Beyond the Letter of the Law

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Beyond the Letter of the Law” Matt. 5:21-26

It can prompt the silent treatment or explode into domestic violence. It can extinguish passion, put an end to love, stifle dreams, break our hearts, and end a marriage.

It can divide our families, pit brother against brother, disconnect parent from child, unfold into long years of puzzling, hurtful, and bleak estrangement.

It can turn us against our neighbor, inspire us to trade insults and trash talk, ignite a feud, make us feel unsafe in our homes, and create animosity on the block.

It can make us hate our jobs, kindle disrespect for the boss or colleague, cause us to procrastinate or miss deadlines, lash out in water cooler gossip, and even get us fired.

It can divide our churches into factions, convince us that we are holier or more righteous than others. It can splinter us into schisms that vote with their feet and head for the door.

It can ruin your health, pump cortisol and adrenaline into your system, spike your blood pressure, flood your stomach with acid, attack your heart, consume your mind with obsessive thoughts, or turn inward to self-harm and abuse—cutting, disordered eating, even suicide.

I’m talking about anger.

In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount with a series of antitheses, teachings which radicalize the commandments of the Torah and reveal God’s intent for our lives in community.  Jesus begins with anger.  He takes the commandment, “You shall not kill,” which prohibits the taking of human life (Exodus 20:13; Deut. 5:17), and he goes deeper, exploring the power of our anger, not only to take life but to divide families, undermine relationships, and mar our communities. From everyday insults to slander to frivolous lawsuits that pursue a selfish agenda, Jesus saw anger at work in destructive ways that wounded spirits and brought death to relationships.

Jesus used the exaggerated rhetoric of hyperbole to impress upon his friends that they could not be in right relationship with God if they were not in right relationship with one another. Jesus described a worshiper bringing an offering to God.  In the first century, offerings were presented in the Temple.  The offering was the culmination of a multi-day pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem.  Then, a ritual of purification was undertaken, the Temple was entered, and a sacrifice was purchased from the vendors. But just as the priest prepared to kill the animal or burn the grain, Jesus’s worshipper remembered his angry estrangement from a brother or sister, jumped up, rushed out of the Temple, and made the three-day return trip to Galilee to make things right.  Then, the worshiper returned to Jerusalem and dedicated his offering to God.  It’s a powerful statement of the fact that we cannot love God without loving our neighbor.

To further emphasize his point, Jesus next described neighbors embroiled in a lawsuit. Their refusal to settle on the way to court and make things right, even when given ample opportunity, set them on a self-destructive path.  Harbored anger and antipathy become a prison.  Trapped within the walls of our rage, judgment, and alienation, we can idle away the years until we get over ourselves and make things right. Woe to us when we choose our wounded pride and angry outrage above reconciling with others—and reconciling with God.

Don’t get me—or Jesus—wrong.  Anger is part of how God has made us.  Anger has its time and place. Anger can motivate us to get out of a difficult or dangerous situation.  Anger can inspire us to change and grow.  Anger can prompt us to find a prophetic voice that speaks out against the sins of society, from gender oppression to racial hate to economic injustice.  Jesus got plenty mad. He denounced religious leaders who prized holiness over love and mercy. He decried the corruption of the Temple by turning over the moneychangers’ tables. But we also must acknowledge that anger can be an unholy and destructive force. Indeed, the frightened and vengeful anger of powerful opponents sent Jesus to the cross.

We all struggle with anger.  Some of us grew up in families where anger wasn’t expressed in healthy or constructive ways.  Anger meant that someone got hit or verbally abused or humiliated.  Anger meant the silent treatment and being made to feel like an outsider in our own home.  For others among us, we weren’t allowed to express anger.  It wasn’t ladylike or it might hurt someone’s feelings, or it wasn’t nice.  We don’t know what to do with anger—so it explodes in hurtful ways or gets swallowed in fear and shame.  Learning to manage our anger may put us face to face with old feelings of hurt, vulnerability, and powerlessness. We may find it easier to disconnect and walk away than to work things through. Unresolved anger can have painful consequences; our lives can be littered with broken relationships and hurting hearts.

But Jesus holds out hope that his disciples can do better.  We can make different choices with our anger.  We can find healing.  We find the wherewithal to manage our anger when we consider the reconciling work of Jesus.  If the cross teaches us anything, it is that God would sooner face death than be alienated and separated from us.  The resurrection overcomes the world’s violence and anger.  Think about it. On Easter evening, the risen Lord sought out the disciples who had betrayed, denied, and abandoned him. Jesus came to them not with anger or harsh recrimination, but with love.  His first word to them was “Peace.”  And he sent them forth not to punish or enact retributive violence on those who had condemned him to death and prosecuted his execution, but to forgive and to love. Our efforts to move past anger find inspiration and possibility when we remember the Lord’s example and we trust that he is with us, calling us always to the work of reconciliation.

We can begin to change our relationship with anger and heal the angry hurts that trouble us by simply paying attention.  Sometimes we walk around with an angry chip on our shoulder, taking our feelings out on the world around us.  Take time to notice what you are feeling and what has prompted those feelings to stir within you.  Keeping a daily journal can help you grow in your ability to notice and reflect, and so can having a close conversation partner with whom you can share, whether it is a friend or a spouse.  As we become more aware of what we are feeling and how it shapes our actions, we find the emotional space to make different choices instead of allowing our anger to drive the bus.

Despite our best intentions, there will be times when we find ourselves in the middle of an encounter that gets our blood boiling.  Our spouse will forget our birthday.  A teacher may hurt our child’s feelings.  Our best effort in the workplace will get scrubbed by the boss.  Take a deep breath and remember the simple wisdom of counting to ten.  That moment of reflective awareness grants us control over our breath and our body— and can help to deescalate the tension.  If we find we are still itching for a fight or inclined to say things we will surely regret, we can take a step back.  It can be as simple as saying, “I’m really angry right now.  Let’s take a beat and come back together when we can have a productive conversation.”  Then, follow through on that—sooner rather than later.  The Apostle Paul advised that we shouldn’t let the sun go down on our anger.  Work it through and move on.

What about those old angers and hurts that we all harbor, the broken relationships, the estranged siblings, the lost friends?  Is it too late to make a fresh start?  Jesus was the master of second chances.  He might remind us that we have nothing to lose, other than our anger, sadness, and grief.  Pray about it and see how the Lord may be leading you to make amends or build a bridge.  Pick up the phone and make contact.  Have a heart to heart over a cup of coffee. Send an email or reach out through social media. It can be as simple as saying, “I miss you. I regret the hard words and the hurt feelings. Let’s try again.” If we feel truly trapped and overwhelmed by our anger, we may need the support of a trusted counselor or pastor. We don’t have to face it alone.

I suspect that as we learn to manage our anger, we’ll feel better.  We’ll be a lot less likely to kill someone.  Our relationships will be healthier and find a new sense of strength and intimacy that forges a lasting bond.  We’ll be closer to others, even as we are closer to God. May it be so.


Amy Oden. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 13, 2011. Accessed online at

Karoline Lewis. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 12, 2017. Accessed online at

Carla Works. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 16, 2014. Accessed online at

Eric Barreto. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 16, 2020. Accessed online at

Melanie Howard. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 12, 2023. Accessed online at

Matthew 5:21-26

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

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