Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Concerning Anger (Matthew 5:21-26)
The Mathean antitheses form the backbone of Jesus as New Moses in the sermon on the mount. The original Moses on Mt Sinai gave the Law which was to essentially be the legislation of the nation of Israel. It dealt a great deal with outward righteousness because Israel was meant to be an example to all the nations.
Now, Jesus says that our righteousness must surpass that if we are ever to enter the kingdom of heaven. What will that involve? It is very simple really: what previously applied to actions, now applies also to the heart. Without more delay, the words of Jesus:
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (vv. 21-22)
Jesus reiterates that killing is unlawful, but that's not enough. The new righteousness goes beyond that to say that whoever is angry with his brother sins also ("shall be liable to judgement"). Let me side track for a moment to give a very important comment: "brother" corresponds always in the gospel according to St Matthew, as far as I can tell, to fellow members of the Church, fellow Christians. This is perhaps unfortunate for those who want to use the very strong words of Jesus in chapter 25 to be about general social justice, and I count myself among them (though this is hardly the only text that makes this point), but it does lead to an interesting issue: if this is the case, then St Matthew is portraying Jesus as somewhat anachronistic, saying things that do not yet make sense. Very well, since Jesus is aware of what will happen after his resurrection, and knows that he will found the Church, it is not in the slightest unreasonable to suggest that Jesus can speak beforehand what will soon be in effect. The interesting part is that the idea that "all this stuff is essentially pre-cross and corresponds to the Old Testament" also has to be denied, because that is an appeal to the timing of his words, and yet we have just granted that Jesus speaks of post-cross events in talking of the Church. Even chapter 25 itself will make this point, whether you think brother is Christian or not, but I think it should be outlined first here.
Back to the passage, Jesus speaks about degree of consequences: liability to judgement of some sort for anger at a brother, liability to a council for insulting him, and liability to the fires of hell for saying, "You fool!" What does this hierarchy imply if not that some sins are worse than others, and hence carry larger consequences than others? We should therefore treat the hierarchy properly.
It is interesting to note that hell and council judgement have a very similar antecedent: I have heard that saying "you fool" was far worse then than it is now, and that seems to fit this, so due to lack of knowledge, I will have to defer to others.
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. (vv. 23-25)
There's an issue that Jesus addresses here in the first antithesis, and that is, what if we do anger or insult our brother? What then? The Mosaic Law had very specific guidelines for what to do in cases of each sin. He does not propose another sacrifice of a lamb or turtle dove - the sacrifice he requires is much greater. We are to swallow any pride and go reconcile ourselves to our brother, and then come and give our offering. The offering we give nowadays could be understood sort of symbolically as the living sacrifice that we offer to God, as seen in Romans 12, but more concretely it refers to the Eucharist. In the liturgy of the Eucharist we offer up Christ, and I think Jesus instructs us to reconcile ourselves to our brethren before thence. Beyond that though, in partaking directly of the Eucharist, we participate most prominently in the offering, and in doing so in such a state (more generally and commonly known as "state of mortal sin") we run the risk of what Jesus says next:
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. (v. 25)
So what consequences could come? In a word, judgement. That judgement will be just, for Jesus says that ever last penny shall be paid - there is no longer any leeway once the matter is taken to the judge and the guard. Far better then to settle the matter quickly with one's brother before things escalate out of proportion.
I mentioned the liturgy once, let me do it once again, because it is one of the most beautifully rich things the Church offers. Here Jesus calls for reconciliation before the offering, and this is what is represented in the liturgy with the penitential rite, the offering of the sign of peace and the Our Father. First, we confess our sins to God "and to you my brothers and sisters." This is the first step in reconciliation. Later, we offer each other the sign of peace, which is both a real desire for peace with the other, but also a sort of peace treaty, in that we extend the invitation for reconciliation. Later still we pray the Our Father, which I will comment on soon, but it suffices to remind that one of the lines is "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" - either we are asking to be set as the standard for forgiveness, or we are actually acknowledging the fact of the matter which is that we have already forgiven those who sin against us. Then comes the Eucharist.