based on no other authority except himself. It is Jesus' ultimate "Because I say so." In fact, the "I" (Greek, egó) may be the single most important word in this passage. The word order in the Greek text puts "I" first - "I however say to you" - which is a writing technique to put emphasis on the "I". Jesus is relocating all religious and ethical authority from Scripture to himself! Jesus is bursting the boarders of biblical authority. Later Jesus will say "All authority is given to ME" - not to Scripture (Matthew 28:18). No wonder by the end of his sermon the crowd is amazed at how Jesus teaches with authority, unlike any human teachers (Matthew 7:28-29). Rabbis then and pastors now all derive a secondary authority only to the extent that they base their teaching on Scripture. Prophets also draw a secondary authority by saying "Thus saith the Lord!" But only Jesus holds primary authority within himself, saying "This is true because I say so." Hey Jesus! Who do you think you are - God?!

Angry. The Greek word here is orgizó (pronounced or-gid-zo) the verb of the noun orgē (pronounced, or-gay), the most common Greek word for anger. Our English word "orgy" comes from orgē, and sometimes anger is like an emotional orgy of judgement and condemnation. In its extreme, anger can become a kind of temporary insanity or madness. When we angrily say "she makes me so mad" or "he drives me crazy" we are close to this truth. The Stoics called anger brevem insaniam, "a brief insanity". And let's be clear: Jesus is not warning that anger might lead to murder. Jesus says anger itself IS a kind of murder. Interestingly, in the Bible, anger (orgē) is always seen as righteous when referencing God's anger (usually translated "wrath" in those instances), and unrighteous when referencing human anger. (More on this below.)

Raca. This is an Aramaic epithet literally meaning "empty", as in "air-head". (Although the New Testament is written in Greek, Jesus was likely speaking Aramaic the whole time, and some original words are left in the manuscripts.) Some scholars believe the word became a popular insult because it mimicked the sound one makes when clearing their throat to produce spit. Raca was used as an insult to someone's intelligence, like calling them an idiot. As children we may have been taught that "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Words may not hurt our bodies, but they can do damage to our souls. Jesus says words should be used to heal, not hurt.

Names hurt. Names kill. In our call-out culture, children are cyberbullied to death; people take their lives because of the barrage of insults. Names kill. Jesus was right; if we would only listen to him. ~ Amy-Jill Levine (Sermon on the Mount)

Resentment and harsh words kill more people than drugs, alcohol, or tobacco combined. There are more pollutants in the world than we think. Jesus performs an act of public health and ecology when he bans this source of sickness and damnation from his community. Thus when Jesus left the sick at the end of the last chapter and began teaching, he did not cease healing; he began to heal in the deep places. ~ Frederick Dale Bruner (The Christbook, A Commentary on Matthew )

The Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the religious court for the Jews at the time of Jesus. There were numerous regional Sanhedrins, or lower courts, throughout Israel, each having 23 religious leaders sitting on them. And there was one High Court or Supreme Court in Jerusalem, the Great Sanhedrin, with 72 members. This is the religious court that would eventually put Jesus on trial for blasphemy.

Fool. The Greek word here is mōrós, from which we get moron and moronic. Similar to raca, it means to be stupid or dull or dimwitted. Jesus has already used the word when talking about salt loosing its flavour, or becoming "dull". When salt loses its distinctive flavour of grace, it becomes moronic. And remember, our mouths don't have to be actively engaged for anger and contempt to be expressed. We can call someone names in our head while we hate them in our heart.

The hell of fire. Jesus didn't shy away from warning his disciples about hell (remember Jesus is teaching his disciples here). But the original word didn't have the medieval imagery of people writhing in eternal torturous agony attached to it. Hell is a translation of the Greek word Gehenna, itself a translation of the Hebrew Gehinnom ("Valley of Hinnom"), referring to a ravine south-west of Jerusalem. Some scholars believe Gehenna functioned as the city dump where garbage was burned up (note: burned up, destroyed, not tortured). Contemporary Anabaptist scholar Sharon L. Baker writes in her cleverly titled book, Razing Hell:

"Well before the time of Jesus, the valley was also used as a refuse heap. The people in the surrounding areas dumped their trash in Gehenna, where it burned day and night. The fire never went out. It smoldered there beneath the surface, incinerating the rotting, smelly garbage. New garbage was piled on top of the old decaying garbage: rotting fish, slimy vegetation, decaying human refuse of every imaginable sort. And as you know from experience, a dump without flies is a dump without garbage. The flies laid eggs on the surface of the dump. So just imagine the hundreds of thousands of squirmy, wormy maggots living there, eating the rotting refuse. All the while, under the surface, the fire still burned, devouring the putrid garbage days and weeks past. It was a fire that burned forever, where the worm did not die and where people went to throw their trash, grimacing from the stench, gritting their teeth in revulsion, never venturing too close for fear of falling into the abhorrent abyss. In times of war, decaying human flesh mingled with the rotting garbage—imagine the vile vision. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, his hearers would think of the valley of rotting, worm-infested garbage, where the fire always burned." ~ Sharon L. Baker (Razing Hell)

We do know that the Valley of Hinnom had a horrible history. During times of great moral and spiritual darkness, the people of Judah had erected pagan idols and performed child sacrifice there, and God vowed to punish these wicked people in that very place (e.g., 2 Chronicles 28:1-3; 33:1-6; Isaiah 30:33; 66:24; Jeremiah 7:30-34; 19;1-11) - a prophecy at least partially fulfilled through the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. So at the time of Jesus, "Hell" (that is, the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna) already carried the idea of being a dreadful place where God would bring about punishment for the worst kinds of wickedness. These two images of a) a place of divine punishment, and b) a place of disposal and destruction of garbage, may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Ultimately, there are two possible interpretations: the fires of Gehenna may be an image of a) people's souls being burned up after death as God's punishment for sin or b) of our useless actions being judged and burned up in a process of purification (e.g., 1 Corinthians 3:12-14). Jesus may be saying that a Christ-follower who is prone to anger, judgementalism, and verbal aggression is in danger of undoing some aspect of the good they are accomplishing and might be making their ministry less useful in this life. A person who is scared into accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour because of angry and threatening preaching may still get saved (yay), but they will now have a warped view of Jesus to overcome in their discipleship process (boo). What ever Jesus means here, what is clear is that anger and judgementalism must give way to repentance and reconciliation in the lives of his disciples.

More Bible passages point to Hell as a place of destruction or purification than eternal conscious torment.

First go away and be reconciled. This line is Jesus at his scandalous best. When we gather for worship, we slow down and focus on what is most important. So it makes sense that it is within the context of worship that we might remember a relational rift that needs mending. Religion apart from reconciliation is an insult to the values of Jesus. Because the bad news is that the force of sin is always pulling us apart - personally, emotionally, and relationally - the Good News of the Gospel is all about reconciliation - that is, healing broken lives and broken relationships. The emphasis of Jesus' teaching, start to finish is always on bringing together what sin tries to separate. (For more on the central theme of forgiveness and reconciliation, see our second study in the "Introduction to Jesus" series.) And because Jesus' audience for the Sermon on the Mount was Galilean (up north) and the Temple was in Jerusalem (about a three days journey down south), leaving Temple worship to go find an offended brother or sister back home would be a major commitment. Jesus pictures someone travelling for days as they make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Galilee (something done only once or twice a year), finally getting to the Temple, purchasing an animal in the outer courts, then waiting in long lines for their turn to give their animal to the priest for sacrificing in the inner court, and finally, once it is their turn, they remember a wounded relationship that needs mending back home. So what do they do? Leave everything for a week while they travel back to Galilee to make things right before traveling again back to the Temple? Yup. Jesus may be exaggerating to make his point, but the point is still made and made strongly. The word behind "go away" or "leave" is not the normal word for "go" (as in the Great Commission). It does not mean to go to someone or something but to go away, to leave behind, to depart. Jesus is making a clear emphasis on the importance of reconciliation over religion. God really does not care about religious ritual half as much as he does about reconciled relationships. In fact, if any ritual slows us down enough to remember what relational rifts need mending, the ritual has done its job. Thank God and move on. The Greek word here for "be reconciled" is diallassó (pronounced dee-al-las'-so). It literally means to experience change or to make an exchange. In this case, it refers to having a change of heart that hopefully leads to a change of relationship, exchanging hostility for friendship. For Jesus, this is always of "first" importance.

"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried." ~ G.K. Chesterton (What's Wrong with the World)

Jesus says we should leave behind religious ritual to pursue relational reconciliation.

Relationship > Religion

Brother and Sister / Adversary. The major focus of this section is reconciling division within the Church, an important focus for Jesus in light of John 13:35 - "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another". Jesus cares about spiritual siblings working things out. But Jesus also addresses the importance of making things right with "opponents" or "adversaries" outside the family of faith. For Jesus' Jewish audience this would have drawn their attention to their Roman oppressors. Could Jesus actually be encouraging reconciliation rather than revenge toward our most uncaring, offensive, and abusive enemies? As we read on in the Sermon on the Mount it becomes clear that this is precisely what Jesus was teaching. Ultimately, our fight is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). People are never our true enemy but victims of our true enemy. Christ-followers always want to turn enemies into friends. Interestingly, although Jesus is teaching us about the sin of holding on to anger, both of his illustrations are not about our own anger, but about our perceived offenses that may have made others angry. In the flow of what Jesus has said so far, we might have expected him to say "if you have something against a brother or sister, go be reconciled". But he says "if they have something against you, go be reconciled". Whether we have offended someone else (as in this passage), or they have offended us (as in Mark 11:25), the first move toward reconciliation is always ours to make. Nor does Jesus qualify his instruction with "IF the offense is real and warranted and you are morally impelled to apologize..." No. If anger is murder, and we want to prevent a homicide in progress, whether or not their anger is justified, the first move toward reconciliation is always ours to make. Let that sink in. Genuine disciples never take the approach of "that's their issue and its none of my business." One another's spiritual wellbeing is always our business. ... Okay, now let's move on - this is far too convicting.

Prison. Jesus starts this final warning sentence with the word "Amen" - he wants us to take it seriously. In Jesus' day, people who were late in paying off a debt could be put in debtors prison while they waited for family and friends to raise the money. (Note: This was a Roman construct. Jews had no debtors prison. Jesus borrows images from the surrounding culture, including the culture of their oppressors, to make his points about God. This has implications for the ways we communicate the Gospel in our culture today.) Ultimately, Jesus is speaking relationally, not legally. We send each other to prisons of our own making: prisons of judgement, shame, and exclusion. Reconciliation, where possible, is the prevention as well as the cure for our prisons of separation and isolation. If our lives are not themed around an emphasis on reconciliation, the cost will always be high.

Reconciliation is the prevention as well as the cure for our prison systems of separation and isolation.

CONFESSION (Personal reflection)

I confess that for a long time, Jesus' teaching on anger confused me. And since I struggled in my understanding of it, I found many creative ways to ignore it.

Why does Jesus denounce anger? Isn't anger a necessary emotion to help us fight against injustice? Isn't being anti-anger just a further attack on victims and oppressed people groups who need to access their anger to fight back, grow healthy, and become stronger? If we remove anger from the equation, are we not criticizing and even crippling someone's ability to stand up for themselves when being attacked, oppressed, or marginalized? Without anger, what have we got left to motivate us to do so much good in the world, like fighting for justice and condemning inequality?

I assumed we must be reading Jesus wrong here. Didn't Jesus become angry (Mark 3:5)? Didn't he display anger and outrage when judging the Temple system? Didn't the early Church leave some windows open for the appropriate use of anger? I thought of two Bible passages I had heard quoted that could justify my anger: "Be angry and sin not" as well as one about "righteous indignation". All I had to do was find these verses and study them in context and they would help me put Jesus in his place.

Here is the first one:

Be angry and do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. ~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:26-27)

There it is, clear as day: we are commanded to be angry and it isn't a sin. At least, that's what I wanted this verse to be saying. As I studied it further I realized there was more going on here.

In essence, there are two possible interpretations of "Be angry and do not sin" and neither helps excuse our anger. Either:

a) Paul is quoting a popular saying at the time (possibly based on a misunderstanding of Psalm 4:4), then correcting it in the rest of the passage (which is why some translations, like the NIV, put those words in quotation marks), or

b) Paul is giving us a way to deal with our anger before it becomes sinful, and that is to get rid of it as soon as possible.

Either way, the emphasis of this passage is to get rid of anger ASAP, or else we are in danger of welcoming in Satan and giving him a place to live within our hearts and relationships.

How to be angry and not sin: get rid of it right away.

To reinforce this anti-anger interpretation, just a few verses later the apostle Paul says that Christ-followers must get rid of all anger in their lives (Ephesians 4:31). So, there is no way this verse can be interpreted as pro-anger without doing a little scripture twisting.

And there you have it, the most positive verse on anger in the Bible: Get rid of it ASAP, or you're in league with the Devil.

Based on this passage, we could go as far as to say that initial flareups of anger are not in-and-of-themselves sin, as long as we let go of angry impulses quickly and refuse to nurture the anger within. Those flare-up moments could be viewed more as temptation to tolerate anger, rather than the sin of anger. These pre-anger or early-anger episodes may operate like a dashboard warning light that alerts us to a potentially important issue that needs to be addressed "under the hood". This is supported by the verb tense of orgizó (present tense participle) which literally means "is being angry" or "is remaining angry". We might talk about someone who is carrying resentment or nursing a grudge. This is slow-burn long-term anger. This present participle does not point to a single moment or flare up of anger, but the choice we make in response to that moment.

Anger may act like a dashboard warning light to check under the hood.

James, the brother of Jesus, wrote that sin evolves in stages:

Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. ~ The apostle James (James 1:14-15)

We may not be able to identify with precision the moment anger shifts from being mere temptation to sin to becoming actual sin, and maybe that moment is different for different people and in different situations. But one thing is clear: we should let go of anger early in the process, not nurture, cultivate, or encourage it.

Perhaps anger operates similar to sexual lust: the initial experience of attraction is not sin as long as we dismiss it rather than nurture, cultivate, and encourage it to develop into a destructive and dehumanizing experience (see our next study for more on this).

Contrast this with hundreds of years of Church sub-culture that has made a virtue out of anger to support judgement, violence, and war. The age-old "anger = holy zeal" myth continues today to do damage to human hearts. Ironically, many church preachers who think we need more sermons on the topic of hellfire are themselves reservoirs of anger and outrage with some of their preaching becoming orgies of anger. But Jesus warns that hellfire is precisely what awaits believers who are consumed with anger and outrage.

Jesus warns that, ironically, the angry hellfire and brimstone preacher is himself in danger of hellfire.

And think about current cultural trends that come from outside the Church but are unfortunately embraced by the Church that promote anger and outrage in the pursuit of justice. We have unwittingly slipped into a pattern of performative outrage that we use as a virtue signal of our zeal for holiness. Sisters and brothers, we have strayed waaaay off the straight and narrow path of Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, all the while patting ourselves on the back for courageously pursuing righteousness. Dang, the Devil is tricky.

Albert Camus' novel The Plague includes this diagnosis that applies to Jesus' teaching on anger as an inherent human heart disease (see Mark 7:20-23):

"Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breath in someone's face and fasten the infection on him." ~ Albert Camus (The Plague)

We are all the Walking Dead

But what about "righteous indignation" or "righteous anger"?

That leads to our second verse that we love to reference in support of Christian anger:

In 2 Corinthians 7:11, the apostle Paul congratulates the Corinthian church for their "indignation" toward their own sin. The Greek word behind “indignation” (aganaktĕo) is not one of the usual Greek words for anger. The word means to be upset or agitated, but by grief rather than rage. Literally, this word means “to grieve greatly” and speaks of a kind of sorrow that is so strong it motivates action. This fits with the preceding verses which highlight the Corinthian church's godly sorrow.

So, if we want to practice righteous indignation, we need to learn to lean into our anguish rather than our anger. We need to follow the Beatific Way of mourning our own sin rather than raging against someone else's.

I have learned that when we talk about "righteous anger" we have made a faulty assumption: just putting the word "righteous" in front of something doesn't make it right.

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application)

In this first Antithesis, Jesus helps us read our own Bibles by showing us how to look for the WHY behind the WHAT which will lead to a deeper WAY. "Thou shalt not murder" has now become Christ's invitation away from habitual dehumanization and toward seeing each and every human being as an infinitely precious image-bearer of God (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9). Out of the WHAT of this one command we now get the WHY of immeasurable human dignity that we all should steward for one another - what C.S. Lewis described as carrying "the weight of glory" for one another. This also leads to the deeper WAY of respect of individuals and reconciliation of relationships. Jesus seems to be probing behind the letter of the law to see God's mind and motivation in writing the law itself. Again Jesus! Who do you think you are - God?!

"Jesus' words are an Ethic from Beyond, that is, the kingdom appearing partially in the now." ~ Scot McKnight (Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Commentary)

Something heavenly is breaking through via the teaching and ministry of Jesus. The King of the Kingdom of the Heavens has come and is inviting kingdom citizens to start living now as though the kingdom were already here. And nothing reveals the nature of the Kingdom like reconciled relationships. Do you see how important reconciliation is to Jesus? That's because reconciliation is the most important thing to God. It is everything that matters. God is love, and where sin has separated, love takes the form of a relentless pursuit of reconciliation. Reconciliation is the Gospel.

Interestingly, Jesus is taking us beyond a mere literal interpretation and application of Scripture. The literal interpretation remains on the surface and fails to see the deeper, more relational, and more loving truths. Jesus is helping us see the whole tree inside the seed. Jesus reinforces this understanding later in Matthew's Gospel when he tells a rich young ruler that in order to be "perfect" (Greek, telos: to be mature, complete, or reach the end goal), he must go beyond obeying the letter of the law to actually learning to love like Jesus (Matthew 19:16-22).

So when someone asks, "Do you interpret the Bible literally?" we can answer, "No. I take the Bible much too seriously to interpret it literally."

We might add, "I don't interpret the Bible literally, but I do interpret it literarily - according to its literary genre, which often is NOT literal."

I love this cartoon, but I would adjust or expand it. First we do use Scripture to determine what love means, especially what we learn about the life, teachings, and death of Jesus. Then we use that Jesus-influenced understanding of love to determine what the rest of Scripture means.

Now another issue must be addressed further: Jesus' offensive position on anger...

For many of us 21st Century Western Christians, we may understand Jesus' emphasis on respect and reconciliation, but the whole issue of anger being equivalent to murder will be a sticking point. This plain anti-anger emphasis of Jesus will provoke our minds to go into overdrive trying to help Jesus not say what Jesus is plainly saying. Humans can be excellent excuse-making machines, especially religious humans.

The Christian Church has a long history of excuse-making on this topic, and it began early. Starting in the second century Christians began adding the phrase "without a cause" to this passage, making it read "whoever is angry with a brother without a cause will be subject to judgment" (an addition which made it into the Latin Vulgate and eventually the King James Bible). Now, riddle me this: who gets angry without a cause? We all think we have a cause! We say things like "You really make me mad" and "They really make my blood boil" as though anger is something done to us by another person or group. We always have a reason outside ourselves to blame for the anger inside ourselves. Angry people always believe they have a cause. But the fact is, this "without a cause" clause is not in our oldest and best manuscripts. Jesus never said this and Matthew never wrote it. So, here we have our first recorded attempt to neutralize and marginalize Jesus' radical teaching. And as we let our minds scan over centuries of Church history since then, we can think of too many examples of judgement, torture, condemnation, and violence that were made possible by our excuse-making machinery.

A comparison of Matthew 5:22 translations showing the KJV addition.

Thankfully the original disciples took Jesus at his word, and consistently taught against anger as the serious sin that it is. The apostle Paul, for instance, repeatedly includes anger and outrage as items on his “vice lists” – those lists of sins that Christians should do away with.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. ~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:31)
But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. ~ The apostle Paul (Colossians 3:8; also see 2 Corinthians 12:20-21; Galatians 5:19-21)

The apostle John is obviously influenced by Jesus (as he should be!) when he writes:

Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. ~ The apostle John (1 John 3:15)

And the apostle James sums it up this way:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. ~ James the brother of Jesus (James 1:19-20)

Hey wait a minute! If James says we must be “slow to become angry”, doesn't that leave the possibility open that, as long as we’re slow to get there, anger might be okay in some situations. Maybe, as long as we are slow to get there (James) and then quick to get rid of it (Paul).

Be slow to get angry, and be quick to get rid of it.

But if that's the only place our minds go when reading all of these passages, we are likely being overtaken by our own brilliant mental excuse-making machinery.

Paul is saying "Don't go there!" And James is saying, "Put the breaks on!" And Jesus, echoed by John, is saying, "If you give in to an angry impulse you are guilty of murder." It's pretty straightforward, even though many of us will feel the desperate need to wiggle out from under the weight of this teaching.

Again, when we put it all together, it is hard to escape what is staring us in the face: disciples of Jesus should “get rid of all” anger (Paul), because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James), since anger is murder (Jesus).

So watch out: Not only do religious people invent excuses for destructive anger, they even fan the flame by often equating anger with a zeal for holiness. But Jesus says his disciples need to go beyond the righteousness of religious people if they want to be kingdom people (Matthew 5:20). Religious people often cloak their latent anger issues in one of two ways: a) under the guise of feisty hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching (the conservative version) or b) wrapped up in the fight for positive social change that is judgement-and-justice-heavy while being grace-and-mercy-light (the progressive version). Both the conservative and progressive versions of religious fundamentalism are ultimately about power and control, and are expressions of graceless religion that miss the mark in destructive ways.

Notice that in this Sermon on the Mount passage, Jesus addresses the deadly connection between four ingredients:

1) murder,

2) anger,

3) brotherhood, and

4) religion.

This four-part connection formed the blueprint for the first ever recorded murder. The Bible records that the first murder was fratricide: a brother who became angry over a religious issue (Genesis 4). In this first Antithesis Jesus is undoing the story of Cain and Abel and calling his disciples to join him in reversing the narrative. We reject the way of Cain and live out a different story.

Jesus reframes the Cain and Abel story: a brother who's religious anger drove him to murder.

And notice how strident Jesus is on this issue. He doesn't just warn "When you're angry watch out because it might lead to murder". No, Jesus says "When you're angry you are already guilty of murder". Jesus doesn't say anger leads to murder, encourages murder, or even tempts us to murder. Jesus says anger IS murder!

So let's ask the why questions. Why is anger so wrong that Jesus equates it with murder? And why must Christians get rid of all anger, rather than just steward our anger wisely? Why not channel our anger into good actions? Why is the concept of "righteous anger" rejected by Jesus and his first followers?

These are great questions. And here are some great answers:

Anger, outrage, and contempt are sharp emotions that puncture the human soul and deflate it of the very breath of life.

Moreso, when we pay attention to the passages about anger in the Bible we see this important truth:

Anger is the emotion associated with judgement, and judgement is God's domain, not ours.

Anger is the emotion associated with judgement.

This explains why Jesus turns the tables in the Temple but never says "Come on boys! Grab a table and start flipping with me!" Jesus says "Do what I do" when he is washing feet, but not when he is sitting in the seat of judgement. Sisters and brothers, let's put down the whips.

Remember: anger is the emotion associated with judgement. The same Greek word, orgē, is usually translated "wrath" in English Bibles when referencing God, and in God's hands it is righteous. Wrath/Anger is always seen as righteous in reference to God and sinful in reference to humans because human anger is a sign that we are assuming the role of God as judge, jury, and executioner. Humans are to be God-like in grace, mercy, and peace (see the rest of Matthew 5, before and after this passage), but not in anger, wrath, and judgement. We can long for, plead for, and pray for God to bring about judgement and justice (see Luke 18:1-8), but our actionable role in this life as disciples of Jesus is always to express mercy and work for peace.

This idea isn't exclusively New Covenant. The Bible is consistent on this issue: as far as emotions go, anger seems too hot to handle, too bold to hold (unless you are God).

About God and anger we read:

God is a righteous judge, a God who displays his wrath every day. ~ King David (Psalm 7:11)
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. ~ The apostle Paul (Romans 12:19; referencing Deuteronomy 32:35)

About humans and anger we read:

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. ~ King David (Psalm 37:8)
Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools. ~ King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:9)

Jesus taught nonviolent peacemaking (see our two posts on peacemaking called "SM #8: Peacemaking & the Ministry of Mending (Part 1)" and the one following it, as well as the rest of Matthew 5), including and beginning with a renunciation of anger and judgement toward any other person. And this way of nonviolent peacemaking represents the consensus of the Christian church for its first three centuries.

So how did the Church get so far off track on this topic? How did Christians move so far away from the kingdom vision of Christ?

Shift happens.

Historians call it "the Constantinian Shift". When Roman emperor Constantine the Great ended the persecution of Christians and made Christianity a religio licita (a legitimate, approved religion) with the Edict of Milan in AD 313, it must have seemed to the embattled Christians as though God’s kingdom had come to earth in a new, unexpected way. Think of it: the empire that killed Christ and many of his followers for hundreds of years was now becoming Christian. Wow. Who could have seen that one coming? Constantine paved the way for future emperor Theodosius the Great to move Christianity from being a legitimate religion to becoming the official state religion of the empire with the Edict of Thessalonica in AD 380. Now Christians had the power. This fourth-century move from persecuted powerless minority to the persecuting powerful majority is one of the most damaging things that ever happened to the movement Jesus started.

Constantine the Great (272 – 337 AD), Rome's first Christian emperor.

From then on, the Church's interpretations of Jesus' teaching would be tainted and twisted by the pursuit of power. Concepts like territorial war, national defense, punishment for crime, and the value of coercive power all had to be justified from the Bible. These were no longer matters for the State (a la Romans 13) but now matters for the Church (a la Romans 12) since now the Church and State were commingling. This blending of Church and State changed how Christian leaders, now the powerful elite within the Roman Empire, did exegesis and theology. Jesus' teachings had to serve the State, and our ability to read and follow the counter-cultural way of the Sermon on the Mount became forever weakened.

To this day, Western society is an interesting mix of the influence of Jesus and Constantine in our approach to fighting injustice. We value forgiveness, but we also esteem anger. This blended approach seems "balanced", but Jesus was never "balanced" in this teaching.

Today one of the ways Christians do an end-run around Jesus' teaching on the sin of anger and the necessity of forgiveness is through appealing to the abuse excuse... We tell ourselves that Jesus' teaching to avoid anger and initiate forgiveness (here in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 18 and elsewhere) all applies to us... except in extreme cases where abuse has occurred. This sounds sensible. Who can disagree? Except our next maneuver is to migrate almost all offensive sin into the category of abuse. A physical slap? Physical abuse. Unkind words? Verbal abuse. Relational sin? Emotional abuse. Etc. When everything becomes "abuse", truly abused victims are lost in the crowd of self-seeking people clamouring for victim status. And what's more, almost all of Jesus' teaching on forgiveness, mercy, and enemy love is deviously and devilishly neutralized. Instead of turning the other cheek, walking the second mile, and initiating forgiving confrontation, we say "Since this is a special situation involving abuse, we need to take a different pathway." This is as brilliant as it is diabolical. And it is happening all around us.

(To put this all in perspective, consider the radical unity-through-mercy achieved by the early church, described in our study "SM #6: Mercy Me".)

Dear friends, for followers of Jesus there is no alternative pathway than the Straight and Narrow Way of Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount.

In light of the consistent and clear teaching of Jesus, supported by the Hebrew Scriptures and the early church leaders, you can understand the importance for Christians to take a counter-cultural stand on the issue of anger and unforgiveness. We live in a world where anger and outrage are the emotions du jour in the pursuit of social justice and societal change. As Christ-followers, we care about being salt and light for our world around us (Matthew 5:13-16). We care about being change agents for the better. And we have something different to bring to the social justice movement as well as our therapeutic culture: our distinctly Christ-like emphasis on forgiveness over revenge, mercy over judgement, and love over anger.

Beware of this common line of thinking that I mentioned earlier:

"But if we call anger a sin, we are shaming victims and removing a key motivation to fight for justice."

This reasoning sounds good, except for one thing: everything in that sentence is wrong.

Don't we need anger to motivate us to fight for justice?

Jesus says anger is a destructive sin, and Christ-followers should start with Jesus and move forward from there. We are not shaming anyone when we offer them a better and healthier way to live their lives that will lead to maximum human flourishing for them and others around them. As long as we are relying on anger and outrage as our motivations for anything, we are missing out on the robust and wholistic power of faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). And, our fight is never supposed to be for justice "out there" in the first place, but for righteousness within and among us. [See our studies on righteousness called "SM #5: Holy Hunger" as well as "SM #17: Above & Beyond (Real Righteousness, Part 4)".] Lastly, the above line of thinking that relies on anger to motivate our work for justice completely ignores Jesus' robust teaching on the power of love.

What is going to motivate us to be salt and light in this world? The answer is simple – it is simply love.

Love is the will to work for the wellbeing of a person. Love is the experience and expression of an attitude of awe and honour. Love is the awesome energy that created this universe. And love is that same awesome energy entering our world in the form of Jesus to show us what love looks like in human form. Love is not an emotional reaction, but a willful and wonderful decision to initiate and express good. Love is the strongest force in this universe, because love is the DNA of the Divine, the very guts of God. Love is the way of Jesus. And so, love is enough.

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. ~ The apostle John (1 John 4:20-21)
Love one another. ~ JESUS (John 13:34-35)
Love your neighbour as yourself. ~ JESUS (Matthew 22:37-40)
Love your enemies. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28)

A caution and an encouragement: When we walk the merciful, enemy-loving path of Jesus, we will receive backlash from both outside and inside the Church. But that is alright - it just means more enemies for us to love.

CONCLUSION (One last thought)

Reconciling relationships is the heart of the Gospel. It is everything that matters. There is nothing else. But reconciliation is not something we merely pray for and hope will happen. Reconciliation is our responsibility to work for. Reconciliation takes intentionality and initiative. Reconciliation will not just happen to us, but must be pursued. Clearing away our anger is just the first step. Turning enemies into friends is always the goal of God's work in this world.

Let's remember not to interpret Jesus' teaching legalistically. Jesus is teaching us how not to be legalistic with the Old Testament, and it would be a shame if we then became legalists about New Testament teaching. For instance, we are not "off the hook" from Jesus' teaching on anger just because we might be one of those people who don't tend to get overtly angry. We all know that some people enjoy the revenge of showing others just how un-bothered they are. "I don't get angry, I get even" is not a Jesus motto. One does not have to be mad to be mean. If you are someone who tends not to get overtly angry, remember Jesus' teaching to pay attention to ways you might have made others angry, and go work for reconciliation.

For those of us who do struggle with our excuse-making machinery and/or our actual anger, let's begin by admitting it. There are some things Jesus teaches that are unclear and may leave us scratching our heads. This is not that. Jesus' teaching on anger is not ambiguous. In the words of Mark Twain:

"It is not the things which I do not understand in the Bible which trouble me, but the things which I do understand." ~ Mark Twain (Quoted in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, 1926).

A doable next step for those of us struggling with actual anger might be to begin walking the path of sorrow...

Psychologists tell us that anger and grief are closely linked emotions. (Notice that anger is usually listed as one of the stages of grief.) As we mentioned earlier, anger can act like a warning light on a car’s dashboard, alerting us to something under the hood that needs attention. Wisdom suggests we pay attention to that light and address the undealt with sorrow and mourning that might be at the root. In this regard, anger is a gift and we should pay attention to what it is telling us and be ready to enter into a season of sorrow, a time of lament.

What would be unwise (and will lead to sin) would be joining a cultural trend to celebrate and sacralise these warning signals as important attributes to a healthy automobile. Anger is not that. Anger must never be treated like the fuel that runs the church, our lives, our movement, or our ministry.

Anger, like an angel, is a messenger telling us to pay attention to something deeper.

Sorrow, sadness, and grief are similar to anger and outrage, but without the infusion of judgement. Jesus and the biblical writers always encourage us to make room for sorrow in our lives in a way they never encourage us to make room for anger (e.g., see Romans 9:2; 12:15; 1 Corinthians 5:2; 2 Corinthians 2:4; 7:7-11; 12:21).

Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor? ~ Job (Job 30:25)
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended. ~ The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 7:8-9)

Note: The apostle Paul, or Jesus or any early Church leaders, would never say this same thing about anger.

If you are chronically angry, ask God to help you transmute your anger into grieving. Sorrow places our attention on the victims; anger fixates our attention on the victimizers. Sorrow empathizes with the oppressed; anger judges the oppressors. Sorrow brings us closer; anger drives us apart. Sorrow and anguish allow us to bear the burdens of our brethren (Galatians 6:2); anger and outrage obsess with the source of the burden. (Yes, if possible we should work to alleviate these burdens at the source, but not via the way of anger, which will shift our primary focus away from empathizing with people in pain.)

Anger drives people apart. Sorrow can pull us together.

If you have experienced significant pain in your life which has led you to anger and outrage, do not be shamed by the teaching of Jesus. Leaving you feeling guilty and helpless is not his goal in the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, see what Jesus and the other early church leaders are saying as a kind of diagnosis that gives you the opportunity to move toward the cure. If we’re honest, most of us don’t want to stay angry. We sense its corrosive effects in our hearts and we want to move past this. And Jesus’ way of sorrow, leading to love, compassion, and forgiveness will help you do that. Yes, full blown anger is sin and corrosive to our souls. And the good news is, Jesus is in the sin-forgiving, soul-saving, heart-curing business. You’ve come to the right place.

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and weep. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. ~ James the brother of Jesus (James 4:8-10)

So we say it one more time for the people at the back: whatever we think anger and outrage are helping us accomplish, love will do a better job.

CODA (An Epilogue or Afterthought)

PS: My friend Rod raised a good question and I'm still processing it. Besides transmuting our anger into sorrow, is another good way for dealing with our anger to redirect it away from people and toward sin and Satan? Yes, we are not to harbour anger toward people because we do not sit in the seat of judgement over them, but we are to judge sin as sin and make judgement calls about divisive issues and we will even judge (fallen?) angels one day (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Jesus commands us to love our enemies, but he is talking about human enemies. No such command exists toward the realm of the demonic. We turn the other cheek toward our human enemies, but we go to war against our spiritual enemies. Hmmm.

So, maybe we have two ways to respond to our persistent anger:

  1. mourn for our enemies and see them not as the real enemy but victims of the real enemy, and

  2. channel our anger toward our real enemies - the systems of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

But even then, let's take Jude 1:8-11 to heart, where Jude cautions that even angels do not rebuke Satan directly for fear of slandering God's creation.

PPS: Other questions have come up in our small church discussions.

For instance, is there a difference sin-wise between a flare-up of rage (we might call it losing our temper), or a longer-term resentment?

The New Testament uses two words for anger -  orgē (the regular word for anger or wrath; the kind of anger Jesus addresses in the Sermon on the Mount), and thumos (an outburst of rage). Both are condemned in different passages.

Also, how can Jesus' words of forgiveness on the cross inform our interactions with anger?

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” ~ Jesus (Luke 23:34)

People often hurt us due to their ignorance or negligence, not because they want to intentionally cause harm. Remembering this might help us see them as victims of their own shortcomings worthy of our pity rather than our fury.

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic)

Psalm 37:8; Proverbs 12:16, 18; 14:29; 15:1, 18; 19:11; 22:24; 29:11; Ecclesiastes 7:9; Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 12:18-19; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5; 13:4-6; 2 Corinthians 12:20-21; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 4:26-27, 31-32; 6:4; Philippians 4:1-3; Colossians 3:8; James 1:14-15, 19-20; 1 John 3:15; 4:20-21; Judge 1:8-11


  • Brant Hansen, Unoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better (highly recommend)

  • Dan White Jr., Love Over Fear: Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, & Healing Our Polarized World

  • Jared Byas, Love Matters More: How Fighting To Be Right Keeps Us From Loving Like Jesus

Do you have recommendations on this topic? Or feedback on this study? Or just some questions? Please get in touch!

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together)

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. Who do you find it easy to dehumanize in your attitudes, actions, and conversations: Politicians? Famous actors? Rich people? Poor people? Fat people? Fit people? Strangers on the street? People driving too fast, too slow, or too reckless? Extreme conservatives? Extreme progressives? People who protest? People who don't protest? People who say "Black Lives Matter?" People who respond "All Lives Matter"? People who include their pronouns in their emails? People who don't include their pronouns? People who don't take pronoun inclusion seriously? (My favourites are "Thee/Thou/Thine" and "Her/She/Chocolate".) The queer community? The straight community? Pro-lifers? Pro-choicers? Fetuses? Old people? Young adults? Children? Adult children? Therapists? People who are in therapy? People who should be in therapy? People who put you in therapy? Police officers? Soldiers? Lawyers? Criminals? Feminists? Traditionalists? Homemakers? Homewreckers? Academic people? Uneducated people? Ugly people? Attractive people? Dog people? Cat people? People who don’t like pets? People who treat their pets like their children? People who yell at their children? People you wish would yell at their children? People who like country music? People who like rap music? People who drink? People who don’t drink? People who drive you to drink? Adherents of a different religion? Fellow Christians you disagree with? Someone else?

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

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