Ask, seek, knock

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).

Jesus first makes radical requirements of his followers. Now he makes radical promises. He invites us to ask, promising we will receive. He encourages us to seek, promising we will find. He tells us to knock, and the door, he says, will be opened to us.

Common sense assures us that Jesus cannot possibly mean what he says. His demands are unreasonable, his standards are too high, and so we look for exceptions and loopholes in what he commands. His promises are equally senseless. Surely God will not grant our requests so easily. Surely God has freedom to say no to our prayers. Rather than trusting Christ’s promises and acting as if we believed they were true, we allow God exceptions and loopholes. In our hearts, we deny the truth of what Jesus says.

Our common sense is not qualified to judge the Word of God. If Jesus says, “Do this,” we should do it. If Jesus says, “I promise,” we should believe it. At the same time, we must be sure that we know what Jesus means by his messages, so we do not embarrass ourselves or make his Word seem ridiculous to others.

Jesus encourages us to pray for daily bread. He tells us not to worry about food or drink or clothing. He tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Along the way, Jesus shows us what is wrong with our righteousness. We are not perfect. We need a greater righteousness than we have produced. We have such a righteousness from Jesus himself. He blesses us with gifts, granting the kingdom of heaven to each of us. When we put his gifts first in our lives, then we can live with confidence, because what matters most to us has already been given to us; it is already ours. When we are distracted by other things, even by the good things we have done (or are trying to do), then we will not be content; what we achieve will not be good enough for God or for ourselves.

We are not to judge ourselves, or other people, by the Law alone. Instead, we see ourselves and others through the blessing of the Gospel. People who think that they don’t need the Gospel do not treat it as a treasure; they must first be shown their need for the Gospel by being measured by God’s Law. When our eyes are opened and we see our need for God’s forgiving and restoring power, nothing should keep us from asking God for those things that we need. Jesus offers this gift unconditionally: his blessings of the kingdom of heaven, his mercy, his love and forgiveness, his rescue from sin and evil and death—all these are delivered to us because of the work Jesus has done on our behalf.

God will not ignore our prayers for physical needs. He knows what we need even before we ask. “All these things will be added to you.” God has already given his Son for our redemption; why would he withhold smaller blessings? When we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, we are confident we will find them. His kingdom and his righteousness are gifts God is eager to give us. J.

Judge not

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).

Some people use these words to escape any criticism from others. Even if they are doing something wrong or believing something contrary to the Bible, they still claim to be free from judgment because of these words of Jesus.

But Jesus did not say “judge not” to silence Christians and their rebukes of sin. Jesus tells us to “watch out for false prophets,” saying, “by their fruit you will recognize them.” Elsewhere in the Bible Christians are told to encourage, exhort, and correct one another by the teachings of Scripture. If someone is doing something that God says is wrong, Jesus calls upon his people to respond. If someone believes something that God says is untrue, Christians are told to respond with the truth. In neither case should we ignore the problem.

When Jesus tells his people not to judge, he makes a distinction between present behavior and eternal existence. Jesus gave us a set of rules, describing the lives he wants us to live. Jesus said do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love your enemies, give to the needy, pray, forgive, fast, do not be anxious. Jesus does not want us to use these commandments as weapons against one another. We all have sinned; we all have broken these commandments. We all need a Savior. Yes, we should use these commands to encourage one another to do right. We should use these commands to explain to one another why we all need a Savior. Jesus forbids us to use these commands to distinguish genuine faith from hypocrisy. He does not want us to use these rules to decide who is saved and who is lost. If we try to judge other people according to these teachings, we will end with the realization that all of us are lost according to these standards.

To remind us that his Law condemns all of us as sinners, Jesus threatens to judge us by these standards if we use them to judge others. Measuring our lives by these standards, we see how badly we have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We desperately need his gift, his blessings, his promise to rescue us. This is true for each of us; therefore, it is true of our fellow Christians.

Christians frequently fall into the trap of the Pharisees, thinking that obedience to God’s Law makes us better than other people. We persuade ourselves that our obedience makes us good enough to inherit a place in heaven. Anyone who judges by the Law, without the blessing of the Gospel, will see failure and condemnation in every life, aside from the life of Jesus. When Jesus says “judge not,” he means this: Do not use the Law alone to measure a life, but see it through the Gospel promise. See that those who trust in Jesus are those forgiven by Jesus, credited with his goodness and therefore counted worthy of heaven. Measure your fellow Christians this way, and also measure yourself this way. Trust the promises of God—not the commandments—to rescue you from evil and to shape your life. J.

What to seek first

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

When Jesus promises “all these things,” he clearly is referring to food and drink and clothing, to all the things we need in this lifetime. We do not have to worry about them, because God provides us with what we need. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and we live our lives with confidence, knowing that what we need today God will give to us today, and whatever we need tomorrow God will give to us tomorrow as well.

However, many Christians misunderstand what Jesus means by referring to the kingdom of God and his righteousness. To seek these things, they assume, means to try to do what is right, to try to accomplish the things that please God. They take the radical demands of this sermon—do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love your enemies, give to the needy, pray, forgive, fast, do not worry—and they treat these demands as the Ten Commandments of the New Testament. They try to rise to these high standards—which is good; Jesus wants us to live this way—but they call these efforts seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

The harder we try to live by the standards Jesus sets, the more we see our failure. We are not good like Jesus. We fall short of his ideals again and again. Jesus was not exaggerating when he spoke these ideals. He really wants to see us live as he lived. But studying these standards and trying our best to meet them cannot make us good enough for God. If we are not perfectly living in the way Jesus describes, we are not good enough for his kingdom.

Whenever Jesus mentions the kingdom, though, he describes it as a gift. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All the blessings that Jesus described at the beginning of his sermon indicate that God has changed us. We no longer fail to be good enough for God. Jesus has made us good enough. He has taken away our sins, and he has given us credit for his perfect life—his righteousness. The righteousness of Jesus is far better than the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. They tried their best, but their best was not good enough for God. They were better than most people, but Jesus does not grade on a curve. He is perfect, as his Father is perfect. Now, through his gift—through his life and death and resurrection—we also receive credit for perfection. We receive the rewards Jesus earned.

How do we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness? We seek them in Jesus and in all that Jesus has done for us. If we are distracted from his gifts by the things we need today, we are in trouble. We must focus on our relationship with Jesus, not on worldly matters. Therefore, Jesus promises to meet our needs today, as well as our eternal needs. If we are distracted from his gifts by the good deeds we do for God today, we are in trouble. We should try to be like Jesus, but Jesus himself affirms that for us to imitate him, our eyes must be set on his kingdom, on his gift of righteousness, and not on ourselves. J.

Light and darkness

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

Given our modern understanding of light and vision, we probably think of our eyes more as windows than as lamps. We know very well that our eyes do not produce light; they relay to the brain information that has come to light in the immediate vicinity. However, Jesus does not choose to teach us details of optics or biology. He chooses to warn us about how we use our eyes.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How can we know where our treasure is? Our eyes tell us where our treasure is. Our treasure is what we look at most often and most intently. Where our eyes spend the most time, there we have put our hearts.

If we pay more attention to the wealth of this world than to God’s eternal kingdom, then our treasure is in this world and our hearts are in this world. If our eyes can see only the things of this world, then we are living in darkness. We are blind to the things that matter most.

The wealth that blinds us is not always measured in dollars. If some other person in this world is the one thing we want to see all the time, we are still in darkness. If our goal is fun and entertainment, if it is power over others, or even if it is a worthy cause to make this world a better place, we remain in darkness. If we are looking most at our own thoughts or our own feelings, trusting most what we understand best or what uplifts us to the greatest heights, then we walk in darkness.

Even if we look at the good things we do for God, we still remain in darkness. Our help for others, our prayers, our fasting—all these things we do with God in mind. When we do these things for our own sake, or to be honored by the people of this world, then we travel in darkness.

We spend most of our lives in darkness, because our eyes are focused on ourselves and on the world around us. God has a blessing for us, though. His light shines into our darkness, and our eyes are opened to the kingdom of heaven. We see Jesus, and we learn what he has done for us. We see his blessings and learn about his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. We see the Light, and Jesus himself rescues us from the blindness that we had brought upon ourselves.

When we ignore Jesus and allow him to be eclipsed, we stumble in the darkness. God does not want to leave us lost in the darkness. Christ chooses to sine into our darkness; he chooses to bring us back to the Light. J.

Your Father knows

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8).

People speak about “the power of prayer.” But prayer by itself does not have any power. The One to whom we pray has unlimited power. No magic words can be sprinkled into our prayers to force him to do what we want. God wants us to pray, but he does not want us to trust in the power of our payers. He prefers that we put all our trust in him.

The Gentile approach to prayer treats the words of prayers as if they have magical powers. Repetition is important for such prayers and incantations to work. In the Gentile world, special times are set aside for prayer and meditation, because those activities are seen as a source of power for the faithful Gentile.

Jesus denies to us these forms of babbling. He gives us no special words to use and no special times to pray. He places no value in the repetition of prayers. Rather, Jesus wants us to treat prayer as conversation with God. Talk to God in a way you would speak to anyone you respect. Have your mind on him as you pray, not on the mechanics of your prayer. Treat God as a Father who can be trusted to love you, to understand you, and to want what is best for you.

Failing to pray is a sin. The person who refuses to pray reveals that God does not matter to him or her. Misusing prayer is also a sin. Prayer itself can become an idol, something worshiped in the place of the true God.

Jesus makes genuine prayer possible for us. Our sins had come between us and God—including our sins of neglecting God and our sins of replacing God. Jesus cancels our sins by his sacrifice. His forgiveness opens channels of communication between us and God. Because the only Son of God sacrificed himself for our adoption, we now are children of God and are invited to call him “Father.”

Genuine natural prayer requires some effort on our part. Such prayer includes struggle, and often our prayers fall short of the ideal. The more we think about prayer, the more likely we are to change prayer into something God never intended it to be. Instead of thinking about prayer when we pray, we think about Jesus. We lift our prayers to the Father “in Jesus’ name,” but not because that name is a magic formula which guarantees that we will be heard and answered. We pray “in Jesus’ name” because the life of Jesus, his death on the cross, and his resurrection have made prayer possible for us. We pray because of Jesus. We pray with our minds and hearts set upon him. J.

You must be perfect

“You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The perfection Jesus demands includes loving our enemies. It expands, though, to include every commandment from God. If we are to be saved from sin, evil, and death by obedience to God’s Law, then our obedience must be perfect. Any failure, any shortcoming, leaves us falling short of perfect. For each of us who has sinned, even once, we deserve no blessing from God. We deserve only punishment.

Poison is measured in parts per million. God’s Law is stricter yet; his Law has zero tolerance for sin. Obedience to most of the commandments is like a chain with one or two weak links. If we break the Law at any point, we have broken the entire Law. Our obedience is like a toy balloon filled with air. One tiny hole, the point of a pin or needle, destroys the entire balloon. Even the smallest sin makes each of us imperfect, unable to deserve anything good from God.

A human tendency wants to receive credit for trying our best, for having good intentions. We want to do some good things that might cancel all the wrong we have done. Jesus denies this path to us. If we are to be saved by obedience, we must be perfect. If we are going to find our own way to God, we are not allowed a single mistake. Once we have fallen short of God’s standards, even in a little way, we have lost any chance of earning anything good from God. We deserve only anger and destruction.

Jesus declares God’s Law in all its purity and all its power so we will lose hope of saving ourselves. All we can do is throw ourselves on God’s mercy. None of us is perfect. Our righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. We need the righteousness of Christ. We need him to fulfill the Law for us. We need his blessing—his gift—which makes us acceptable in the sight of God by erasing our sins, replacing them with the good works of Jesus.

Jesus died on the cross to pay the full price for our sins. His blood washes away our sins. Because of the blood Jesus shed on the cross and the life he sacrificed, the water of Holy Baptism cleanses us from all sin and unrighteousness, giving each of us a personal guarantee that Jesus died for us. In Baptism we are clothed in Christ. His good works are credited to our accounts. God the Father looked at his Son on the cross, saw our guilt, and treated Jesus as we deserve. Now he looks at each of us, sees the goodness of Jesus, and treats us as Jesus deserves. In this way, we have become the children of God.

In God’s eyes we are already perfect. We will not see the perfection God sees in us until the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection, but God sees it today. What God sees and what he promises has already begun to shape our lives, making us more like Jesus. We are glad for that transformation, and we are eager for it to be completed, but our hope is not in our imitation of Christ. That imitation is a result of our hope, not its cause. The only source of our hope is Jesus himself—his perfectly obedient life, his sacrifice, and his resurrection. J.

Love your enemies

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-47).

Many people come to Jesus hoping that he will make their lives easier, that he will spare them from the problems of this evil world. Jesus warns of persecution in this world, remarking that those who have received the blessings of God are the same people who will be persecuted in this world. Jesus offers several examples of ways that people of the world take advantage of God’s people, adding that we should not resist them. Now, instead of saying that Christians will have no enemies or that we will conquer all our enemies, Jesus acknowledges the existence of those enemies and commands his followers to love our enemies.

In the Stoic philosophy/religion of ancient Greece and Rome, people were taught to be disinterested. Apathy was a virtue to the Stoics. People were taught not to treat others on the basis of what they had done for one in the past or on the basis of what they might do for one in the future; instead, all people were to be treated fairly and equally. Here, Jesus points out that God acts in the same manner: he gives sun and rain to all people, no matter how good or holy those people are. When good things happen, all people benefit; when disaster strikes, all people suffer. God does not use sicknesses and accidents to sort the good from the bad. If an airplane crashes, we cannot judge the goodness or sinfulness of the passengers by analyzing who survived and who was killed.

We are told to be like God, treating everyone the same. Yet Jesus makes it clear that the disinterested approach of the Stoics is not good enough for God. We are to love everyone, even our enemies. We are to imitate Jesus. He did not resist those who sentenced him to death, those who mocked him, or those who nailed him to a cross. Instead of resisting their evil, Jesus prayed for them, asking his Father to forgive them for their sins.

This kind of love surpasses our usual way of living. We are more likely to measure other people by what they have done for us and by what they can do for us. The other religions of the world protest this selfishness. Still, only Jesus has been able to live according to the higher standard. As Jesus calls us to be like him and to be like his Father, he knows that he is asking something difficult from us. When he tells us to love our enemies, he knows from his own experience how unlovable those enemies will be.

God hates sin. God hates sinners. Whenever we sin, we are God’s enemies. Though it seems a paradox, God also loves his enemies and wants to rescue us from our sins. When we were still enemies of God, lost in sin, Jesus died for us. He took our guilt upon himself and absorbed God’s wrath so we could be treated as the sons of God. We could become, in God’s eyes, righteous people who deserve God’s rewards. Jesus grants this blessing to his people. When he commands us to love our enemies, Jesus requires us to be living pictures of his love, the love that has transformed our lives. J.

Turn the other cheek

“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:39-42).

Jesus gives radical examples of not resisting evil—so radical that, over the centuries, many Christians have tried to reduce them to something manageable. They have said that these examples are metaphors, not to be taken literally. They look for excuses, ways to explain that Jesus does not mean what he says. We accomplish the good deeds we can, and then we claim that we have turned the other cheek and have gone the extra mile. At the same time, we justify ourselves for not giving to everyone who asks. We tell ourselves that blind obedience to this rule would enrich liars and con artists while forcing our own children to starve.

Can we compromise the teachings of Jesus and still call ourselves his followers? Can we remove the challenge of selfless living from Christianity and still call ourselves Christians? Jesus calls us to forget ourselves, even to allow ourselves to be abused by the world. Trying to make his rules less radical is the equivalent of denying Jesus, saying that we do not know who he is.

Turn the other cheek. If other people want to hurt you and insult you, allow them to hurt and insult you. When you fight back, you are no better than they are. Most religions recognize this principle. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus said. Now he demands extreme meekness from his followers.

Give up your cloak as well as your tunic. The tunic is just a shirt—desirable to have, but not necessary. The cloak is a coat to wear in cool or rainy weather; at night it becomes a blanket. The cloak is much more valuable than the tunic. To surrender more than was demanded from you is meekness to the point of absurdity. Still, Jesus requires this from us.

Go the extra mile. Roman soldiers could force subject people to carry a burden for them, but only for a distance of one mile. Simon of Cyrene was grabbed from the crowd and required to carry the cross of Jesus (Matthew 27:32). Most people probably would agree that the Roman law was unjust, even with its one-mile limit. Instead of preaching against the law, Jesus tells his followers to do twice as much for others as the law requires.

Give to everyone who asks. Do not keep anything for yourself. Do not judge the honesty or the worthiness of the person who asks to borrow from you. Money and property are not as valuable as love for God and love for every neighbor. If we resent the way other people ask for a portion of our money or our property, we have forgotten to love those neighbors as much as Jesus loves us.

We can try to adjust these laws to meet our diminished level of goodness. Instead, Jesus wants us to use these laws to judge our poor amount of goodness. His perfect standard is far beyond the reality of the way we live our lives. When we acknowledge the difference between his standards and our accomplishments, then our eyes are opened and we see our need for a Savior.

The scribes and the Pharisees constantly rewrote God’s laws to make them practical. Jesus goes the opposite direction. He tells us to be like God even when being like God is not practical. As we realize how badly the world has twisted our thoughts and perceptions—how hard it is for us to be meek and generous, loving and selfless—we see why we need Jesus as our Savior. His radical perfection is the only antidote to our shortcomings. Jesus lived up to his own standards. He turned the other cheek. He went the extra mile. Now Jesus gives us credit for his perfect goodness. Our sins have been removed, so that God sees in us the perfection of his Son. J.

Come to terms quickly

“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” (Matthew 5:25-26).

Clearly these words relate to those that precede them, the teaching about leaving a gift at the altar and going to reconcile with a brother. Jesus seems to be illustrating the dangers of allowing a wrong to fester uncorrected for too long. In this world, punishment—such as the debtor’s prison Jesus describes—follows our sins and mistakes when we fail to get along with one another and when we do not correct the wrongs we have committed.

Punishments in this world remind us of the final Judgment of the Day of the Lord, as well as the punishment of sinners that will result from that Judgment. Perhaps this lesson of Jesus is a parable about Judgment Day. Jesus already explained that the commandment not to murder covers more territory than the simple act of taking a life. With that in mind, Jesus says, we had better consider how the lives we live measure up to the standards that he will use at the final Judgment. We must change our lives today, making sure that we are not found guilty on that Day, because hell is a prison from which there is no escape.

Most religions dedicate themselves to this proposition: we must become better people, causing less harm to one another and to our world, accumulating less guilt for that final Judgment. Goodness, though, is not only motivated by escaping punishment. Goodness is sought for its own sake, to please God, and to be the people he intended when he created us. We want to be better now. We want to turn our lives around so we walk on the paths that God has provided us.

Who will be our adversary on that Day? The people hurt by our sins and wrongdoing might testify against us, but the real Adversary is the one whose rules we have broken. We take sides against God whenever we do what he told us not to do, and we also take sides against God when we fail to do the things he commands. Our Maker, who knows what we are meant to be, has given us clear instructions about how to live. This Maker will also be our Judge. If Jesus is the Adversary and the Judge and the Officer of the prison as well, we have no hope of escaping punishment on that Day.

Therefore, we seek to be right with Jesus today. We try not to be angry at our brother. We try not to insult the people around us. We try to meet the higher standards of Jesus, but we fail. The good deeds we manage to perform cannot balance our shortcomings. Our best intentions, our worship and prayers, and our efforts at holiness all might seem to help us come to terms with Jesus quickly, before that Last Day comes when it is to late to come to terms. Left to ourselves, though, we cannot be right with Jesus. Left to ourselves, we still find ourselves facing an eternal prison sentence.

Is there no answer to this problem? The answer has already been given; the answer was found in the blessings which Jesus spoke at the beginning of the sermon. Jesus has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. Jesus has given us a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—Jesus has given us his own perfect righteousness. He gave it as a free gift. Now we are right with him. He is no longer our Adversary, because he has paid our debt in full. Not a penny remains to be paid.

If we are right with Jesus now, we will be right with him on the Last Day. He will not be our Adversary; he will be our Defense Attorney, reminding his Father why have a place in his kingdom, as Jesus also is doing today. On that Day, we will not be thrown into prison. On that Day we will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven; we will inherit the earth.

If that is the case, why does Jesus spend so much time teaching the commandments of God and explaining what they mean? Jesus explains the Law to show us how badly we need his gift. He explains the commandments to open our eyes, so we will see that our righteousness is not good enough for his kingdom. Jesus does not want us to try our best and fall short. Therefore, he is brutally honest with us today, telling us how far we are from his kingdom when we try to get there on our own. Some people, when they read the teachings of Jesus, try to tone them down, making them practical and achievable. They miss the point. Jesus was not exaggerating; he really wants everyone to be as good as he describes. He also wants us to despair of reaching that goal on our own. Only then will we treasure the gift of forgiveness he gives to us.

Forgiveness is no license to sin. We still try our best to live up to Christ’s high standards. We try to be good, and Jesus tells us what “good” looks like. He even shows us what “good” looks like, because the standards he teaches match the life he lived. Because we are forgiven, because we are on the path to heaven, Jesus helps us become more like him. His love and his forgiveness transform our lives so we can bear his image. We are not doing it for him; Jesus is doing it for us. J.

Anger and murder

“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 fires of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

All religions regard human life as sacred. All religions regard murder as a sin against the Source of life. Granted: exceptions can be found to this command. Killing in self-defense is not called murder. Soldiers killing enemy soldiers in wartime, and executioners killing convicted criminals who have been sentenced to death, is not murder. (Religious people, including Christians, sometimes debate these examples, and differing opinions are possible.) Some people distinguish between the value of a human life and the value of an animal life; others make no distinction. Some consider it sinful to kill an animal for any reason, while most people accept killing animals for food and for clothing—and many feel that hunting or fishing for sport is not sinful.

Jesus does not address these matters in this sermon. He speaks of the commandment not to murder, and he carries it a different direction. Any harm we cause to another person—even the emotional harm of an insult—is a sin, violating the commandment not to murder, according to Jesus. He even seems to equate anger with murder—but we must be careful to understand Jesus correctly. Jesus himself expressed anger against people who were doing wrong. At times he used the energy of his anger to overturn the wrong. Anger in itself is not sinful. Anger is a temptation to sin. Anger offers opportunities to sin. Anger becomes sinful when it results in other sins. Anger is sinful also when we become angry for selfish reasons—because something has hurt us or has been inconvenient to us. On the other hand, when anger comes from seeing sin, from seeing that God’s will is not being done, from seeing others suffer due to sin, that anger is not necessarily sinful.

Jesus offers two examples of sinful anger. First he uses the general term “insults”; then he quotes a specific insult. Jesus says that people who are angry enough to insult one another deserve punishment; God will regard them as murderers, both at the time of the insult and at the Last Judgment.

This teaching is a frightening teaching. Only a few people of the world are guilty of murder under its narrow definition. All people have been guilty of selfish anger and even guilty of insulting the people who made us angry. We can hardly live a week among sinful people without sinning this way several times. We might even accuse Jesus of going too far. The best of us is not good enough to keep our tempers at all times. The best of us is in danger of the fires of hell.

Jesus wants us to understand that point. He is quite serious about this teaching, about this interpretation of the commandment not to murder. Even the smallest harm we cause to another person is a sin against God. Despite our good intentions and our best efforts, we cannot escape our guilt. For this reason, we need a better righteousness, the perfection of Jesus, credited to our account. Only through his blessing, his gift, can we escape the judgment we deserve. J.