Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount amazed its original hearers; it subverted their expectations on multiple levels. It’s the meek who win the world. Believers are supposed to be happy when persecuted. And then this: Jesus, this new teacher with authority, came not to abolish but to fulfill the Old Testament.
His six famous “antitheses” (“You have heard . . . but I say to you . . . “) help explain what he means by “fulfilling” the law. But I think you, like me, may have missed something else unexpected in his comments—specifically those about anger.
But I say to you
Jesus opens this portion of his famous sermon with a quotation from the Old Testament:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ (Matt 5:21)
Many commentators assume that the Pharisees had “externalized” this sixth commandment, focusing on outward conformity to a relatively accessible moral standard (the great majority of people are not murderers). This is likely true, given Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees’ murderous hypocrisy later in Matthew 23. But earlier in Matthew 5, Jesus claimed that he came “not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” That’s his point in his comments on anger (and the following five “antitheses”). He’s illustrating what that fulfillment looks like.
When Jesus says, “But I say unto you…” he is not dispensing new truth; what he says is at least implicit in the Old Testament itself. As Calvin insists, the law of God “spoke to the hearts, as well as to the hands and to the eyes.” (284)
So this passage is an example of what it means for Jesus to “fulfill” the law. He both shows and is where the law points.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt 5:22)
For any flesh-and-blood human being to quote a Bible verse to a bunch of Jewish listeners in the first century and then follow it up with, “But I say to you. . .” is remarkable, breathtaking. It would be like a lowly clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court standing out on the steps of the court building in Washington, D.C. to relay the justices’ decision to the reporters at a press conference. He reads the detailed, multi-page decision, and then adds, “That was a good opinion the justices gave, but I think. . .” That clerk has no authority to say what he thinks. No journalist holding an audio recorder cares what he thinks. Jesus’ six antitheses work in this passage only if he has the right not only to interpret but even to add to the law of God (as Jesus will do later in the passage with oaths). And who but God can do that?
No wonder Matthew follows up the Sermon on the Mount with a comment that the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching: he wasn’t like their scribes, always quibbling and quoting; “he was teaching them as one who had authority” (Matt 7:29). Jesus is implicitly claiming to be the New Authority on the scene.
An unexpected twist in Jesus’ counsel
But so far, Jesus has not offered any counsel for diminishing human anger, only (frankly) threats of punishment for those who indulge in it. So the “So” at the beginning of the next portion of the paragraph stirs my hope, because I don’t want to be angry—and I don’t want to be liable to judgment. Lord Jesus, how can I stop being so angry? What’s your divine counsel for me, your erring sheep?
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
A quick right-click in Logos tells me that the “So” here is not an addition by the translators, an effort at smoothing out the thought-flow (as sometimes occurs); “so” here is the direct translation of one Greek logical connector, one often translated “therefore.” Jesus’ counsel is logically consequent upon his no-anger command. I noticed this, too, when I went through the exercise of diagramming the paragraph visually in Logos:
And here’s where the unexpected twist in Jesus’ counsel arises. He makes a radical shift: he’s no longer condemning my anger at others, he’s discussing others’ anger against me.
I expect Jesus to tell me what to do when I am angry, when I feel as if my rights have been violated. I expect him to tell me how to treat the people who betrayed and hurt me. Instead, he tells me what to do when others feel that I have betrayed or hurt them.
I’m about to make the greatest understatement of all time: Jesus is brilliant. By focusing my attention on my own sins, he not only helps me defuse others’ anger against me, he also defuses my anger against others. It is in remembering that I am a sinner, and a sometimes mean one, that I can have pity on others. It is in remembering that I am a forgiven sinner that I can find the strength to forgive other sinners—just like the parable of the unforgiving servant.
As revivalist Dr. Bob Jones Sr. was fond of saying, “No doubt the trouble is with you.”
D.A. Carson points out in his excellent commentary on Matthew,
We are more likely to remember when we have something against others than when we have done something to offend others. And if we are truly concerned about our anger and hate, we shall be no less concerned when we engender them in others. (REBC 9:183)
Christian morality is all interwoven: if you don’t love your neighbor, made in the image of God, you don’t love God. You might as well stop putting on the outward show of religiosity for the moment and go make things right with God’s image-bearer; then you can return to what truly is most important in life: the love of God.
Be reconciled; restore friendly relations as much as is in your power. As one ancient church father said, “You be the first to ask pardon.” (ACCS 100)
Leaving vengeance in God’s hands
There really are victims in this world, modern “Jobs” who did nothing to deserve the loss of their family and property. I won’t even begin to list the injustices out there: just pick up the paper. And Jesus is not counseling acceptance of injustice; to be a blessed “peacemaker” as he elsewhere in this sermon enjoins is to be an “active promoter” of peace. This is not quietism: protecting others from injustice is a Christian thing to do. But when someone hurts me individually, Jesus here and elsewhere in the sermon gives what you might call Don’t Stand Your Ground laws. “Don’t resist evil,” he says. And, famously, “Turn the other cheek.” Only someone with Christ’s authority could say such things to a crowd surely including some victims. Only someone who knows that he is about to bear the sins of the world could have told that crowd to leave vengeance in the hands of God.