Matthew 5:21–26 (ESV): Anger
In this passage, Jesus talks about the topic of anger. He starts off by saying, “You have heard that it was said” (verse 21 (ESV)) and reminds them about the Old Testament laws against murder, but then Jesus instructs his audience that the law is only the surface of the issue: getting angry with your brother still subjects you to judgement; insulting your brother will make you “liable to the council;” calling your brother a fool will make you liable to “the hell of fire” (verse 22 (ESV)).
For this reason, Jesus tells his audience that if they’re offering a gift to God at the altar, and remember, while making that offering, that their brother has something against them, they should leave the gift behind, and go to be reconciled with that person—then they can come back and present their offering.
Similarly, Jesus ends this section with the following statement, which I think is a metaphor:
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. (verses 25–26 (ESV))
As I say, I think this is a mini metaphor/parable, but I suppose it could also simply be advice for when someone’s taking you to court. More on this in the Thoughts section…
I think it’s pretty well understood, in this passage, that when Jesus says “brother” he doesn’t literally mean your biological brother; he’s referring to anyone. Or maybe he is referring specifically to believers, but I think he’s talking more generally than that; I don’t speak Greek, and I couldn’t find anything in the footnotes to indicate anything special about the word translated as “brother,” so I won’t fight anyone who thinks it’s more strict than how I’m taking it.
I mention that Jesus starts off this section by saying, “You have heard that it was said,” and I mention that because he’s going to use that phrase a few times, in the upcoming passages. He’s trying to contrast the Jews’ understanding of Old Testament law with what God really requires of them, which, in most cases, is more than what’s actually written down. (For example, in this case, it’s written down that you’re not to murder anyone, but the deeper meaning is that you’re not even to get angry with people.) Meaning, he wants them to understand that being righteous is an inner thing, not an outer thing.
This passage starts off with Jesus making the point that God requires more of us than just obeying some rules and regulations. If you don’t murder anyone that’s all well and good, but if you get angry with someone that will still subject you to judgement. God requires both inner and outer purity. It’s possible that one might make the case that there is “righteous anger,” as opposed to “unrighteous anger,” in which case Jesus’ warning against anger here would only apply to being “unrighteously angry.” I would argue, however, that there is no such divide, since Jesus is talking about being angry at a person; I think I’m on pretty solid ground if I say that the only form of anger that would be considered “righteous” would be anger at sin—not at a person. If you commit a sin, I might become angry that sin exists in the world, but I can’t become angry with you, personally, as that is a form of judgement, which is to be left to God. If you’re angry at someone—even if that person is guilty of a sin, even if that person is guilty of a grievous sin—examine your motives. I think you’ll find that there is also some sin of your own intermixed in there. (It can’t be denied that we’re much more likely to get angry when someone sins against us, rather than against someone else; are we really angry about the sin itself, or are we more angry against our own [perceived] hardship?)
Jesus also includes, in this category, calling someone a fool. As opposed to what I just said above, about anger, I think that this would be context dependent. Meaning, if you call someone a fool because you’re angry at them, and you are trying to insult them, that’s what Jesus is referring to. On the other hand, based on all of the wisdom in Proverbs, if someone really is a fool, and you’re gently and lovingly trying to help them gain wisdom, then pointing out their foolishness wouldn’t be a bad thing. This is a purely theoretical point, though, as one might argue that even in this situation, calling them a fool is a bad idea; if you’re trying to help someone, insulting them isn’t going to do it for you. (Really, if you’re trying to help someone, and you find yourself calling them a fool, it could be that you’re more interested in feeling superior than in actually helping.) So it’s possible that you could come up with a theoretical conversation, in which you can point out a person’s foolishness to them because you love them, and want to help them gain wisdom, that might not apply under Jesus’ teaching here—but even if you could, I’m sure you could word it even better, and avoid the word “fool.”
After reminding his audience that they are not just to avoid murder, but even avoid being angry, Jesus says something that might have been considered controversial. (I’m not sure if it would or wouldn’t have; it’s hard to get into the heads of his audience, who were from a different culture and religion, 2,000 years ago.) He tells them that being reconciled to someone who is angry with you is more urgent than making an offering to God. (From what Jesus is saying, I think he’s referring to a “fellowship offering,” as opposed to a sin offering. I could be wrong. Even if I’m right, would it have made a difference? It’s not relevant anymore, except as a point of discussion, since we don’t present offerings anymore, but this is the type of thing I think about, sometimes.) His audience would have probably considered it more important to worship God than to be reconciled to one’s brother—and I’d even agree with that. But there’s a difference between importance and urgency. God exists, and always has existed, and always will exist—He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But the person whom you are quarreling with is not; the situation you’re in is bound by time, just as you are. If you are in a quarrel, there is an urgency to try and attain reconciliation. That’s not to say that we could neglect our worship of God—by no means!—but there is also a point to be made that your worship of God will not be as meaningful as it should if you’re quarreling with someone. Attach a higher urgency to the situation you’re in.
The passage ends with Jesus talking about the case where you are going to court with someone. As mentioned above, I think this is a metaphor—a very short parable—that he is using to make his point: be reconciled to your brother, before you end up subject to God’s judgement—but it’s possible that it’s literal, and Jesus is really talking about court and jail and punishment.