We’re into the second half of our series on the Ten Commandments, and we’re coming into an interesting run of commandments. The next three or four are quite short and sharp - not very many words to preach a whole sermon from. (You might be glad to hear that, although, don’t worry, we’ll still cover our twenty minutes or so thinking about the commandments).
Some of the commandments from Exodus 20 we’ve looked at so far have been quite wordy - for example, in our English version, number 4 has 98 words; 91 words in number 2. In contrast, ‘You shall no murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.’ Four words, or five words. And that’s it. The whole commandment. A bigger problem than their brevity is their apparent easiness.
We hear ‘you shall not murder’ and we think we’re in the clear. We can join up with the rich young ruler, list the commandments and say ‘All these I have kept.’ (Matt 19:20). For most of us, if not all of us, we have never killed anyone, never murdered anyone - so have we got a head start, that’s one down, just the other nine to get right now?
Well, not so fast. As we heard in our reading from Matthew 5, Jesus expands and deepens the commandment against murder (which we think we’re in the clear about), to include anger, which is the root of murderous thoughts. We’ll probably find, as we explore the Scriptures together, that there is a great challenge here, as in the other commandments.
Just to remind ourselves of the context of this evening’s passage, you’ll remember that Matthew 5 is the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, that prolonged period of teaching at the start of Jesus’ ministry as he teaches the disciples (and the crowds listen in). Immediately before, Jesus has said that he has come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets - by his words, actions, and ultimately his sacrifice on the cross. Jesus also says that ‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
We looked at this passage a few weeks back as we began our series - you might remember that this exceeding righteousness comes through Jesus (who has fulfilled and obeyed the law perfectly), but in response to that, we are motivated to heart obedience (in our ongoing sanctification), not just external observance.
The command against murder still stands - we can’t go out of church tonight and murder someone. Look at verse 21 as Jesus quotes it: ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ (Matt 5:21). The extra bit (‘whoever murders will be liable to judgement’) seems to be the extra gloss the teachers of the law had added to it. It seems to hint that, so long as you avoid murdering someone, then you’ll not face judgement, you’re in the clear.
Now obviously, murder is wrong - we see this clearly in Genesis 9, as God addresses the whole world’s population of 8 as they come out of Noah’s ark: ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of a man. Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’ (Genesis 9:3-6)
To take away life is to act in the place of God, who gives life and takes away life. To murder is to destroy and deface the image of God in your fellow human. Murder is a serious business - and we rightly shrink away from it. We rightly say that ‘whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’
But as Jesus expands and deepens the commandment, we find ourselves more likely to face judgement. Do you see the pattern Jesus develops? ‘whoever murders will be liable to judgement... everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement... whoever insults his brother will be liable (to the council ie to judgement!)... whoever says ‘you fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.’
Jesus moves from the outward act of murder to the inner roots of murder; from the action to the thoughts (and words) which begin deep within us, which all are liable to. Through the week, we were up at the clergy conference in Donegal, and one of our free afternoons, I was out for a drive. In Killybegs, along the docks, I saw one of those warning signs that had been tampered with. Originally it said ‘Danger Slipway’, but now it just says ‘Anger Slipway.’ Someone trying to be funny, and yet, in a sense, it’s what Jesus is warning about here. To launch the programme of anger in the heart is to begin down that anger slipway whose end is judgement.
What is it that makes you angry? When, or where, does your anger rise? Is it when you get into the driving seat and everyone else on the road is a fool, getting in your way? Is it in the office as people can’t seem to do their job so you can get on with yours? Is it in church, when things aren’t done quite how you like them? Is it at home, or the extended family, as you have to deal with that particular annoying relative? Loud music from your neighbours late in the night?
Perhaps you try to justify it somehow - you’re provoked, or frustrated. It’s always someone else’s fault. Or perhaps you take refuge in the fact that the courts system can’t make judgements on your thoughts - they’re busy enough trying to catch and deal with the ‘real’ criminals who have committed crimes. Yet Jesus is saying that while earthly courts can’t see our thoughts and motives and hates and angers, there is a judge who sees perfectly. The judge knows our thoughts (perhaps even better than we know them ourselves), who can perfectly judge each case - and provide the proper penalty.
These examples Jesus gives aren’t really separate or different things - it’s all the same - to face judgement, face the council, face the hell of fire. They are where anger leads towards. They are the end result of our anger. Judgement is real and near. This is the truth that Jesus teaches here - not just judgement for the big bold obvious sinful act, but also the less obvious, internal thoughts and attitudes which we each nurse.
Precisely because judgement is real, Jesus urges us to be quickly reconciled with those we have offended. He gives two pictures, two worked out examples of what this reconciliation will look like - in the temple and in the court.
First, then, if you’re at the temple, about to offer your gift of sacrifice, and you remember that you have offended against someone, if they have something against you, then what do you do? Do you hurry through the sacrifice and then sort it out with them? No, Jesus says that you go and be reconciled to them first, before offering your gift at the altar.
It’s a bit like in the Lord’s Prayer, where we pray ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ In seeking to be reconciled with God - or rather, as we are reconciled with God, we also ought to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters. You remember the words of invitation at the 1662 Holy Communion? ‘Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith...’
It’s saying what Jesus is saying. While we harbour resentment and anger, can we really say that we are reconciled with God and our neighbour? We may even do best to examine our hearts tonight before we share in the Lord’s Supper - do we harbour anger in our hearts?
In the second picture, Jesus shows you on the way to court. There’s some debt you owe, but you don’t currently have the means to pay it off. The credit card statement has come, or you’ve overdrawn, and the bank is looking the money. Come to terms quickly, Jesus says, before you face the judge and the jailer, and you spend your time in prison.
This isn’t just a handy hints type story, reminding you that your home may be at risk if you do not keep up the repayments. Jesus isn’t just dispensing useful lifestyle tips. Rather, he’s speaking to us who have been warned of our anger - anger leads to judgement.
Judgement is real - and near - so come to terms with your accuser. Recognise the danger you are in - the anger danger - and be reconciled to the judge, to the Lord God. Confess the sins of murder and anger, and find in the Lord Jesus, one who bore your sins on the cross to take them away, to settle the debts you have; the one who also perfectly obeyed this commandment and never murdered or hated.
Find in Jesus your pardon and peace, and then turn away from the destructive patterns of anger - refuse to retreat into your selfish anger and instead live for the good of others, seeking to become more like Jesus.
This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 24th October 2010.