Beginning in Matthew 5:21, Jesus encourages his audience to strive to obey the spirit of a commandment and not just a strict literal interpretation of it. That is the significance of the repeated formula here, “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” Here Jesus unpacks the deeper implications of one of the ten commandments, you shall not murder. The same should be understood with the remaining commandments or sayings in Matthew 5:21-48. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Matthew said:
Jesus is protesting against a strictly literal interpretation of the commands, an interpretation that indicates an apparent willingness to obey what God has said, but which imposes a strict limit on obedience and leaves scope for a good deal of ungodly behavior. He is laying down authoritatively how these commands of God should be understood.
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. (Matthew 5:21-22).
The sixth commandment in Exodus 20:13 simply said: “You shall not murder.” But here there is the addition of: “and whoever murders will be liable to judgment,” which spells out the consequence to someone who committed murder. His audience would be thinking, “Well, of course there should be judgment against a murderer!” Then Jesus extends the agreement that there should be judgment against a murderer to apply to lesser forms of hostile behavior towards others. He says anyone who is angry with another person, who insults someone—who even calls them a fool—will be liable to “hell-fire and damnation.”
The valley of Hinnom, was a ravine just south of Jerusalem, had been the place where worshipers would burn their children as a sacrifice to Molech (2 Kings 23:10). In Jeremiah, there was a prophecy of judgment against this place (Jeremiah 7:31-32); and it came to be linked with the final place of torment. Leon Morris commented that in Jewish tradition, it was believed the Last Judgment would take place in the valley of Hinnom. The implication for us in Matthew is that anger and insults toward another will be judged alongside murder at the Last Judgment.
It would be wrong to say the passage equates anger and insults with murder. Rather, Jesus teaches here that these behaviors are also sinful and deserving of judgment. Just as murder self-evidently warrants judgment against the murderer, don’t minimize or rationalize your angry and insulting behavior. To illustrate his point, Jesus then gave two examples where unresolved anger or resentment has consequences.
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. (Matthew 5:23-26)
In effect Jesus is saying, get your priorities straight! “The act of sacrifice is not as important as the spirit in which it is done.” Unresolved resentment nullifies any religious sacrifice you bring to God. Just as it is wise to settle a dispute out of court and not risk the possibility of a judgment against you, the time to reconcile with someone you have wronged is before the dispute escalates to the point of formal judgment. Anger, insults and resentments are just as deserving of judgment before God as murder. The standard is to be willing to “live peaceably with all,” if it is within your power to do so (Romans 12:18).
Self-control and resolution of anger and resentment in recovery is a fundamental necessity. In the chapter “How It Works” in the A.A. Big Book, Bill W. wrote: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. . . . If we want to live, we have to be free of anger.” Bill wrote that resentment destroys more alcoholics than anything else. “From it stem all forms of spiritual disease.” One of the ways of addressing anger and resentment is to list them in completing the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of a Fourth Step. “We asked ourselves why we were angry.”
It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die.
In the “Step Ten” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill wrote: “It is a spiritual axiom, that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.” His audience was other members of Alcoholics Anonymous, but the truth of what he said applies to all people. In counseling, I regularly show others how in anger or resentment, we literally or metaphorically point an accusing finger at another person. So do that right—point your finger at someone or something; then look at your hand. While there is one finger pointing out, there are three pointing back at you. Ask yourself why you are angry.
Few people have been more victimized by resentments than have we alcoholics. It mattered little whether our resentments were justified or not. A burst of temper could spoil a day, and a well-nursed grudge could make us miserably ineffective. Nor were we ever skillful in separating justified from unjustified anger. As we saw it, our wrath was always justified. Anger, that occasional luxury of more balanced people, could keep us on an emotional jag indefinitely. These emotional “dry benders” often led straight to the bottle. Other kinds of disturbances—jealousy, envy, self-pity, or hurt pride—did the same thing.
Murder, anger and resentment exist on a continuum of behaviors worthy of judgment before God. The commandment to not murder includes a warning to not hold on to anger or resentment. Twelve Step recovery sees anger and resentment as a form of spiritual disease that cuts off the individual from the sunlight of the Spirit. Unresolved, this spiritual disease leads to drinking and death.
This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”