Let’s start with verse 20, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Last week I said that this verse is the key to how we in the 21st Century are supposed to live out the law. With this verse, Jesus challenges us not to do more righteous activities than the Pharisees, but to have a righteousness that is deeper than the Pharisees possessed.
What is needed is a righteousness that results in a permanent change in our heart and attitudes...a righteousness that transforms us in the core of our being...that is the righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the pharisees...Not a righteousness enforced by a set or rules, regulations, and laws, but one that springs up from a transformed heart!
Jeremiah 31:33 says the purpose of the Messiah was to place the Law of God in our minds and on our hearts. It says, ““I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”He will put His law in our minds and write it on our hearts...a law that comes from the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us...not mandated obedience to an external code of conduct. Obedience to an exterior law or set of moral conduct codes is not what He wants anyway. In order for this to be real...in order for this to be genuine...we have to live God’s law from here...out of a transformed character.
Last week, near the end of the sermon I said, “The sins you can’t see are often more dangerous to our spiritual lives than the sins you can see.” And with today’s message we begin looking at some of those deep, internal sins God wants to get rid of in our lives.
Let’s be very clear and honest right here at the beginning...God is setting the bar high....VERY high. So high that it may seem impossible! G.K. Chesterton once wrote, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." No where is that more true than when we study the Sermon on the Mount and specifically the section we are begin today.
As we start this section, there a few things we must accept as a foundation...
God says we can live this out...so we can live this out. God does not call us to something He is unwilling or unable to help us reach. He doesn’t say it will be easy or immediate...but we are called to reach for these high standards.
God does not expect us to get it perfect...so we don’t give up. Many begin the journey of faith, see this level of morality, attempt to live it out, and discover that it is amazingly difficult and they fail...so they give up. Jesus is not preaching this sermon with no offer of grace...grace is a given. We fail, but we get back up and get moving again.
God gives us the tools to live this out...so we keep depending on Him. First He gives us the Holy Spirit who works to transform our hearts. Second, He gives us the spiritual disciplines (Scripture, prayer, fasting, serving, worship, community) to help us grow in our transformation.
We will only be able to obey because God transforms our hearts, and we do our part by resisting temptation, practicing the spiritual disciplines, and inviting the Holy Spirit’s presence into our lives.
So let’s look at today’s passage...
“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.’ 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 court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
“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. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
“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.’”
This was a commonly understood law of the day. Of course you don’t murder. We have the same law. You don’t murder someone...seem easy enough.
But Jesus takes it a step further and says, “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Jesus moves beyond the letter of the law which brings judgment on the act of murder and says the emotion which, if left unchecked, leads to murder...yeah, that is wrong too, and brings God’s judgment. And not just anger...but words and names that degrade and insult the humanity of others...Raca...You Fool...that’s wrong as well and brings God judgment.
To help us understand this section let’s look at a few things...
In Greek, Jesus had several words for anger to choose from. He did not choose the word Thymos. This is an anger that flares up toward a person for something they have done, but fades and goes away.
Someone comes into the room, talking loudly while you are trying to hear something on television...the anger flares up and you yell “Shut up!” That is Thymos anger. It flares up, but you won’t hold on to it for long...usually.
Jesus is also not anger at a situation or injustice. You see something wrong around you and it makes you angry.
The anger Jesus is describing is relational in nature, but it’s a deep anger toward a person. Jesus uses a very specific word for anger that means a brooding, simmering anger. This is the anger we hold on to...nurture...feed and lovingly care for...because we want to be angry at the person.
Let me show you an example of this anger...Waterboy
Coach called it tackling fuel...but this was a brooding, simmering anger that is, at its core, the seed of murder.
And it is this anger that leads us to say “Raca” or “You fool!” to our brothers or sisters.
“anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
If you are like me you have never said, “Raca!” to anyone. I may have said “Don’t be foolish!” But I don’t recall ever calling someone a fool. These words of insult are really very foreign to our culture...but their root intention is not. These insults...Raca...You fool...are meant to malign the character of another person.
This isn’t about telling the truth about someone’s character or even disagreeing strongly with someone’s position on something. No, this is about the seed of anger that makes us willing to say things that put another person’s character in question. It is rooted in an anger so strong we are willing murder another person’s character with our words.
Need some modern-day examples of how to say “Raca” and “You fool!” to others? Watch partisan political discourse...both sides are willing to say just about anything about the other party and twist their words to make their listeners believe all kinds of things about their opponent. They will selectively use sound bites and rip quotes out of context to help their followers make an “informed” decision.
Read the comments section of any online article about religion. Exclude the ones made by atheists and others with a religious ax to grind, and just look at the ones made by Christians toward other commenters. They are full of this anger.
When we harbor this kind of anger affects our relationships with others, and therefore affects our relationship with God.
In our society, Christians are known more for what they are against than for who they love and who they serve. And I think it finds its root in this anger. Jesus understood that anger stands in the way of our relationships, and when we are not right with our fellow man...we can’t be right with God.
Jesus says, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
“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. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
These are two very common examples from Jesus’ day. Someone worshipping at the altar and someone being taken to court for an unpaid debt in a time when people were imprisoned until they could pay. Both demonstrate how our relationships with others affect our relationship with God.
A person is offering their gift at the altar in Jerusalem, and remember that someone has something against them. That part stood out to me as I read this passage...it doesn’t say that you remember that you have something against someone else...you have to take care of that within yourself and with God...it says, “you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you...”
To the best of our ability, we have the responsibility to be reconciled with others. If our actions have caused this anger in someone else, we are to leave our gift at the altar, travel back to our homeland, and make amends to the best of our ability...then God will accept our offering.
For Jesus’ listeners this was crazy-talk; for a different reason than it is for us. Jesus is talking about a person who has made four day walking journey from Galilee to Jerusalem to make their offering in the Temple...they realize that someone has a just claim against them...they pack up and travel four days back...make amends...and then travel another four days back to Jerusalem to finally make their offering.
For us, the reason Jesus sounds crazy, is we are tempted to think, “If that person has a problem with me...that is their problem; not mine!” And while we can’t be concerned about every little action and how that makes others feel...we are responsible to make amends for any legitimate claim against us. This passage is clear that the person has a legitimate claim against the person trying to worship. If we have done things that have legitimately caused this anger in others...we are responsible to make amends with them before our offering is accepted.
Their objections as well as our is met with Jesus saying, “No expense is too great!” The time and expense of travel is more worshipful than their sacrifice if that expense heals an anger. Swallowing our pride and asking for forgiveness for an offense is worth it if it heals an anger in our brother or sister.
We often like to think of our relationship with God in strictly private terms. I am saved. I will ask for forgiveness. I need to get things right with God...But God continually reminds us that our relationship with Him is dependent on our relationship with others...especially where anger is involved.
1 John 4:20-21 says, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”
I had just started as the youth pastor at a church, and I discovered that one woman was going to give me problems. She had served as the interim youth leader between the previous youth pastor and me, and when I came, she was unwilling to give up the leadership of the group. She needed to be needed and teenagers love their youth pastors. So she received all the validation she could want. She didn’t like the hard work of planning and being responsible and being the bad guy...but she liked being liked and being everyone’s friend and hearing their problems. As interim youth leader she didn’t have to do any of the long-term hard work of being their pastor. And now that I was there...she loved that I took over the planning stuff and doing the hard part, but I became the enemy when the kids started talking to me about their problems instead of her. I was the one taking them away from her.
Things continued to simmer until I noticed they were simmering in me. I was angry with her. I despised seeing her at church. I wanted nothing to do with her. That’s when my pastor stepped in and gave me an assignment. My assignment was to pray for her...not for her to choke...I mean change, but to pray that God would bless her and her family. That He would be at work in her life for the good.
I don’t know if the prayers worked for her, but they certainly worked on me. I was soon loosing my grip on the anger that was inside of me, and realizing that while I may be right about the issues, I was wrong about my anger. Only then was I able to ask for God’s forgiveness, and only then was I able to live by this command we are talking about today. I couldn’t do it on my own. It was only through the work of the Holy Spirit in my life and practicing the spiritual disciplines as God gave them that I was able to work through this issue...that time.
Anger still crops up. I find myself having to let go of anger at others, but the more I practice letting it go...the more I am able to let it go.
If we allow this anger to take root and grow inside us it builds. We become not only angry at the original person, but also at others. The anger spreads, and we find ourselves angry at everyone and everything.
This morning, isn’t it time to let that anger go. It starts with acknowledging we have the anger, that it is wrong, and that we need to let it go. You may need someone else to tell you you are harboring the anger...isn’t it funny that we often don’t see it in ourselves...or at least we lie to ourselves and refuse to accept it...either way. We must address the issue of anger in our lives if our relationship with God is to be made whole.
Once we acknowledge the anger, we repent and God’s grace and forgiveness floods into our lives.
We may need to go back and make amends with someone.
And just because we confess it to God and ask forgiveness doesn’t mean the anger will leave immediately and we will be ok. We will need to spend time in prayer and in God’s Word allowing it to soak in and change us in order to be free from the anger that has had its claws in us for so long. This is part of the righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees.