Getting off the Track to Murder

Where did the church get this idea that we needed to be hard — like we’re some teacher with a ruler ready to rap your knuckles if you get out of line? People are scared of the church because it is too often like all the other institutions that are constantly watching us. We’re always getting dinged for underperformance, setting off the magnetic sensor, saying the wrong thing, not knowing enough about everything always — we’re always getting in trouble. It doesn’t feel good, but somehow the church got caught up in this trap of relating. Judgment and condemnation abound in society and often even more so in the Church.

Some might tell you it’s Jesus fault. Take a look at Matthew 5:21-22:

“You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment. ’But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.

It sounds like Jesus is setting us up for a court date, and even hell. This is exactly why people are scared of the church, right?

Because who could live up to this standard? Who has never been angry with someone? Who has never shot their mouth off and called someone an idiot? We’re all on the track to murder.

You could read this and get your marching orders direct from the red letters Jesus said: Don’t do the wrong thing! And by the way, the right thing is borderline impossible, so cuddle up with your shame and be a “bad person” forever!

The word for “idiot” here in the original language is actually two words 1) moros where we get the word “moron” and 2) Raca from Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) which is essentially a synonym. Everyone is going to hell then, right? The ancient scribes who recorded this text actually tried to tone Jesus down a bit here by adding “without cause” to the bit about being angry. How can Jesus prohibit anger? This is crazy.

Good news! That’s not what Jesus is doing! Jesus’ project is not making a bunch of new rules. His project is fulfilling the rules, transforming the game, reorienting everything. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is Jesus’ manifesto for a different sort of project. But when we read him like he’s a rule-giver, of course, he sounds like a rule giver. We must read the whole paragraph, if not the whole sermon over and over again.

Right after Jesus’ impossible demand comes this:

So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. (Matthew 5:23-24)

The “SO” is the key. It means that the argument continues from the first part through. The first part is just a description, the part after the “SO” is the point he’s making.

Part 1: everyone is guilty on the inside of thoughts that lead to violence. There are a whole lot of stops between calling someone an idiot and killing them but they are all on the same track. God is not down with the whole track, Jesus says.

Part 2: SO… make reconciliation with each other more important than anything, even more important than the rituals you do according to the law.

Jesus is making a point about how we relate, not about the rules. Throughout the whole Sermon on the Mount, and most of his stories throughout the Gospels, you’ll find that’s usually what he’s doing. He wants us to relate to him. He’s setting himself up as the solution.

There is a train track that runs between murder and every unkind word. Our violent tongues get us on the train every almost every day. Insulting, pushing, harboring feelings of contempt, defending, protecing pride, keeping reputation, all these are patterns of violence. Jesus is offering us a way off the track to murder, and it starts with a much deeper sense of connection and dependence on him.

I love how Jesus tells us to leave the altar, the place where we are supposed to “get right” with God, to get right with our brothers and sisters first. The ritual rightness the people achieved through sacrifice in the temple was secondary to the everyday heart-work of relationships.

Jesus is saying, “Listen, don’t get all high and mighty like you’re innocent just because you haven’t killed anybody. What kind of beloved community are you creating if that’s all you’re going for? Can we create some real love here? Can we be a people who builds each other up more than tear each other down? Will you allow me to be in your midst, binding you together? Don’t make rules and rituals that don’t achieve actual brotherhood and sisterhood.”

To actually achieve what Jesus is calling us to will require us to start in Part 1 of the passage (Matthew 5:21-22) and say, “Yes, I can’t do what needs to be done. I can’t get it right. I can’t follow the rules well enough to earn the gold star.” We must confess that we don’t have it all together, we can’t get it right, and we are ready to receive the gift of God’s presence to empower us to do anything like the ideal that Jesus is describing. BUT THEN we act in obedience to what Jesus instructs! The resulting behavior is the entire point. We are called to live a life of reconciliation. Contrition is only part of it. When we let go of the responsibility to get it right all by ourselves; when we humble ourselves; when we confess our weakness; we tell the truth about who we are, and we get to the other side of our failure. When we aim at a life together that is impossible without Jesus in it we get freed up to try again and again and again; and I believe we get better at it.

After we accept this universal frailty, we are no longer afraid that we will be tainted by sin because someone near us is sinning. Jesus allows us to accept that everyone is bringing their version of sinfulness with them. We are conflicted inside, and the whole Church has a tendency to fight because sin is at work in us. Jesus saw this coming so he reminded us that we can’t be right with God unless we become very practiced at making it right with each other.

We have hard masters and we are hard masters in return. We make Jesus into a hard master, even when he tells us that his yoke is easy, or that he did not come to condemn anyone. We read Matthew 5:21-24 and get a story about God coming down on us hard. We kneecap any hope of a movement toward change- on a grand societal level or in ourselves. Without confession and forgiveness whatever rightness we have is wasted because the separation we allow between us works against our with-ness with Jesus, and his presence is the only way to get off the track to murder.

Jesus does not put us to the test all day so we can prove our value. He thinks we are valuable enough to die for right now. Romans 5:1-2:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.

I hope this post helps your hope, friends.

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