Inner Life

Anger management in the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus had a clear message for our social media-enflamed "outrage culture".

By Anthea McCall

July 6 2016In case you somehow missed it, recently a four-year-old boy climbed into a 200 kilogram gorilla’s enclosure. The Cincinnati Zoo then killed the beloved 17-year-old silverback, Harambe, sparking an outcry. The zoo was immediately blamed for inadequate fencing. There were angry demands for the prosecution of the child’s parents for failing to watch him. Animal rights activists were criticised for valuing the animal over human life. Vet scientists copped it for not inventing an instant tranquilizing dart. Even the child was blamed for being disobedient.

While there are certainly situations, such as world events and injustices, where outrage is an appropriate response, the anger and blaming in our culture is quite disturbing. Fuelled by 24 hour news channels and amplified by social media, every day there is something new to be outraged about. We can shake our heads at such stories and the vicious attacks into which they often escalate, and thank God we are not like those people. We may well admit to tooting our horns in anger on the road, or swearing at drivers. But surely there is a difference between a bit of fuming, and committing violence!

Yet in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks directly into this situation (Matt 5:21-26). He is speaking hundreds of years before the term “outrage culture” was coined. And yet Jesus’ words about anger are so relevant to the experiences we face in our everyday relationships, and to the verbal canings we find on Facebook. What Jesus says in this passage is extremely challenging.

It’s important to remember the background. Just as Moses went up onto Mt Sinai and told Israel how to live, so Jesus is teaching his disciples how they should live. Yet Jesus is not abolishing the Old Testament laws. He has come to fulfil them (Matt 5:17). Jesus is showing the trajectory of the OT law, and deliberately setting it in contrast with the teaching of the religious leaders of his day, leaders who had added their own laws and interpretations to the OT. And so Jesus’ teaching takes the form of six contrasts. You know the formula: “You have heard it said… But I say…”. So in verse 21 Jesus lays out the well-known OT commandment “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment’.” So far, so good. But what he says next is quite stunning: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment”. Jesus is more than just some wise teacher. He is speaking as God’s son, and showing, on behalf of God, the full extent of the Law.

This command not to murder is not just restricted to wrong actions – killing people – but it also applies to our angry words, even thoughts. We may not actually commit murder. But we want to. Jesus knows that our minds are sometimes full of murderous anger, which can spill out of our mouths to insult a sister or a brother and call them a fool. God cares if we kill another person. But Jesus teaches that he also cares if we abuse people with our tongues, or if we store up resentment in our hearts.

We can’t just tick the box and say “Well, I haven’t killed anyone”. I’m OK. No, Jesus says that fulfilling the commandment goes much further. It’s about guarding our actions, and also our words and thoughts. Jesus is working beyond just our external actions to what’s deep inside, to the things we say and even our very thoughts. He is addressing what is in the very heart of a person that drives them to commit the act of murder. In doing so Jesus gets to the nub of the problem, and so extends culpability beyond the external action to our words and our thoughts.

And that creates a problem! It’s one thing to bring a person to trial for murder. And you might be able to bring people to trial for the things they say – if they are loud enough or offend the wrong people. But how do you prosecute a person for angry thoughts? What Jesus has in mind here is God’s judgment, rather than the judgment of the human courts. You might never be tried for angry words or thoughts against a person, but God cares about those things and will judge us for them.

But Jesus has even more to say. It is not enough to avoid the negative. Jesus also wants us to do positive actions instead. He gives two positive examples where in place of angry actions, words and thoughts, we make acts of reconciliation (23-26). One is in a church setting with your brother or sister in Christ, and the other is in a law court setting with your enemy. We don’t have the space to flesh these out here. But both highlight the priority of reconciliation. If there is an unresolved conflict, don’t carry on singing praises to God whilst behind you is a sister who has something against you. Don’t wait until you are battling it out in the courtroom to sort things out with your accuser. Try straight away. Take initiative to be a reconciler rather than a litigator. Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy, but it is urgent.

How does this apply to you? I’ve already suggested how our anger can be enflamed by social media, but you probably know your areas where you are most susceptible – in the car, on the sportsground, with your spouse, your kids, your neighbour, that difficult work colleague, the telemarketer. We know too well the danger to think, say, and do things that we later regret. We also know how hard reconciliation can be.

The work Jesus wants to do in us is deeply challenging. Having our thoughts, words and actions aligned with him is not something that is going to happen quickly. But God promises to help us in our walk of discipleship. To that end he gives us his word, his Holy Spirit, and his church to support us and keep us accountable. The challenge for us is to keep moving forward, step by step.

We also must remember that God is a God of grace and forgiveness. It’s easy to read a passage like this and despair. Honestly my actions are shameful enough, let alone my words and thoughts. But the Gospel message is not about sorting out our actions, words and thoughts before God will accept us. It is that God freely accepts us in the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever we’ve thought, said, or done, Jesus by his death and resurrection offers us a free pardon for sin, and a life of relationship with God. And it is as people who are forgiven by God, that God goes to work in our lives to transform from the outside in. May we learn to respond as salt and light in today’s outrage culture.

The Revd Anthea McCall is lecturer in Bible and Languages, and Dean of Students at Ridley College, Melbourne.