I have a book of sermons entitled, “Do Right.” As I began to write this Bible study, I thought of that title. In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus admonishes us to do what is right.
In verses 21-22, Jesus speaks about anger, and angry words. When a person is angry, they are usually out of control, which can often lead to speaking words that are, at best, regrettable. As God’s people, we can do what is right, but we need to be in the right condition first.
The sixth commandment in Exodus 20:13 says, “You shall not murder.” The rabbis interpreted this commandment literally and narrowly: the physical taking of another person’s life. Jesus taught what was the core and intent of the law.
The contrast between the literal application of the rabbis and the higher intention of Jesus is given in verse 21: “But I say to you … .” This phrase points to the root issue. If you committed murder, you would be tried before the court, sentenced and likely executed. Jesus said if we have angry hatred in our heart and express it in words and actions, we are guilty before the highest court, and guilty enough to enter a fiery hell.
The word used for anger is the Greek word orge. It means “abiding or continuing anger.” An angry, settled state of mind and heart is the condition being described. From that condition of the heart, a person says two things: “Raca” (you good-for-nothing), an expression that insults a person’s intelligence. It is like saying, “You are nothing” or “You are an idiot.” That kind of talk reflects the condition of the heart and would make us guilty before the supreme court. The second statement, “You fool” (“moros”) reflects contempt for a person’s character. It was a word used to hurt someone deeply. If you said this, you would be guilty enough for hell itself.
Murder would make us guilty before the court (something like a magistrate court today). However, this abiding condition of anger in our hearts that influences our speech would make us guilty before the supreme court, perhaps referring to the Sanhedrin. It would also place us under a condemnation worthy of hell.
Murder is indeed terrible, but a wicked heart that says hateful, murderous things about another person’s character or intelligence can be even worse. The word that Jesus used for anger would include holding grudges, vindictiveness, belligerence, ill will, vengefulness, bitterness, hostility, and other morally lethal qualities.
Because it is a condition of the heart (the inner person), it is overcome by genuinely knowing Christ as life, facing the truth, confessing sin, and seeking the forgiveness and guidance that God gives.
In Matthew 5:23-26, Jesus continues the teaching regarding angry hatred by using two illustrations to make His point.
The first case, in verses 23-24, involves a child of God who is in the process of public worship. The person is bringing an offering to the altar. In the middle of this activity, he or she remembers, “My brother (or sister) has something against me because I have done him wrong.” The conviction stings his heart, and he knows he is guilty. He has allowed anger to grow into a settled condition of hatred. Jesus’ counsel to this person is clear: Leave your offering; don’t let ritual get in the way of a right relationship with God and others. Be reconciled to your brother. Leave religious pretense behind, and confess the wrong to the one you offended. Seek that person’s forgiveness.
The second situation involves an enemy. The two are on the way to court. One of the men realizes that he is guilty and actually does owe his adversary the debt in question. How did he get in such a situation? Why didn’t he settle his debt earlier? Maybe he was greedy, or perhaps pride prevented him from owning up to his responsibility.
Jesus’ counsel was simple: Reach an out-of-court settlement quickly. The guilty party needed to do what was right and stop allowing hatred to ruin his life. Jesus is saying to the man, “Settle up with your enemy so you will not go to prison.”
In both of these cases, personal animosity is condemned as wrong. Reconciliation is the goal — one in a personal relationship, and the other in a business arrangement.
From our hearts flow the issues of life. Anger can turn into hatred and create a bitterness that corrupts relationships. Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.”
We must check our hearts daily and guard our inner life from influences such as anger, greed, selfishness and other sins. Above all, we should exercise the spiritual discipline that stops wrong attitudes and motives from growing in our lives. If there is a motto for this passage, it might be, “Do right.”