(You will most likely want to listen to the sermon as I deviated from my manuscript in quite a few places.)
I sometimes jokingly say that the person who most needs to hear my sermons is me. As I prepared for today’s sermon I also was dealing with a colossal error in which I hurt someone. In short my mouth engaged well before my brain did and I said things that were hurtful. I was confronted with just how far I missed the mark by on that one and we could say that if I was aiming inside of the barn I still would have missed the broad side. The good news is that the person who confronted me provided an example of today’s teaching by Jesus and came to me with the help of some elders to make things right. You know what? I did completely fail on that incident, and knew that the only recourse was to confess that they were right and that I had indeed sinned through my careless words. I knew that I had to ask for forgiveness, and forgiveness was granted. This is the truest sign of Jesus at work among us, not that we don’t mess up, but that when we do we own up to the way we miss the mark, humble ourselves and ask our brother or sister to forgive us we give and receive that gift of forgiveness and display the truth of God’s reconciling power for the world to see. This is why Jesus felt it so important at the beginning of the disciples’ ministry to instruct them in the best ways to interact around conflict situations.
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister[b][c] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[a term of contempt] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. 25 “Settle matters quickly 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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. Matthew 5:21-26
Jesus had just finished talking about the importance of the Torah and now begins to address specific areas of interpretation in which the scribes and Pharisees were missing the point. There is a formula here that we will see in the next few weeks of Jesus’ teaching in which he corrects a superficial interpretation of the Torah by giving an interpretation that addresses motivation as well as action. You shall not murder is one of the big 10 and saying that it leads to being judged is a serious no-brainer. When a person is murdered there are two sins that occur: the first is the idolatrous act of claiming God’s power over life and death and the second is in acting on our judgment of the value of another human to be zero or less than zero. The focus in Jesus’ time was on the action of committing murder and the punishment for the action, but Jesus took his teaching to the motivator, the underlying moral issue, that drives the action: harboring anger against another. Every one of us gets angry, it is a normal part of being human, what Jesus is talking about is not that anger which is beyond our control, but when we allow that anger to stay and to guide our thoughts, words, and actions towards another human being. The Greek word underneath what we translate as anger implies provocation and duration, that this is not a short term thing. In many places in the bible we hear about harboring anger or holding grudges and this type of anger that Jesus is addressing is the anger that leads us to pass judgment on another person’s value as a human being.
Murdering someone is the end of a mental process and Jesus is saying “Hey, let’s address the moral issue that leads to the bloodshed before we get there.” You see, if we address issues before they have had a chance to reach an internal boiling point we avoid taking our eyes off the mark that God has set for us to aim at. Jesus gives us some warning signs to pay attention to that can tell us when we are beginning to lose sight of our end goal. First is when we start making dismissive or contemptuous comments about someone. How many times have we said “Oh, that’s just them being them. Nothing to bother ourselves with.” or “They’re always that way. I stopped paying attention to them a long time ago?” Those are the beginnings of contempt and we usually go there with people who get on our nerves. The problem is that when we dismiss others we are judging their value as a human being and it is a short step to mentally saying “You know, we would be better off without them.” or “They are just a drain on everything, they are worthless.” When I find myself heading down those well-worn mental paths I am walking a path of sin and need to repent and begin the process of reconciliation.
This is an incredibly bold statement on Jesus’ part because he is telling the disciples that God’s heart and deepest desire is for reconciliation and not punishment. This is easy for us to see when we look back and see the sacrifice Jesus made to demonstrate God’s way of redemption, but I want you to take a moment and think about just how this had to sound to the disciples at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching. Nothing is more important to God than reconciliation and that if we really pay attention to the mark the Torah aims us at we will have that same priority. Even when that person who seemingly drives us crazy by their mere existence is bringing us closer to the boiling point, God wants us to think and act in ways that lead to reconciliation rather than devaluing, dismissal, and rejection. This is so important to God that he would rather us fix the broken relationships with each other before coming to him with our gifts. “Leave your gift at the altar and deal with the broken relationship first.” The ways we think about and act towards our brothers and sisters is a crucial part of the way we are called to worship God and are a sign of the truth of God’s forgiveness offered in Jesus. Our sharing of the gospel of God’s reconciliation becomes a lot more convincing when our lives display reconciliation.
Jesus isn’t just addressing externals he is dealing with the thoughts that are in our minds, and let’s be honest here; I don’t think any of us would be very comfortable with everyone around us knowing exactly what is going through our heads at any given moment. God wants to reconcile all of creation in him and that is the condition of victory we have been given. Consider what could happen if we carried our grudges out to their retributive ends. Our prisons would be overflowing with people, making one mistake of a certain kind could get you fired, everyday conversations would consist of walking around on egg shells because we would never get around to the hard work of looking inside and asking the question: How have I hurt my brothers and sisters? Or slipping down the road of hatred because we can’t see how anyone could behave that way and have malicious or sinful intent. Internalizing and avoiding conflict and not asking ourselves the hard questions is the way of defeat! I don’t think that anyone here wants to live under the defeat that comes from focusing on judgment. We see just how devastating it is just by looking at the news headlines in our browsers and papers. Do you want to experience the victory of God in your life? Then work towards reconciliation. Become a person who catches the dark thoughts and examines them to find their source and goes to their brother or sister in love to reconcile. You will experience the truth of Jesus sacrifice when you do that, and you will make that truth known to the world through your example.
I am not saying this will be easy, but Jesus makes an important point that we must keep in mind. Do we really want to drag each other before God with our full feelings and motivations exposed before him and the one who accuses? Do we really want to see someone destroyed? Or do we want to see relationships restored and made whole? Do we want to see that person who is acting in hurtful ways brought into a transforming relationship with God? Because when we come to God demanding justice he gives it to us in full, not just the other guy, but us as well. Jesus does give us a more excellent way: as we get dragged towards a place of judgment we can pause and take on the humility that comes from taking responsibility for the ways we contribute to the situation and seek to invest in restoring the relationship. In the world we live in victory comes from beating our opponents and dividing the world into the categories of winner and loser. In God’s eyes victory comes from reconciliation.
As we prepare for open worship take five minutes to allow your thoughts to wind down and seek the Holy Spirit’s leading in ways you can work towards reconciliation. Maybe there is someone who you find yourself beginning to dismiss or devalue. Maybe there is a conflict that has been brewing for a while. Maybe there is someone you know deep down that you are harboring anger towards. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you towards the steps you can make to bring reconciliation. It can be a scary thing to face into conflict and work towards reconciliation, but you are not alone. God is with you and we have elders who can help pray with you and go with you to begin the reconciliation process. Let us who so desperately need God’s reconciliation come together in His presence to seek his victory.