verse XV – Ungodly Anger
I am sure that all of us know what it is like to be angry – or, to be the one at whom anger is directed. How much space and time has anger taken up in your life? For most of us, an issue with someone, or a number of someone’s, occupies a fair bit of our thought life. Perhaps interrupting sleep, desire for food, maybe even causing us to isolate ourselves. We can all relate to this emotional pain in one way or another.
In Matthew 5:21-22 Messiah Yeshua/Jesus teaches, “You have heard it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever commits murder shall be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca’ shall be subject to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be subject to fiery Gehenna.”
As I sit and reflect on these verses, I am forced to look back and consider my own struggle with anger. From my earliest memory I struggled with anger – anger, frustration, and bitterness seemed to be a way of life; but as I grew older it was easy to recognize that not much positive fruit matured from my years of anger. Sad, because I can be so good at it. Finding positive fruit from my anger proved impossible, but I had an easy time finding the sadness that anger had created.
This is why these words of warning from Yeshua are so meaningful and helpful, and needless to say, difficult. Yeshua is expanding and transforming our understanding of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall not murder.”
Anger is murder?
First, we recognize that Yeshua equates anger to murder. Isn’t this a stretch? Is being angry at someone really murdering them? Isn’t there a time and place for anger? Yeshua addresses all these questions. The heart of the matter is that Yeshua is forbidding ungodly anger. There is a time when we must be or we must get angry, but the question is, when?
The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry, and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” There is such a thing as righteous anger, and Yeshua exemplifies this for us when He enters the Temple in Jerusalem and turns over the tables of the money-changers; and, in Matthew 23 when He, speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, says, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…” correcting their behavior.
Righteous anger is this: telling the truth in love when we go astray of the Gospel. Being able to speak with righteous anger is not an issue of volume or adrenaline, but an issue of truth. Righteous anger is often a calm, even detached, response devoid of personal feeling. Truth does not demand our emotional involvement, as truth is able to stand on its own. No, the objective truth of heaven is not abrasive, but rather, gentle, matter of fact. Righteous anger is best defined as an anger not involving personal ego. Easy, of course, to write, much more difficult to practice.
Why this subject matter?
Why did Yeshua choose to teach on this subject? In ancient Near-Eastern societies anger was an accepted aspect of human life – and in the Law of Moses there is no command that addresses anger. Leviticus 19:17 explicitly states that we are not to hate our brother in our heart, but does not specifically address anger, but then the Torah commands to loving our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18) immediately after this prohibition. Rather than promoting anger as an accepted response in human life, the Torah is promoting the opposite – love, care and concern.
The outward act of ungodly anger erupts from an impure heart (Matt. 15:18-20). Messiah, particularly through the Sermon on the Mount, is directing us to a lifestyle of abstention from wicked thoughts leading to outward action destroying men’s lives. When the Torah, and Messiah, forbid by command we should be cautious to promote and walk in the opposite manner. In this case, anger – and either metaphorical or physical – murder. We should pursue, by the inner working of the Holy Spirit, to kindle right relationship with the human other. Not only is Messiah addressing ungodly anger in Matthew 5:21-22, but He will also address the failure to seek reconciliation (Matt. 5:23-26), and the subject of vengeance (Matt. 5:38-42), both equally as difficult to practice in human life.
Illness of the inward man.
For Yeshua, to kill with a knife, or to engage in character assassination through anger, or to belittle another by calling him “fool” is part and parcel of the same spiritual sickness. Sin. Clearly, He would make a distinction between gossip and stabbing with a knife, but He does mean that both activities reveal the same animosity of heart toward our neighbors, an animosity that needs correction.
Yeshua wants us to consider the effects of our anger on others; and how that can leave them with the feeling of great pain. He explains in three points.
- Anger should not be baseless. It should not be ungodly, and should not be a matter of positional convenience – you are not allowed to explode on someone because they are in close proximity to you. The aim of anger should not be the defeat or destruction of the person involved, but rather, a godly resolution – righteous anger (see above).
- We are to avoid demeaning speech, “Raca!” This literally means “empty one,” or “useless one,” which is an idiomatic expression for calling someone stupid. From my own history, I recall vividly, being called stupid by a teacher, not that I was being foolish or behaving stupidly, but that I was unable to learn. Those words, few in number, affected me negatively for many years.
- In anger, we should avoid saying to the human other, “You fool!” From the underlying Greek word we get our English word “moron.” There are certainly times when men are being “foolish,” and Yeshua noted this Himself (Matt. 23:17; Luke 12:20).
Yeshua is vividly explaining that we should not judge (Matt. 7:1, explained in a later article), in our anger, the whole person – his motives, his heart and ultimately his final destiny – we should not destroy, murder, or ruin someone’s life with our tongue.
A high standard.
Theologian Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes a rather rigid approach to this command and expects the disciple of Messiah to completely eliminate anger from the human personality, a feat that I am not entirely sure is possible. While anger is undesirable, and not a fruit of the Spirit, it is not the unpardonable sin. Yet, Bonhoeffer brings forward a very important point regarding anger and our position before the Lord when we are in anger that we should consider; he writes:
“When a man gets angry with his brother and swears at him, when he publicly insults or slanders him, he is guilty of murder and forfeits his relation to God. He erects a barrier not only between himself and his brother, but also between himself and God. He no longer has access to him: his sacrifice, worship and prayer are not acceptable in his sight. For the Christian, worship cannot be divorced from the service of the brethren, as it was with the rabbis. If we despise our brother our worship is unreal, and it forfeits every divine promise. When we come before God with hearts full of contempt and unreconciled with our neighbors, we are, both individually and as a congregation, worshipping an idol. So long as we refuse to love and serve our brother and make him an object of contempt and let him harbor a grudge against me or the congregation, our worship and sacrifice will be unacceptable to God.”
This is a high standard for sure, one that is difficult, but not impossible to reach – as we should be reconciled with brethren as much as we are able. We should not render a person unworthy, evil or not fit – this is the opposite course from the directive of the apostle Paul, that we, as disciples, should be building up the Body of Messiah.
No repentance needed.
A righteous anger, that does not lead us into sin needing to be repented of – as it is not an attack on the person, but a correction of their actions. As a matter of lifestyle, the apostle Paul explains, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Messiah forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God as dear children” (Eph. 4:31 – 5:1).
Messiah loved the money-changers, but He did not love their actions. He loved the scribes and Pharisees, but did not love their lifestyles. He corrected because He loved. And as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said so beautifully, “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
When I reflect on anger, I must ask myself, “What am I angry about? The trampling of His righteousness, or my ego?” If it be my ego, well, I’m supposed to be dead in Messiah, not alive in anger.
Shalom. Be well.