You have heard that it was said…

Epiphany 6A – Matthew 5:21-27

In my second year of school at Wake Divinity my Christian Ethics class was discussing whether or not war could ever be considered “just.” About halfway through the discussion the conversation turned to the Civil Rights Movement as an example of “just war,” and that’s when the conversation got heated. Some students in the class didn’t understand how the Civil Rights Movement could be considered a war. Other students didn’t understand how it could be considered anything but. Emotions ran high due to the deeply personal nature of the argument and the longer it went on my classmates got angrier and angrier.

Talking turned to yelling, people talked over one another rather than hearing what each individual had to say. Comments turned personal, name calling started….and then the class period ended. Friends parted ways furious at one another, many left in tears. Others were so surprised at how quickly the conversation had devolved that they were left wondering how we even got to where we were. Relationships were left broken, tension was left unresolved, and no one knew how we’d continue when we met again two days later.

Our Gospel reading this morning continues Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which we’ve been reading from for the past three weeks now. Today we hear Jesus repeat three of the Ten Commandments that Moses handed down from God to the Israelites, in ancient times.  Jesus reminds those gathered that God has instructed God’s people not to murder, to not commit adultery, and not to swear falsely, but Jesus doesn’t just stop with naming the law. Instead he delves deeper, digging into anger, which has the potential to breed the violence the Commandments condemn.  

It’s important to note upfront that Jesus isn’t saying that anger is inherently a negative emotion.  In fact, we find instances throughout the bible where both God and Jesus each experience anger. Anger is a deeply profound and complex emotion within the human experience, and Jesus acknowledges that. Jesus’ concern isn’t so much focused on the experience of anger, so much as what we do with that anger. Martin Luther also talked about the importance of anger when he said “I find nothing that promotes work better than angry fervor. For when I wish to compose, write, pray and preach well, I must be angry. It refreshes my entire system, my mind is sharpened, and all unpleasant thoughts and depression fade away.”  Anger can fuel a hunger and thirst for justice and bring about change. Jesus’ teaching here revolves around the consequences of unresolved anger, the kind of anger that leaves life giving relationships in shattered pieces. Jesus addresses the fact that that sort of unresolved and unchecked anger can indeed develop into the violence, which only shatters the bonds of community further. This would likely have hit Zealot hearers particularly hard, since Zealots were often excessively and even needlessly violent in their protests against the empire.

But is that the only possible end result for anger? Of course not! Jesus also teaches non-violent conflict resolution in this text. After Jesus names unresolved anger as the source of violence he immediately starts teaching the process for how to resolve broken relationships with loved ones within the community. Jesus calls for self-reflection. Telling his hearers to be vigilant for when conflict and anger arise. This includes acknowledging when we act out inappropriately in anger and taking responsibility for that. Jesus then instructs his listeners to go take action to immediately address experiences of conflict, before they get worse.  This involves both parties talking to, rather than at one another, and more importantly listening to what the other party has to say, listening for their own experience before any response is made.  

It’s important to note too that Jesus’s words on divorce stem from an understanding of marriage from a time when women were considered property. If a man divorced his spouse, she would have no choice but to remarry in order to be supported in her society. A man could also divorce at a whim, and Jesus is declaring that this unfair power dynamic is not okay. It is not okay that women, or indeed any partner be viewed upon solely as an object of lust, property for the other. I want to be very clear. Jesus is not condoning harmful relationships. Emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual violence fractures relationship with God and one another just as much as murder. My dear friend Rev. Emmy Kegler reflects in this way:

What have you heard was said about divorce? We have heard that it was said,’If you divorce for any reason, you have committed adultery. But in Christ we say: When someone is bound by law in a system of abuse, neglect, and violence, we do not leave them suffering. We proclaim freedom. We recognize the end of a marriage can be the beginning of healing. We choose life. We choose love.”

Rev. Emmy Kegler

Sometimes, ending a relationship is the healthiest form of reconciliation.

That reconciliation must start from a place of mutual respect, regardless of the relationship. Jesus tells his hearers “If you insult a brother or a sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” An alternative translation for “hell of fire” is Gehenna, which was an actual place located to the southwest of Jerusalem. Gehenna was thought to be Jerusalem’s garbage dump, where the refuse of the city was burned, providing vivid imagery for the charred destruction anger can leave relationships in, when left unresolved. Resorting to name calling and disrespect is in no way conducive to reconciliation, and as a result Jesus has strong words to say about it.

   Remember, Jesus got angry too, but throughout his life and ministry he illustrates for his hearers and for us how to channel that anger positively. At the start of his sermon Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and Jesus sought to live that out by example, listening to the unheard every step of the way. With Jesus as our guide, the next time my Ethics class met we decided as a group to postpone the assigned topic and to process the unhealthy dialogue engaged the previous class. We named the anger and that it was handled inappropriately. We processed how the conversation devolved into a screaming match, feelings of personal attack were named, acknowledged, and then apologized for. After that my classmates and I established rules for healthy dialogue in the class and beyond, as we continued to engage in deeply personal conversations. Those rules started with mutual respect as the foundation. That experience became central to the mission of my graduating class, who experienced the most growing pains as we diversified the school both racially and theologically, and that anger ended up transforming rather than destroying our bonds of friendship. It  made us, according to numerous professors, the most tight knit class to come out of that program.

I can tell you from experience that the work is difficult. It requires a lot of time and a diligent effort from both sides of a conflict in order to work. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it all on our own. Not only is Jesus’ example readily available for us, but our dependence on God’s presence and guidance permeates our baptism, where we are brought into God’s loving community through sacramental waters. During baptism we respond to baptismal promises, or our parents and godparents do on our behalf if we’re too young to do so, saying “I will and I ask God to help and guide me.” The promise to lean into God’s guidance is affirmed again and again throughout our lives. We repeat these promises at Confirmation. I spoke these exact words four weeks ago as I made my Ordination Vows. Part of the inherent nature of an ever-changing community is conflict between its members, our siblings in Christ. Yet when that does happen Jesus’ words and actions give us a way so that even when anger arises relationships are capable of being built stronger than before, when we remember to lean into those baptismal promises, trusting God to help and guide us.

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