Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

https://soundcloud.com/hapearce/reflection-for-september-20-2021

Matthew 5:21-26

 Murder

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell 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 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.

This passage is one of the better-known parts of the Sermon on the Mount, and it relates one of the teachings of Jesus that is probably more important for contemporary disciples than it has been in other times.

The first reason I say that is that our modern media culture is organized to get people as upset as possible. In a sense, that’s always been the case since the advent of the printing press and widespread literacy paved the way for mass media, beginning with newspapers. But in the digital age, algorithms built into the media feed us more and more extreme versions of whatever we’re interested in – so we’re encouraged to be more and more passionate about our beliefs, eventually angry and then outraged.

(And by the way, the idea of getting useful information from Facebook or other social media reminds me of something W. H. Macy used to say about the money he spent on advertising for his department stores. He said half of it was wasted – he just didn’t know which half. Given what we know about digital firms in Russia and elsewhere busily flooding the internet with lies, distortions and half-truths, it seems to me that half of what we see on Facebook and other social media is lies – we just don’t know which half.)

But it’s also true, it seems to me, that being outraged about things seems to be regarded as a virtue these days. Nobody is satisfied to say, “I disagree with that.” People think it’s a virtue to be apoplectic about everything. (Just check some of the video clips about school board meetings where school mask mandates are being discussed.) In sports, in politics, in entertainment, and sadly, even in the church, being loudly angry about something is taken as a sign that you’re a person to be taken seriously.

And one of the worst aspects of digital culture is that the social media let people vent their most angry and hateful thoughts without being in the physical presence of other people. It’s even disturbing to read the comments under internet postings on matters of faith – people write comments that are so judgmental and condemning it’s hard to imagine anyone being deluded enough to think that Jesus would approve of them.

So, like I said, what Jesus said in this passage about anger is especially relevant to our lives today.

It ought to be said that this teaching is consistent with the idea in the New Testament that the law of God applies to our minds and hearts as well as to our hands – that what we think matters just as much as what we do. When Jesus talked about the greatest commandment, he added “mind” to the Old Testament’s heart, soul and strength with which we are to love God. And in the case of today’s passage, Jesus seems to be making the point that allowing our minds to be consumed with hateful thoughts is just as evil in God’s eyes as actually doing violence.

Obviously it would be ridiculous to say that once you’ve already thought angry thoughts, you might as well go ahead and commit an act of violence. That would amount to adding a second (physical) sin to a first (mental) one. It seems pretty clear that what Jesus means is that we are to guard our minds against harboring angry and hateful thoughts, and to put thoughts like that out of our minds when they pop up. (Because, let’s face it, almost all of us do sometimes have angry and hateful thoughts.)

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I suspect I’m not the only one that finds it challenging to avoid angry thoughts. But not impossible. There are mental disciplines we can use. For instance, when another person really makes you mad, you can stop for a moment and pray for that person. And I don’t mean just pray that God will straighten them out and make them stop bothering you. Instead, you can stop and pray for God’s blessing on the person who’s angered you, and pray that God will bring about reconciliation between the two of you. I’ve also found it helpful to tell God in prayer that you really want to forgive that person, and to ask for his help in doing it. It’s pretty hard to hang onto your furious anger once you’ve got God involved in the process.

The theologian Jeffrey Bilbro has written a book entitled Reading the Times, in which he urges Christians to be thoughtful about the way we consume news media and especially social media – because if we’re not, we can wind up being unfaithful to our calling as disciples and peacemakers.

Jesus goes on to say some really interesting things in the rest of this passage. For instance, he says that in God’s eyes, even our worship of him is compromised if we are harboring anger against another person, and especially against another believer. It seems that God would rather have us put aside our religious activities and make peace with those we’re feuding with, then come back and worship with a mind free of the distraction of bitter anger.

He reminds us that if you let a dispute drag on, the result will often be bad – even if you think you’re in the right.

The things that we allow to exist in our minds have a way of growing in their power and their influence in our lives. Unchecked anger has the disturbing habit of growing and festering, and eventually it’s often manifested in physical behavior. So our master teaches us that as his followers, we have an obligation to monitor the thoughts of our minds to prevent them from becoming tragic events in the physical world, and disruptions in the life of the church.

Let’s pray. Lord, you know how easy it is for us to be consumed by ugly anger, and even to tell ourselves that we are experiencing “righteous indignation,” as though that were a virtue on our part. By your Holy Spirit make us more gentle and more forgiving so that we can faithfully model Christ-like behavior in all our relationships. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 57 and 145 ; II Kings 5:1-19; and I Corinthians 4:8-21.)