“Taking Aim” on Matthew 5:21-26 by Joe Ellis – October 9, 2022
Today we are launching into the part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ where the rubber hits the road. We are encountering part of Jesus’ challenging teachings in how to live in this world. Here he is confronting the anger we can harbour in our heart, the hurtful ways we can speak to others, and our tendency to avoid making things right, especially when you or I have done something to hurt or wrong someone. This teaching on anger and reconciliation is the first of six teachings where Jesus takes an Old Testament command and sharpens its application so that it involves not just outward actions, but it involves the heart as well. Jesus is showing us a bit of what he means when he said that he didn’t come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. Jesus starts by deepening what obedience to the Fifth Commandment looks like.
The fifth of the Ten Commandment says, “Thou Shall Not Kill”. Here Jesus says that it’s great if you don’t kill someone, but what’s the condition of your heart? Is your heart afflicted with the same condition that leads to murder, which is ‘anger’. It’s not enough for followers of Jesus to simply not kill people, we need to attend to the anger in our hearts, which is the seed of murder. So, Jesus famously says in v. 21-22, “You heard that it was said that anyone who commits murder shall be liable to judgment, and I say to you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister shall be liable to judgment. Everyone who uses foul and abusive language will be liable to the law court. And everyone who says, ‘you fool’ will be liable to the fires of Gehenna.” He’s not contradicting the command not to murder, he’s sharpening the focus. He’s addressing not only outward actions, but the disposition of our heart. Now, at the outset let’s stop for a moment. This may be all you need to hear of the sermon. Is the Holy Spirit bringing to mind a relationship that is out of sorts that you need to make right? Leave now and go make it right. If not now, do not let this day end without taking one step towards making things right with your brother or sister. That is your call to obedience, do not ignore it. Ignore everything else I say, but not this.
Often when we hear Jesus’ challenging words in this section they’re removed from the overall picture of that Jesus is about — there’s a real reason why over the past six weeks we have been underscoring the fact that Jesus’ main message is about the coming Kingdom of God. The reason is that these challenging teachings of Jesus, like his teaching about anger, seem completely disconnected from what he says earlier in chapters 4 and 5 about the Kingdom of God arriving. Often we have no idea what this teaching on anger has to do with the Kingdom of God, and instead what he says here, his teaching on anger, sounds pretty moralistic. Many of us hear him to be saying, “this is what you need to do so that God won’t be mad at you.” Which is ironic, because here Jesus is teaching us not to be angry. Or, we might just think Jesus is ramping up the volume of the Old Testament with something like: “You thought the commands of the Old Testament were hard, wait till you hear my teaching! If you are even angry at your brother you’re going to be thrown into the fires of Hell!” With that, it becomes quite difficult to see how Jesus’ teachings connect to His main central message, “the Kingdom of God is arriving.”
But today I want to suggest that these difficult teachings of Jesus are actually essential to fleshing out what it looks like for the Kingdom of God to come here and now on Earth. When Jesus began His public ministry, He began proclaiming, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is arriving!” After hearing that proclamation, people would’ve followed Jesus up the mountain expecting Him to tell them His battle plan to overthrow Rome. For those first people following Jesus, the coming Kingdom of God looked like winning Israel’s land back from the Romans. Think of Ukrainians fighting against Russia, that’s a very small taste of the sort of fervour that was built up in the bones of those Jews who longed to see Israel restored to the people. Yet as they listened to Jesus, they soon found out that Jesus had something altogether different in mind than a violent insurgence against Rome. All the same, Jesus did have a revolution in mind, just not the one that people were expecting.
Jesus did not come to free the people from Rome. Rome was not the enemy that Jesus came to fight. Jesus came to fight the true enemy of God’s people. The true enemy of all people. Jesus came to fight the one who had been robbing people of their humanity ever since the earliest of days. Jesus came to destroy the one who had smeared out the image of God in all of us until it became utterly unrecognizable. Jesus came to destroy the satanic powers in this world that keep humans enslaved and bound up in chains. Jesus came to do battle with these powers whose only purpose is to make human life a living hell.
That’s why Jesus came, to liberate us and defeat the powers of darkness. Yet His way of doing battle was altogether different than driving up in a tank and blasting Satan’s face off. His way of doing battle was the cross! It was on the cross that Jesus achieved a clear and ultimate victory over Satan and all His powers. We don’t have space to get into it all here, but through Jesus’ work on the cross, the grip that Satan had on Humanity was broken.
Through faith in Jesus we learn that we are no longer forced to do what Satan tells us. Through faith in Jesus, we discover that freedom from Sin is possible. We are no longer enslaved to do the awful things that Sin commands us to do — we are no longer bound to live lives of rage, and lust, and deceit, and violence, and greed, and idolatry, and religion for show, and judgment. Those were the sort of things Jesus taught against in the Sermon on the Mount. On the cross, Jesus freed us from our captivity to all of those things. Now, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, you and I can experience what it is to be free.
Just because Jesus didn’t call His people to wage war on Rome, that doesn’t mean he’s not calling them to battle. Jesus is certainly calling us to battle. He’s calling us to battle against those powers that once enslaved us. He’s calling us to take ground for the Kingdom of God. He’s calling us to a battle not with rifles and tanks, but with an altogether different sort of weapon. His weapons have ironic names for weapons. These weapons have names like peacekeeping, reconciliation, purity of heart, honesty, generosity, long-suffering, and a secret life of prayer. Those are the true weapons against darkness.
I’m going to illustrate this with a metaphor, but like all metaphors it’s totally imperfect and breaks down fairly quickly. Imagine that God has given every human being a weapon at birth. With it we have the power to defeat evil, or with it we have the power to do evil. Picture this weapon like a bow and arrow — he commands you with this bow and arrow to do good and fight evil, not do evil. With this weapon he commands you to fight evil by doing the sort of things that I just mentioned (peacekeeping, reconciling, purity of heart, honesty, and the rest).
You may not know that the Greek word for ‘Sin’ is ‘h’amartia’. You may have heard that ‘h’amartia’ was a word borrowed from archery. H’amartia means missing the mark. Sin is what happens when you pull back the bow, aim, release the arrow, miss the target, and shoot something else instead. Sin is missing the mark and harming yourself, or others, or God. When you or I wound others or ourselves, that’s Sin. That’s missing the mark.
The Sermon on the Mount is like a school for Archery. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ is showing us how to string up our bows and take aim. If Sin is missing the mark, the Sermon on the Mount shows us the target; the Sermon shows us what to aim for; the Sermon shows us the mark. Our target is Sin with a capital ’S’. Our target is the devil and the powers of darkness that work to twist and warp the work of God. The powers of darkness that warp the world into a despicably terrible and wicked place.
As archers of God, Sin is our target — not people. So throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shows us how to take aim. It is so important that we learn from Jesus how to take aim and shoot to kill Sin and its various manifestations, like raging anger, dehumanizing lust, human discord, violent retaliation, tribalism, religion done for show, greed, and judgmentalism — Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount how to take aim against these things. Jesus shows us how to take aim at these powers, to shoot to destroy so that those dark powers cannot continue their work of dehumanizing, degrading and enslaving others. That’s the thing — when we live out Jesus’ teaching, these dark powers are dis-empowered and executed.
So, in this section we see Jesus teaching us how to take aim at the dark power called ‘Anger’, ‘Resentment’, ‘Grudges’, and ‘Bitterness’. What a destructive force they can be! Jesus talks about being consumed with anger as being equivalent to being thrown into a fiery hell. Anyone who has been consumed with anger knows that you don’t need to wait for eternal judgment to feel scorched by the impact of anger. Anger eats you up, even as you go about life. Foul and abusive language burn up relationships like chaff. Resentment and bitterness all snuff out the light we are intended to shine — So here Jesus shows us how to take deadly aim at Anger. Reconcile with your brother or sister, he says, as soon as you can.
He tells these people in Galilee, who are a two days walk from Jerusalem, that if they are in the Jerusalem temple offering an ox or a goat as a sacrifice, to leave it there on the alter and travel the two days back to Galilee to make amends. Then come back to the ox or goat and offer the gift on the altar. There’s humour there, but a humour that underscores how seriously we are to take this call — we are to take deadly serious Christ’s call to apologize, to say “I’m sorry”, to make things right, to ask “what was the impact on you when I called you a fool.” Jesus stresses just how vitally important this is. When we take active steps towards reconciliation, the dark power of Anger is shot to the heart. The result is that Anger dies, Resentment dies, Grudges die, Bitterness dies, and the Kingdom of God bursts forth.
My brother (my actual brother) and I have had a difficult relationship at times. Sometimes we get on famously, other times we get along like gasoline and fire. We’ve worked at practicing this passage over the years. We’ve both had times where we’ve had to say I’m sorry. I once had to swallow a ton of pride and say sorry right before my wedding. I remember, years earlier, he called me up. He was in bad shape, depressed because his back was causing him so much pain and he didn’t know how much longer he could carry on with his pain. I knew he had it hard, but I also had felt so wounded by him that I didn’t have it in my heart to reach out to him. That day he called and said, “Joe, I’m sorry that I’ve been so hard on you these last few years. I’m really going through a hard time right now and I don’t know how much longer I can hang on.” The impact of that apology was like my heart suddenly warmed and ice melted around my cold, hardened heart. By pursuing reconciliation with me, my brother Matt was taking dead aim with his bow. He wasn’t aiming his bow at me, his bow aimed was aimed at the sinful anger that had bound us. That call freed us both from anger. The anger died for both of us that day. I then went to stay with him for two weeks in California, and we had some of the most memorable two weeks of my life.
Maybe you’ve had moments where you’ve experienced the Kingdom of God flood with warmth into your heart when someone apologized. When someone made things right. It changes the world. It sets you free. Do you see how obeying Jesus’ teaching is living out the Gospel? Taking ground for the Kingdom? Taking dead aim at the dark power of Sin?
Sometimes the Holy Spirit convicts us straight out about how we need to apologize. But often we can see the way others have wronged us far sooner than we can see the way we’ve wronged our brother or sister. We can see how we’d want someone to apologize to us much quicker than we see the need to make our own apology. That’s why, when you feel an ice wall going up between you and someone else, it might be best to begin with the words Jesus says a bit later on in the Sermon on the Mount, when he says, “Love your enemies, pray for people who persecute you.” When you begin to feel a gulf between you and someone else, perhaps especially when you think they’ve wronged you — pray for them. You may not have any control over whether they apologize to you or try and make things right, but prayer is the best way to bring healing to the relationship. Who knows, you may never be able to be reconciled to them (reconciliation requires a joint effort between two people). Yet with prayer we’re at least asking the Holy Spirit to work in our own heart and the other person’s heart to aid healing.
And what if in the process of praying for them, the Holy Spirit shows you that you are loved, and also that you have done something to grieve your enemy (who, as an example, also happens to be your sister). This then becomes an opportunity for you to love your enemy (that’s your sister) by apologizing to her. Of course, we need to be aware of the potential of false guilt, when someone might manipulate you into feeling that you’ve done them wrong as a way of keeping power and control over you. Apologizing out of manipulation doesn’t serve anyone, and in that case, just keep praying. People can be upset with you and it’s not your issue. That’s not to say you don’t take steps to talk things through, but the burden isn’t yours to carry. All these situations are tricky and they’re seldom black and white. It’s smart to talk and pray through those tough situations with a wise friend or counselor.
But at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit may lovingly challenge you with a step to take towards your sister, and you may find yourself invited to ask forgiveness. Then you approach your sister and you can take aim at the sin that had separated the two of you. You aim, you apologize to your sister for your sin, and you release the bow and shoot Anger dead in the heart. Then let the Kingdom of Heaven flood in around you both. This applies to our brothers as well.
I know I’ve gone on a bit long, but I’d like to make two last important points. Sometimes we can hear Jesus’ teachings in this section of the Sermon on the Mount as separate from what He says elsewhere and later on. As a result, we can sometimes end up feeling like Jesus is saying, “Here’s something that’s really hard to do. Good luck! You’re on your own!” Remember, he is here to help you! He said, “I am with you always!” Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.” Certainly your Father in Heaven will help as you struggle to live for His Kingdom and shoot to kill Sin through peaceful living. God will help you take steps towards reconciliation, even when it terrifies you. But you must pray.
Second, let’s not fall into the trap of ‘all or nothing’ thinking. We can often think we’re total failures if we don’t hit the bulls-eye dead centre every time. The hope of Christian living is to improve your aim over the course of your life. So it’s a victory if you go from wildly shooting anyone who ticks you off, to actually hitting the bottom corner of the Sin target that Jesus set for you. You have a forgiving Father, He forgives you when you miss. He forgives you again and again and again. But let’s not let His forgiveness be an excuse for not trying to hit the target. Too much is at stake. He wants us soldiers to take ground with Him for the Kingdom. So, let’s pray, and pray, and pray some more. From prayer, let’s seek harmony and reconciliation with our brothers and sisters — then let’s watch the Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.