I once had a frustrating experience with plumbing in my house in Alabama. We noticed when we received our water bill one month that it was WAY higher than we had anticipated. The bill was for someone who was trying to recreate the Genesis 3 flood, and neither swimming nor vengeance was really my hobby so I knew there was a problem. It turned out that we had extremely old cast iron plumbing that was slowly eroding away underneath our house. We had no idea. Everything seemed fine (though I did notice our grass was growing unusually well in certain areas) above the surface, but underneath, there was a disastrous flooding nightmare attempting to eat up my meager salary! Sure, once we located the problem we attempted to patch up only the areas that were punctured, but then the pressure would form at another place, and then another, etc. Eventually we finally realized that only a complete overhaul by a professional would be sufficient. This is also when PVC piping became my best friend.
I think Jesus, in Matthew 5, is referring to the deceptive spiritual plumbing issues the teachers of the Law were facing. They looked at society and saw the problems, the sin, the brokenness. And to this fallen state of humanity they thought they could keep the old system of the Law and just add thousands of their own patches to solve the issue. The problem, as Jesus saw it, was that a million human patches applied to the problem would never truly fix anything. They needed a complete make-over from underneath the surface. A renovation that can’t be performed with human hands, but only by the hands of the Almighty. A real professional.
And to illustrate the problem, he uses anger. He first mentions a word we know all too well in our society- murder. He points out how everyone knows murder is wrong and brings with it heavy consequences. The revolutionary teaching Jesus offers, however, is he says murder isn’t really the problem- it’s anger! And He goes on to mention three different types of anger and the consequences associated with each one. You may notice that each example is a more intense level of anger, followed by a more harsh punishment.
The first example is a man that is angry (orgizesthai) with his brother. Barclay describes orgizesthai as “the long-lived anger; the anger of the man that nurses his wrath to keep it warm,” (Daily Study Bible Series). Murder, we may not all be able to empathize with- allowing anger to settle into our hearts and wishing for revenge, however, describes us all too well. And the consequence? The judgment of the local village council, usually consisting of a handful of men to settle disputes and impart justice. The difficulty, yet frequently ‘the key’ to solving murders, ( any CSI follower out there will tell you), is figuring out the motive behind the homicides. And quite often, it begins, seemingly harmless, with this grudging, orgizesthai, type anger.
But he carries on even further- whoever calls his brother “Raca” will be liable to the Sanhedrin. Barclay notes, “Its whole accent is the accent of contempt. To call a man Raca was to call him a brainless idiot, a silly fool…it is the word of one who despises another with an arrogant contempt,” (Daily Study Bible Series). This sin, the sin of contempt, carries with it an even higher level of consequence- the judgment of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. And if Jesus’ point was not clear enough yet for his audience, he mentions a third type of anger. It’s like He is saying, “Holding a grudge is bad, treating others as inferior is worse, and…
To call your brother “moros” (a moral fool) is the worst! “To call a man ‘moros’ was not to criticize his mental ability; it was to cast aspersions on his moral character; it was to take his name and reputation from him, and to brand him as a loose-living and immoral person,” (Daily Study Bible Series). And the punishment for trashing a man’s reputation and name? Gehenna, which most likely is a reference to the ‘Valley of Hinnom’- the dump/incinerating grounds of Jerusalem. Wow, that seems intense, you might say. That, I believe, was the reaction Jesus was aiming to receive. Yes- murder is wrong, but equally as destructive are the forces of anger welling up inside of us that we refuse to deal with! Grudges, contempt, and character destruction are the vicious poisons we all need medicine to cure. And the cure?
Jesus says it is so important that we not allow anger to abide within us, that we should allow reconciliation to take precedence even over worship itself. N.T. Wright mentions the absurdity of the example Jesus uses, “It takes about three days to get back to Galilee (from Jerusalem), where most of Jesus’ hearers lived. He cannot seriously have imagined an anxious worshipper leaving a live animal sitting there in the Temple courts for a week while they scurried back home, apologized to the offended person, and then returned to Jerusalem…he seems to be exaggerating to make a point,” (Matthew For Everyone, Part I). And what is the point? Simply that our relationships with each other directly affect our relationship with God. We cannot harbor ill-will towards others and be completely clean before our Father. He would repeat this teaching again shortly after this, “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” (Matthew 6:15).
Untamed anger, like the water pressure under my Alabama house, is going to come out somewhere. And the sad part is that too many of us try to handle it all on our own willpower. But in reality, our willpower is as reliable as that old cast iron was beneath the surface. “Plato likened the soul to a charioteer whose task it was to drive two horses. The one horse was gentle and biddable…the other horse was wild and untamed…the first horse was named reason; the name of the other was passion… Life is always a conflict between the demands of the passions and the control of the reason,” (Daily Study Bible Series). Surely we can never exhibit this perfectly on our own accord. We must completely submit ourselves to the One who, as He was being tortured and crucified between two criminals prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34).