You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court and whoever says, ' You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.(Matthew 5: 21-24 – NAS)
Jesus consistently addresses our inner lives when it comes to the consequences of following God’s laws. The meticulous behavior of the scribes and Pharisees in His day, where they strove to abide by every stricture of action, gave Him plenty of fodder to criticize. They followed the letter of the Law but were totally divorced from the spirit of it.
That is why in this passage He is so emphatic.
Everyone can easily agree that murder is not a good thing, that if you commit murder, you can and should be hauled to court and punished. By murdering someone you have stolen that person’s life, removed everything he might have accomplished, everything she might have given. We understand that much.
But Jesus pushes it further. He says it is not enough that we understand that truth. It goes deeper. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court.”
Is Jesus really equating being angry at a sibling with murder? That is certainly what it looks like, especially since He elaborates on that statement, adding two more examples.
Why does this matter so much, we wonder? Because anyone who has had siblings knows how easy it is to get into fights with that brother or sister.
Jesus is not talking about the flashes of friction that spark up due to close proximity. He is talking about the type of passionate anger that we can carry around with us day in and day out. He is talking about the kind of anger that makes us refuse to look even our closest relative in the face. This is the type of anger that even if it does not turn to active violence, it pulls out the verbal weapons and with every conversation makes cutting jabs at the heart of the sibling. “You worthless idiot!” “You incompetent!” “I wish you’d never been born!”
Most of us do not have defenses against our immediate family. Our emotions, our hearts, our very souls are laid bare to them because they are family, bone of our bones. Even when it is a family of adoption, these are the people that share the air we breathe, who eat from the same dishes. Our very nature is to give our families our total trust (whether or not as individuals they deserve or have earned it). God designed us to love and trust our families.
But in this fallen world, even those closest to us can do us great damage. Because they are so close, because our defenses are not raised against our family, the wounds they can inflict are the worst.
Most people have been on the receiving end of some sort of wound inflicted by a family member, whether intentionally or not. We carry the memory of those injuries with us wherever we go. And when the wounds have been words spoken in anger, words that cut away our sense of identity, our sense of self-worth, we have a hard time recovering from that.
So we have all suffered from this sort of anger.
But do we remember when we ourselves have lashed out?
How easy it is to say harsh things to our siblings (of blood or of choice – for that is what our close friends are, siblings-of-choice), especially when we are angry or irritated with them. But anger, once indulged that way, can take root in our own hearts and minds, becoming a toxic venom that we can inject into even casual conversation without realizing it. Anger breeds contempt in our souls, and contempt sneaks into our words with tiny dismissals and belittlements. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Why should I listen to you?” “Don’t start up with that again. I don’t want to hear it one more time.” When we stop looking at the face of our sibling, when we start plugging our ears when our sibling speaks, we are behaving as if they are of no value. We are killing them in our hearts, behaving as if they are dead to us.
“Oh, no! I don’t do that! You must be mistaken, Lord!”
But we all do it. And we all ignore it. And we go before the Lord in worship, only vaguely thinking of seemingly minor clashes we’ve had with those close to us. But surely they weren’t important. Worship is important, right? Do that first.
What we forget when we choose to let anger and disagreements ride is that every individual is precious to God. And that includes the person we are angry with.
From God’s point of view, as He looks down upon us coming into worship with unresolved conflicts in our hearts, He sees someone who doesn’t care about what God values, but only about what that worshiper values. He sees His wounded child that we’ve left outside somewhere, bleeding and losing strength. And we’re not even thinking about that person. They’re not important to us.
And we expect God to love and favor us when we treat our siblings with contempt. Just how foolish can we be?
But Jesus doesn’t leave us there. He points out that the remedy is within our power. He says, “If you know your brother has something against you,” do something about it. I have always loved the way this is expressed, for He captures the point that the conflict goes in both directions at once. “If your brother has something against you” can be both your brother’s anger against you that is wounding you and your anger against your brother that is causing you to wound him. It doesn’t matter “who started it.” It matters that the anger and wounding are there. And Jesus doesn’t say “Go back and win the argument.” He says “Go and reconcile yourself with your brother.”
Reaching reconciliation is no easy thing, of course. It’s not about winning an argument or making a point. It is about restoring balance between two people. That can mean forgiving the person for injuries they didn’t even know they’d inflicted. It is not about being a doormat for the other person to walk on, but rather about doing what you can to cleanse your own wounds and whatever wounds you might have inflicted on someone else.
God waits for us to come before Him. And He knows that many times we may come with open, bleeding injuries. Those He can heal. But if we have let festering wounds scab over, leaving rotting flesh underneath, or if we are engaged in delivering little stabbing cuts to the brother standing in front of us, those are not circumstances that please Him.
Reconcile with family first, for those angers are the most deadly.