For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
In the passage today of which our reading is a part, Jesus gives six examples of the greater righteousness he came to fulfill. The first example is in regard to the law against murder. With each of these examples Jesus gets right to the heart of the issue. Jesus in effect says, "It is not enough just to be able to say that you have never murdered anyone. If you have even been angry with someone else then you have broken the law."
The scribes tried to protect the Jewish people from insulting one another by maintaining that anyone who said "raca" to someone else, which is an Aramaic word of contempt meaning something like "blockhead", that person would be answerable to the Sanhedrin. But Jesus makes the command even stronger. He maintains that if you even say to someone, "You fool!" then you will be subject to the fires of hell.
I think if I were to ask for a show of hands revealing how many of us have been guilty of what Jesus condemns here, then every one of us who was honest and discerning about ourselves would have our hands up in the air. As N. T. Wright has said, "If part of human maturity is learning how to recognize your anger, and deal with it before it gets out of control, we have to conclude that most of us are not very mature."
Jesus urges us here to make proper dealing with anger a high priority. He recognizes that we are going to get angry. Jesus recognizes that we will have anger that will cause disruption in relationships and even, in some instances, land us in court. Jesus' solution to this problem is simple: deal with your anger quickly. Paul offers the same solution in Ephesians 4:26-27, “‘In your anger do not sin’: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”
Jesus says, "Look, if you are going to worship and suddenly remember that a brother has something against you, go first and be reconciled to your brother, then come and worship." Jesus was talking here about worship in the temple and offering a gift on the altar in Jerusalem. His followers were all from Galilee. So if they imagined themselves in this circumstance they would get the point that Jesus was telling them to go all the way back home to Galilee and get right with their brother or sister first, then return to Jerusalem. Jesus was telling an exaggerated story to make a point: GETTING RIGHT WITH OTHERS SHOULD TAKE PRIORITY EVEN OVER WORSHIP! Even if we have to travel a long way to make things right with a brother, it is worth it. For after all, we cannot worship the Lord properly when we are not right with others.
Then Jesus gives another example. Suppose your anger has gotten you into so much trouble with someone else that this other person is taking you to court. Jesus says, "Don't let it get that far. Settle the matter with your adversary even before you get to court."
In each of these examples Jesus is urging us to see that the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. We must deal with anger in our hearts in order to live in a right relationship to God. How can we deal with the problem of the heart? It seems impossible. But Jesus makes it possible. He dealt with anger in the right way. He took the anger of his enemies upon himself and died under the weight of it on the cross. He too can take our anger and vanquish its power through the cross.
Immediately prior to the presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980, columnist George Will happened upon Carter's debate notes and secretly divulged them to the Reagan campaign. Many people felt like Reagan won that debate, and of course he went on to win the presidency, thus driving Carter from office.
Years later Carter was teaching about forgiveness in a Sunday school class. In preparation for that class he searched his own mental catalog to see if there was someone he had never forgiven. Carter immediately thought of George Will. In an effort to deal with that resentment quickly, as Jesus teaches us to do, Carter wrote him a note. As he did that, Carter tried to think of something he had in common with George Will. He thought of a book Will had written about baseball. Carter went out and was able to buy the book for a dollar. He read the book and then finished writing the note to George Will. He told George that he had a feeling of resentment toward him, that he found his book delightful, and that he hoped they would become permanently reconciled.
George Will, in turn, wrote Carter a nice, humorous note. He said his only regret was that Carter hadn't paid full price for his book!
That just goes to show, anyone can get angry, but it takes a person of integrity to pursue reconciliation. And only Jesus can help us to deal with our anger and resentment in the right way.