Anger is a living hell that we all experience. Look around, our world is increasingly experiencing greater and more lasting bouts of anger. Is that you? Do you have a quick temper? Does anger take a long time to fade, or do you quietly turn your anger inward? If so, this weeks post offers healing but like most people you probably won’t like the solution.
Before we dive into the text, I must warn you about some tripwires. Most of our preconditioned frameworks (into which we put these words) will produce a gravitational pull that, if not careful, will derail us into an unhelpful rut. I’m referring to our framework for Hell. If we import a modern American evangelical framework, then Dantés Inferno (not scripture) will place us into a binary quagmire where extraction is nearly impossible. The result of this tripwire is to blame, threaten and oppress modern people into an unobtainable level of behavior compliance. The result are some of the most angry “nice” people we’ll ever meet.
For the sake of this series, I must briefly remind you that Gahenna (Greek word translated as Hell) is NOT referring to Hollywood or rock music’s grasp of Hell-which ironically is the Hell most Christians prefer. The biblical “hell” (Gahenna) is known as the Valley of Hinnon, which is a region south of the city of Jerusalem, used as the city dump. Refuge and trash were burned, all things were discarded, and the only people who lived there with the wild dogs (gnashing teeth) were society’s most marginalized rejects. To live outside the city walls in the smelly, fiery dump was the lowest and most lost a person could be. It was a life of pure suffering. This is the cultural and biblical understanding of Hell. Jesus is not referring to an eternal destination.
(If you would like to learn more about what the bible actually says regarding Hell, please visit my website for an entire series where I explore many biblical idioms.)
With that in mind, let’s examine the text: (Matthew 5:21-26)
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 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. Come to terms 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 until you have paid the last penny.
We saw last week that Jesus is not “katakuow”–completely invalidating the law, but is instead “plerow”–giving it true meaning. This is the theme for all of these texts which like this one compare what the religious law (10 commandments) says with how Jesus reframes (“but I say”) it in order to give it true meaning.
I think we all grasp that murder is a no-no. Murder is the most devaluing a person can be to another. Murder is “otherness” without brakes. It is the result of binary thinking when “us versus them” is carried out to its final conclusion. Murder is dismembering another by not considering the whole, but only the part. Nearly every moral system (religious or otherwise) is against murder, and while murder is a constant in our society, most people can lay claim to having never killed anyone. Our standard is pretty low.
We must go beyond this. This is why the law needs true meaning.
Jesus’ approach is that we examine our internal motivations. Murder then is the blossom stemming from the seed of anger which lives in all of us. On the inside, we are all (“henoxos“-guilty/deserving/liable) responsible, exposing how our anger and name calling are deserving of the same punishment as murder. Since no real society gives the death penalty for name calling, what is Jesus’ point?
Modern religion loves this sermon because it exposes our moral culpability. So preachers queue up the “clean-up” gospel message which comprises our total failure being washed by Jesus’ soap (blood). God murdering his son, to clean up murders and name callers alike. Was Jesus really trying to get people to turn to God by showing us how hopeless and degenerate we actually are? That’s the storyline my pastors all taught me. Probably you too.
I’ve concluded that Jesus is NOT making a power play for converts. Again, this sermon predates Christianity so the audience is diverse-all comers. Jesus isn’t starting a new religion, he’s bringing “true meaning” to all of them by revealing how murder, just like anger is dis-integration. Anger is the by-product of seeing two things rather than just one. It is a lack of integration. Anger is the prison of living in a binary framework. Anger is the dark emotion of “otherness.” We want anger, because it makes us feel like we are right. It masks over our vulnerabilities, embarrassments, weakness, poor behavior, and low awareness. Anger allows us to avoid the light of truth and live in the darkness. Anger keeps us from feeling anything but itself.
Unlike modern pastors, Jesus’ antidote to anger is not to run to God, join a religion, or say some prayer. In fact, Jesus tells us that doing those things only prohibits our healing because it allows us to imagine that God is somehow other than the person with whom we are angry. The solution to our anger is so easy and yet so very, very hard. We are not to run to God, but toward our enemy. It’s up to us to go to the person, not with whom we are angry, but he or she who is angry with us.
Jesus shows that the path to God was not the temple, it is first toward our enemy. In fact, the true meaning that he exposes here is that none of our religion, our pomp, practice or righteousness is worth anything to God if we have division between us. Two must become one: unity. True meaning is that we cannot love God if we do not love others. God cannot be closer to us than we are to our enemy. This is how religion has lied to us. It has sold us the untruth that otherness is acceptable to God, who is One, so long as we execute our performances.
It’s easier to go to church than to go to those we’ve offended. In fact we can celebrate Easter, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, and rise up the ranks of the religious all while having something against each other. Jesus would just shake his head at an angry mob of religious people marching against “those people.” How far off the mark can we possibly be? Jesus reveals that so-called believers are actually unbelievers.
It’s not just religious people here. Remember this is for all comers. Most of us find it easier to go to work, or go away than it is to seek peace with those who we’ve diminished. You want True Meaning? Want to be free from anger? Well, the good news is you don’t have to get religion, but the severe news is that we will have to be honest and act in a way that is counter to every impulse in our life. Look behind our anger. It’s all ego, pride, selfishness and self-pity. Turns out that unbelievers are also unbelievers.
What do you know, we are not that different. We are all, on our best day only partial believers. I’m no better than you. You are no better than me. We each only posses partial truth and stand in various proximity to it. As we come together we progress as one not as individuals. Unity by proximity to the truth.
This is what Jesus means by being peacemakers (The chiasm of v.9) and in doing so, we will become the sons and daughters of God. This is transformation, not religious transaction. This is liberty from the tyranny of a living in anger. As I showed, Hell is the ultimate separation from the safety of the city walls. Anger is that inner experience that separates us from each other. Anger is a living Hell and religion along with all institutions produce plenty of it. If we would avoid the fires of Hell the path is first toward our enemy. Peace with those most unlike you is the same as internal peace.
No wonder most people went away sad and disappointed in Jesus. Most of us would rather live in hell than be loving, gracious, or to include “those people.” We set up walls, rules and requirements to make “them” one of “us” never realizing that while we were striving to find heaven, our righteous anger is creating a living hell, not only for ourselves, but the world around.
It’s time we take a step toward our enemy, not only because it is right, but because its our first step toward God. It’s the only step that will free us from our anger.