Matthew 5:21-26 (ESV) Jesus says, “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. 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.”
Jesus quotes a common Jewish commentary on the Fifth Commandment: “whoever murders will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21). While true, Jesus finds this interpretation too limited. Anger, insults, or saying “You fool!” also can make one liable to judgment, even “to the hell of fire” (5:22).
Yet Jesus Himself called the Pharisees “blind fools” (23:17) and looked at them “with anger” (Mark 3:5), so His prohibitions in Matthew 5:22 are not intended to absolutely prohibit anger or saying “fool.” Dr. Luther explains that the Fifth “commandment forbids everyone to be angry, except those…who are in the place of God, that is, parents and the government. For it is proper for God and for everyone who is in a divine estate to be angry, to rebuke, and to punish because of those very persons who transgress this and the other commandments [Romans 13:4]” (LC I.V.182, Concordia, 379).
St. Paul advises that, when we have become justifiably angry at someone who has offended us, we must not let that anger turn into rage and spite: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Satan loves nothing more than getting us at each other’s throats!
The “Barney Fife” principle should always be kept in mind: regarding anger, lust, or any sinful desire in our hearts, we must “nip it in the bud” before it turns into sinful words or actions. Even though Jesus says that unrighteous anger is equivalent to physical murder according to God’s judgment, this does not mean that they inflict equivalent harm upon the victim, in society, or on the perpetrator’s soul. Outward sins of word and deed are more harmful in obvious ways!
The main point of this text is that Christians must be reconciled to one another at all costs. Grudge-bearing and vindictiveness place us under God’s judgment and in danger of rejecting His grace. We should not go to Communion until we have reconciled with those with whom we will commune (Matthew 5:23-24). “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (6:12) must be lived out in the Christian community; otherwise, “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:15).
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) illustrates the importance of forgiving one another because God has so abundantly forgiven us. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, in Your love for us and for our salvation You suffered the Father’s wrath upon the cross. Deliver us from anger and resentment, hatred and revenge. Grant that we may forgive as we have been forgiven and stand reconciled before You in Your righteousness and purity; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.