The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as a Teacher as well as a healer. He fulfills this role in a particular way in the 5th to the 8th chapters of the gospel, which describe him going up a mountain, sitting down and calling his followers to come around him, and then beginning to teach them. We know this lengthy part of the Matthew’s Gospel as the Sermon on the Mount.
His teachings begin with the promise that those who listen and follow what he has to say will be blessed. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, those who suffer persecution…” There are blessings, beatitudes, that we receive by following his teaching.
Now, the values he teaches not only make us better people, but they make the world better. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. The world is better when we act his way, he says; it’s filled with light and more alive.
Jesus says his teaching is not totally new. In his Sermon on the Mount he assures his followers that he’s following teachers and prophets before him. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mt 5, 17)
Yet, he says he understands the law better than the teachers before him understood it. He will also fulfill that law better than the prophets before him did.
The first law he comments on in the Sermon on the Mount is one we might not expect. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” That’s a basic commandment: “Don’t kill people.” “You shall not kill.” Life is God’s first gift. God gives life, God nourishes and sustains life, and it’s for God to take life away.
People through history have recognized the great value of life itself. It’s wrong to take the life of another human being by murder or violence. The reason it’s wrong is because murder and violence destroy what God has made and what God cares for and what God loves. Murder is a capital offense in our system of justice; the murderer has to be brought to justice.
We rejoiced this week when we saw violence avoided in Egypt; thousands of lives could have been lost in that volatile situation. If that country evolves in a non-violent way–we pray it does– it will be a wonderful sign to the rest of the world that war and violence are not the only way to bring about change.
Yet Jesus did not stop with the command not to kill. “I say to you, whoever is angry with a brother or sister will be liable to judgment.” Murder and violence are not the only ways that take away life. Anger also does it.
What does Jesus mean when he condemns anger against others? He certainly does not mean that anger itself is wrong. He was angry at times, the gospels report. Anger is a neutral emotion which often provides the impetus to confront evil and to do something hard that has to be done.
The scenes from Egypt this week showed us angry crowds taking to the streets to overthrow an unjust government. Anger gave them the power to resist before the prospects of a harsh suppression.
Yet, when they succeeded, their anger turned to joy and celebration. They had won.
The anger Jesus condemns is an anger that continues and does not end. It’s an anger that doesn’t forgive, that lasts, poisoning the one who holds on to it and killing the one it’s directed at.
It’s an anger without patience or respect. It refuses to leave anything to God. We must beware of an anger like that.