Make it Right!
By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
There is a church in Columbia, SC near the seminary I attended which has one of those bulletin boards out front to list service times, special events, sermon subjects, and so on. For several years there was one other thing on that bulletin board, one of those little “sentence sermons” that we see so often. It said, “The same Bible that says BELIEVE also says BEHAVE.” I do not know if there were any significance to the fact that it was located so near to all us seminary students; perhaps someone figured we would need it more than anyone. At any rate, it was there, and for a LONG time: “The same Bible that says BELIEVE also says BEHAVE.”
Now, here we are in the midst of Lent, that unique time in the church year when we are called to actually examine HOW we behave. We look into a spiritual mirror. If everything is fine, wonderful. But if everything is NOT fine (and it never is), we have work to do.
The mirror we use today is the Sermon on the Mount, this incredibly detailed set of instructions concerning our relationships with God and with one another. The brief passage we read a moment ago deals with those times when good relationships go bad. Jesus starts off with one of the problems that ALL relationships sometimes face…anger.
Now, truth be known, most of us do not see anger as such a big problem. In fact, some folks seem to take a strange kind of pride in just HOW angry they can sometimes get: “Do not cross me, I have quite a temper.” But Jesus says you had better NOT be proud of it, because it can get you in a peck of trouble… eternal trouble. Listen to him again: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall 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.
Why would Jesus come down so hard with a blanket condemnation of anger, especially considering that it seems to be a natural human emotion? Actually, the compilers of the King James Version of the Bible in which many of us were nurtured could not believe Jesus really said it – that version’s condemnation is for the man who is angry with his brother “without a cause.” But the words “without a cause” are not found in the Greek. Hmm. A total prohibition? Anyway, are there not times when we SHOULD get angry? After all, even Jesus got angry.
There was that incident in the synagogue on the Sabbath day where the Lord encountered a man with a withered hand.(1) The religious purists of the day were watching to see how the situation would be handled; after all, their law said that it was illegal to heal on the Sabbath – you could help someone stay alive if it were a matter of live and death, but you could not do anything to help them get better, Now, obviously, a withered hand is not a matter of life and death, especially if the hand is not YOURS. The scripture says that Jesus “looked around at them in ANGER…” But note that he was not mad at anything they had done to him; rather, he was FURIOUS at the religious attitude which would ever make human compassion “illegal.” Anyone with any kind of sensitivity SHOULD have been angry at that sort of thing.
Then there was the incident in the temple.(2) The Lord became incensed at the callous commercialism there, the blatant money-grubbing of those who were taking advantage of honest worshipers by charging outrageous prices for sacrificial animals or something as simple as making change. He was angry enough to fashion a whip and lay it to the hides of those “thieves” (for that is what HE called them) and chase them out. Was his anger justified? Of course. We call it “righteous indignation.”
Now, it would be nice if we could say that THAT is the only kind of anger we ever have…but we know better. We get angry with PEOPLE, people we think have done us dirt. That is the kind of anger Jesus says to get rid of.
Why? He illustrates…murder. Why did 17,000 Americans end up murdered last year? Most often because somebody got angry and went out of control. Clarence Darrow, probably the most famous criminal lawyer of his generation, once said, “Everyone is a potential murderer. I have not killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction out of obituary notices.”(3)
The Greeks called anger “a short madness,” and we literally and even linguistically agree: we get angry, we get “mad.” Police say that more than half of the people murdered in our nation are killed by someone who was either their relative or their friend…some FRIEND! The root cause of most murder is nothing more than anger. No wonder Jesus came down so hard on it. Anger is dangerous.
Obviously, murder is not the only outcome of anger. Other harm can be done as well. Angry words can wound with insult. Have you ever been hurt…REALLY hurt…by what someone said to you? It has happened to most of us.
Let me tell you about my grandmother, a shy and sensitive lady who lived to be just three weeks shy of her 100th birthday. When she was a young girl, about ten years old or so, somebody told her that she had a terrible singing voice. Now, most of us, I guess, would not let that remark bother us particularly, but it DID bother grandmother. Ten years old is a tender age. It bothered her so much that, for the remaining 90 years of her life, she never sang another note. I have no idea whether Grandmother had a good voice or a bad voice; she would never take the chance of letting us find out, and all because of one person’s careless and unfeeling insult.
I give intelligent folks more credit than to make statements like that to little girls. But most of us have indeed said insulting things. We might not have meant them – we might even have apologized for saying them – but we did say them, and who knows what kind of long-lasting effect they might have had. Jesus says, “Watch it. That is dangerous.”
He gives a couple of examples. First, there is the deliberate insult. In the original language and in many translations of scripture it is left in the Aramaic: RACA. In Aramaic, raca is a term of derision roughly comparable to “worthless one” or “empty-head” or “contemptible one” or just plain garden-variety “idiot.” The reason we find it so often not translated is that the meaning is expressed by tone of voice as anything.(4) It is the kind of name-calling, the kind of insult, that is designed to cause someone else pain.
Why would Jesus come down so hard on something as seemingly trivial as name-calling? Because name-calling is a source of pain and division between people, and such ought not to be.
But there was more that came under the heat of Jesus’ condemnation than simply mean-spirited insults. There was that insult that would do real damage to someone, the kind of insult that injures someone’s good name. You might angrily call somebody an idiot and, painful as that might be to the person at that moment, it is unlikely that such a thing would follow them for the rest of their days. If someone overheard you, they would probably NOT think you were making a statement about the other person’s IQ; they would figure that you were simply angry. That one who overheard would NOT be likely to then go around saying that they had heard that so-and-so was mentally deficient. If they would say ANYTHING, they would probably say that you were angry. But if you called someone a THIEF or a LIAR or IMMORAL and someone overheard, there is every likelihood that your charge would be repeated…not your anger, your CHARGE…doing significant damage to the victim.
This is what Jesus was condemning when he warned against calling someone a FOOL. You see, for someone who heard the Lord on that hillside, calling a person a FOOL carried more weight than it might carry for us today. It meant MORE than simply that someone was acting foolishly; it had a moral tone about it. The Psalmist spoke of “the fool [who] has said in his heart `There is no God.'”(5) It implies that the individual has some sinning to do and, in a moment of wishful thinking, says there will be no one to judge. Thus, to call someone a FOOL was to brand that one as a loose living and immoral person. Jesus says do not do it, because the one who destroys another’s good name like that is liable to the severest judgment of all – hell fire.
Condemned for all eternity for some thoughtless words? Gracious! Does the punishment fit the crime? Listen to that wise old New Testament scholar, William Barclay:
All these gradations of punishment are not to be taken literally. What Jesus is saying here is this: “In the old days men condemned murder; and truly murder is forever wrong. But I tell you that not only are a [person’s] outward actions under judgment; the inmost thoughts are also under the scrutiny and the judgment of God. Long-lasting anger is bad; contemptuous speaking is worse, and the careless or the malicious talk which destroys [someone’s] good name is worst of all.” The [one] who is the slave of anger, the [one] who speaks in the accent of contempt, the [one] who destroys another’s good name, may never have committed a murder in action, but [that one] is a murderer at heart.(6)
There is something else the Lord points out to us here: there is a relationship between our getting along with each OTHER and our getting along with GOD. Listen to what he says: “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.” The message is that God is very, very, VERY concerned about human relationships, concerned enough to let us know that getting those relationships straight takes priority over participating in ritual worship.
The people in Jesus’ audience understood that. The Jewish law concerning sacrifice said there were certain sins for which sacrifice did not atone…sins that were deliberate and sins which were not repented. Even the holiest sacrifice of the Jewish year, the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, in which the sins of the entire nation were laid upon the altar, would not be effective unless a person was first reconciled to his or her neighbor. For example, stealing was a sin; everyone knew that. But that sin could only be forgiven if the thief had attempted to make restitution. Without that, no amount of sacrifice could make any difference.(7) For any kind of correct relationship to be maintained with God, correct relationships FIRST had to be established between people. That was the common-sense attitude of the Jewish law, and something that seems to be innately understood by ALL of us if we would just care to admit it.
Over the years, people have come to me and said, “Preacher, I haven’t been coming to church lately because I haven’t felt worthy to be there.” I can understand that, and if the reason they feel unworthy is because of some broken relationship which they have done nothing to repair, the word of the Lord here says, not only does God understand it TOO, but God agrees. The message is, “MAKE IT RIGHT, and then resume your worship.
And come to think of it, GET TO IT! Jesus makes this additional point: the TIMELINESS of settling disputes with one another. Getting along is not just a matter of letting things go until a bad situation reaches a crisis point. Do not let things fester. He uses the illustration of a trip to court and says get things taken care of BEFORE they can only be dealt with by a judge…and for a very practical reason: you might LOSE. The advice of the letter to Ephesians is apropos here: “do not let the sun go down on your anger.”(8)
There is no question that people can be frustrating, irritating, exasperating, and even infuriating. No matter. We are in this together. When the Bible defines God as “love,” and defines us as created in God’s image, the Bible is tipping us off to something extremely important. “Love” means “relationships.” God made us for relationships – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, neighbors, friends, and especially those with whom we are close in the family of God – and the care and nurture of those relationships is part and parcel of our Christian discipleship.
Dorotheos of Gaza, a sixth-century teacher, once preached a sermon for the monks in his monastery who were grumbling that they were unable to love God properly because they had to put up with one another’s ordinary, irritating presence. No, Dorotheos told them, they were wrong. He asked them to visualize the world as a great circle whose center is God, and upon whose circumference lie human lives. “Imagine now,” he asked them, “that there are straight lines connecting from the outside of the circle all human lives to God at the center. Can’t you see that there is no way to move toward God without drawing closer to other people, and no way to approach other people without coming near to God?”(9)
Listen once more to Jesus’ instruction: “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.” MAKE IT RIGHT!!! After all, the same Bible that says BELIEVE also says BEHAVE.
1. Mark 3:1-5
2. Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-16
3. Quoted by Peter J. Blackburn, http://members.xoom.com/_XOOM/pblackburn/sermons/pbcomm06.htm
4. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
5. Psalm 14:1
6. Daily Study Bible
8. Ephesians 4:26
9. Roberta C. Bondi, Memories of God, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 201
Copyright 2000 David E. Leininger.Used by permission.