Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do 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 council. But 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 with them 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.
Just this week, I read an essay my brother forwarded to me. It was from The Atlantic, written by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and it dealt with the powerful and largely negative effects of social media on our nation’s political system. I suppose lots of people would read the essay and say that Haidt just confirms what they already thought about the subject. But it was deeply disturbing anyway.
The core of the problem is that social media are easily used to infuriate people. It’s an ideal way to convince conservatives that liberals hate America and want to take away the freedom of white Christians. And to inflame liberals by saying that conservatives are greedy bigots who want to make us a fundamentalist theocracy. This is such an effective tactic that evidence shows that our enemies (led by Russia and China) are flooding the social media with inflammatory messages meant expressively to set us against each other. To make us angry.
Is seems that lots of Christians have convinced themselves that they’re standing up for their faith when they react furiously to “those other people.” Apparently if you call your anger “righteous indignation,” that changes it from a sin into a virtue. But I doubt that Jesus would buy that.
In spite of over a century of systematic study, modern psychology still can’t match the insights into human nature that Jesus articulated. (No surprise there, considering that Jesus was God in human form and that we’re made in his image.) And in this passage, Jesus expresses an important truth about that human nature: that the angry thoughts we allow to exist in our minds are likely to be expressed at some point in angry actions.
One of the points Haidt made in his essay is that the social media cause people to operate by a mob mentality – and mob violence is what happens when a bunch of people with the same resentments inflame each other more and more. Now we don’t actually have to commit physical violence against others, we can anonymously spread malicious gossip or even outright lies about someone we’re mad at. It used to be called “character assassination,” but now we call it “cancel culture.”
It seems to me that what Jesus is saying here is something a reasonable person should have concluded already about the social media – that letting our minds be full of that kind of bitter anger is playing with fire.
He then goes on to say that if you’re about to offer a sacrifice and remember that you’ve got a dispute going on with someone, you should delay the sacrifice until you’ve gone and settled the dispute. Bible scholars say Jesus was probably referring to the story of Cain and Abel, in which Cain was so resentful over sacrifices that he committed murder. (They say that Jewish thought in Jesus’ time used the story of Cain and Abel to warn people against anger.)
From a psychological standpoint – and more importantly, from a spiritual standpoint – you just can’t have your heart in a genuinely worshipful place if your mind is consumed by hateful anger. That’s why some parts of the church have made reconciliation among members of the church a formal part of their services of worship – the Mennonite tradition is one example.
Jesus paid a great price to reconcile us to God. Reconciliation was so important to him that he let himself be nailed to a cross to make it happen. And now, the apostle Paul points out, those of us who follow Jesus have been given his ‘ministry of reconciliation.’ If Jesus was willing to lay aside all of humanity’s offenses against him for the sake of reconciliation, doesn’t that ministry of reconciliation demand that we be willing to lay aside all of our perceived slights and self-centered anger for the sake of being reconciled with others?
Of course, we will sometimes get mad. Sometimes really mad. The question is what we do with that anger. As followers of Jesus, we have been commanded to deal with it in a way that is consistent with our master’s teachings. So rather than dwelling on our anger and letting it fester in our hearts and minds, we can take our anger to God. We can pray for God’s help in laying it aside, and we can consciously and deliberately pray for God’s blessing on the person who has angered us. I have to admit, I sometimes have to do it more than once, or even over and over. But it’s hard to hold onto hateful anger toward someone you’re asking God to bless.
One of the most disturbing trends in American religious life is that more and more people insist on being part of a church where just about everybody votes the way they do. That’s a terrible mistake. We need to interact with people who see things differently than we do. None of us gets everything right all the time. That’s why the apostle James wrote that we are to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.”
If we are to take seriously the idea that we have been given “a ministry of reconciliation,” one of the most important things we can do is teach ourselves to be agents of that reconciliation in our relationships with our neighbors, and that starts with our relationships with other followers of Jesus.
It seems to me that’s why this teaching from Jesus is so important to us as 21st century American followers of Jesus.
Let’s pray. Lord, we ask you to protect our hearts from anger. Help us to shrug off minor offenses, realizing that they are usually the result of carelessness rather than malice. And strengthen us to seek reconciliation rather than revenge when we are most angry, so that the world will see us as agents of your love. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 113 and 147:12-20; Exodus 34:1-17; and I Thessalonians 2:13-20. Our readings come from the NIV Bible as it’s posted on Biblica.org.)