“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. 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. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.”
–Matthew 5:21-26

My sermon topic today shall be Emmanuel Kant’s deontological categorical imperative with poly-syllabic profundities from the floating pericopes of the ancient Eucharistic text. Aren’t you just aquiver with anticipation?

According to recent polls, the big reason people do not attend church is that it all seems so irrelevant. But starting with Matthew 5:21 Jesus gets relevant, personally so! Like the small town news editor who had some extra space, so he printed the Ten Commandments as a filler. Within a week he had 103 complaint letters. “Cancel my subscription. You’ve become meddlesome.”

In the last chapter we studied God’s law, how Christ did not come to abolish it, but to fulfill it. Now the Lord shows us just how thoroughly He plans to do just that–to fulfill the law in us so that our “righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees.”

The next 27 verses describe an unsurpassable obedience that the Pharisees for all their outward show could not even imagine. In this portion of His sermon Christ uses the formula, “You have heard it said, but I say….” He does this six times using intensely personal examples of anger, lust, divorce, swearing, revenge, and love. In this chapter we’ll grapple with the first–anger.

What Is Anger?

In verse 21 Christ quotes from the Decalogue, Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill.” “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but…,” and this is the shocker…, Christ keeps going! “But I say…everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” Clearly Jesus was equating the outward act of homicide with the inner attitude of anger. Both are destructive and liable to the same punishment by God, he says.

In the Greek there are two words used for anger. One is “thumos,” defined as a fire in dry straw. Quick kindling. Burning hot. But just as suddenly gone.

A woman once confessed to Billy Sunday, “I’ve a bad temper. I blow up over the least little thing. But it’s over in a minute.”

Sunday said, “So is a shotgun blast. It’s over in a second, but look at the terrible damage it can do.”

The other word for “anger” is “orgizesthai,” defined as a cold, calculated anger. Nursed. Long-lived. A slow burn. This is the word Jesus uses in the text.

In United States law both forms of murderous anger are recognized. First degree murder is pre-meditated, the cold, calculated stalking of one’s victim. Second degree murder is the sudden, irrational variety of homicide. A man looks at your girl in the bar. You say something to him, he takes a swing at you, and you stab him to death.

What Jesus is doing in these verses is linking our deeds with our thoughts. He is saying the one is just as vital to righteousness as the other. The Pharisees, you see, never killed, but, like us, they liked to think about it, to fantasize about striking someone in the face, getting even, dispatching someone to an early grave.

In a local novelty shop for $3.95 one may purchase “The traffic avenger.” Battery operated, dashboard mounted, and quite harmless, the owner can press a button and hear the sound effects of ridding oneself of the car in front of you. The choices are “Flame Thrower,” “Sidewinder Missile,” and “Vaporizer.” It’s the latest in road rage chic.

Jewish scribes in Jesus’ day believed as long as you didn’t do the deed all is okay. But Jesus raised the bar–if you think it, if you cultivate it inside, then you’re just as guilty!

Plato described persons as charioteers being pulled by two horses, the one Reason and the other, Passion. It is up to us to decide which one leads.

Modern psychiatrists teach that if one sows a thought he reaps an act. If we sow an act we reap a habit. If we sow a habit we reap a character, and if we sow a character we reap a destiny. Thus, as Jesus said, all homicide starts with thoughts.

So, what is anger? Jesus defines it as a murderous emotion, a loss of control in our inner life that leads to destructive behavior.

Righteous Anger

Not all anger is bad. In verse 22 Christ carefully delineates, “But I tell you anyone who is angry with his brother without cause….” Some translations add “without cause.” Others delete it. Nevertheless, Ephesians 4:26 instructs us to, “Be angry, but sin not.”

Jesus waxed angry at the money changers in the temple. He took a whip and drove them out, overturning their tables.

Certainly the sin of our day is angerlessness. We lack passion. We are slumped in indifference.

Scour the Bible and you will find at least eight instances of anger properly used.

  1. Exodus 32:19. Moses’ anger at Israel’s idolatry in the valley of resting.
  2. 1 Samuel 20:34. Jonathan’s anger at Saul’s plans to kill David.
  3. Nehemiah 5:6. Anger at innocent children being harmed.
  4. Job 32:2-3. Elihu’s anger at Job’s condemnation by three friends.
  5. Jeremiah 6:11. The prophet’s indignation at Israel for not heeding God’s Word.
  6. Mark 3:5. Christ’s wrath at hypocrisy.
  7. John 2:15. Paul’s ire at an evil doer hindering the gospel.
  8. Revelation 2:15. Jesus’ anger over false doctrine.

I think the spirit of our age, our lack of righteous indignation, is best captured in Ralph Coingold’s novel, Two Friends of Man. A friend chides his companion, “Hull, do try to moderate your indignation and keep cool. Why, you are all on fire!”

Hull responds, “Mr. May, I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.”

Unrighteous Anger

We’ve looked at what anger is–a fire in dry straw or a simmering pot. We’ve also considered angerlessness as a sin, and the need for righteous indignation. Now let’s look at unrighteous anger.

In verse 22 Jesus warns, “Anyone who says to his brother ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says ‘You fool’ will be in danger of the fires of hell.”

Go grab a book of matches. How does one ignite a match? Strike it! Rub it slowly over an abrasive surface and you’ll get a spark that will cause the match to burst into fame and be consumed. This is how our tempers work. We rub by someone. There is friction. Heat! A right is violated. Our tempers spark. And there is a flare-up.

The first evidence of anger is often our tongue. It has the dubious distinction of being the only part of our anatomy that has two of the Ten Commandments governing it.

Jesus said anger with someone comes in the form of insults. Literally, to call someone “Raca!” This is neither a Hebrew or a Greek word, but Aramaic. And it is essentially untranslatable. It has to do with tone of voice, contempt for someone, insult. It is like calling someone “a brainless idiot.”

The Rabbi tells the story of a young student returning to his home from school. An old man’s cart has broken down and is blocking the road. Angry at delay, the youth snarls at the elderly driver, “You imbecile! Raca! How dare you delay me. You’re such a pea-wit. Are all of your race so raca?” To which the cart driver replies evenly, “Why don’t you go and tell the maker how ugly is the creature He made!”

You see, God created. He made man in His own image (Genesis 1:26). He judged us to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). So, to kill another human being is an act of rebellion. It is to fling creation back into God’s face. “I won’t have it!”

And Jesus is saying that to insult a human is to start down the road to murder. We must not even put our foot on that path.

Further expanding on our inner life, Jesus describes how we call one another names like, “You fool!” In the Greek it is “moros” from which we get our word, “moron.” Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” It is the same word. We even get our word “morals” from this. “Moros.” “Morals.” “Moron.” To deride someone by calling them a fool is to pass moral judgment upon them.

To call someone “Raca!” is to insult their nature and personhood. To cry “Fool!” in someone’s face is to judge them morally. The one is like calling someone “Bastard!” The other is like saying, “You go to hell!”

And Jesus is saying murder starts with ill will in thoughts. Then it pops out of our mouths as insults, gossip, and slander. It is to speak ill of whom God has made. And, if left unchecked, it will eventually lead our hands to murder.

Christ declares in the text a “righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees.” One is not righteous if he does not kill. He must not nurse thoughts of ill will and speak words of insult. “Nip it in the bud!” Jesus is saying.

Let it sober you in verse 22 when Christ Jesus three times reminds us God will hold us accountable for our thoughts, words, and deeds. “Liable to judgment.” “Answerable to the council.” “In danger of the fire of hell.” See how seriously God takes our behavior toward one another? Even our inmost thoughts are under the Lord’s scrutiny!

For the Pharisee, religion was an exterior show. “Just don’t kill!” But for Jesus religion went deeper. The purest of religion invades the mind, the emotion and will with God’s Word and Spirit. And when the inner life is right, so the outer life is proper as well.

Now for verse 23. It begins with the word, “Therefore.” Each time one comes to this word in the Scripture, he should inquire, “What is the ‘therefore’ there for?” Clearly there has been an argument. Now Jesus is drawing conclusions, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the alter, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the alter and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Have you done something you know of to anger someone? Have you swindled? Betrayed? Insulted? Slandered? Abused? Then go make it right, Jesus says.

You see, the Bible is a book of relationships. And we of the church should be about relationships as well.

The great commandment in Mark 12:28-31 bids us love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. There is a balance here. One cannot fully love the Creator unless he fully loves the creation. So, worship, Jesus says, is reflected in our human relationships. A tithe offering is a fine thing. But fixing a relationship of anger is finer still.

I have a pastor friend who was sexually immoral before he entered the ministry. And he told me one of his biggest fears was to be in the pulpit preaching on marriage and sexual purity when he looked out in the congregation and saw one of his former girlfriends. She’d be waving a handkerchief and saying, “Yoohoo! Remember me? Preach it, brother!” Before this dimension of his ministry could flourish, he had to go do some homework. He had to go back and ask forgiveness.

The best way, then, that we can worship God is by serving God’s people, by valuing them, by drawing them into healthy relationships.

Now Christ gives us some free legal advice. “Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court.” If not, Christ sagely points out, you won’t get out of the legal system till your pockets are emptied. For when tempers get involved, truth matters little. And in the end you’ll both lose.


Seneca called anger, “A brief insanity.” Anger is like jumping into a wonderfully responsible sports car, gunning the motor, taking off at a high speed then discovering the brakes don’t work.

Anger manages everything badly. But truth and love manages everything well.

Proverbs 16:32 explains, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he who ruleth his spirit than he who taketh a city.”

In Mexico city, tour guides will show you a volcano. “This would have been our tallest mountain if it hadn’t blown its stack.”

Suggested Prayer

Come inside, Jesus. I need you! Amen!

"The university is the clear-cut fulcrum with which to move the world. More potently than by any other means, change the university and you change the world." Charles Malik, past president of the UN General Assembly

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