Matthew 5: 21: “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone,[d] 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,[f] you are in danger of the fires of hell.23 “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, 24 leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. 25 “When you are on the way to court with your adversary, settle your differences quickly. Otherwise, your accuser may hand you over to the judge, who will hand you over to an officer, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 And if that happens, you surely won’t be free again until you have paid the last penny.
What do you think is the most, dangerous, destructive, mind-bending and addictive intoxicant around today? Meth and crack cocaine are quite severe. The toll in our homes and on the roads from alcohol abuse is astronomical. But attend enough Twelve Step groups of all kinds—alcoholics anonymous, cocaine anonymous, narcotics anonymous, sexual addictions anonymous, self-harm anonymous, over-eaters anonymous, emotions anonymous, for those whose lives are controlled by shame, rage or envy, and you’ll hear about this one intoxicant that they all have in common: resentment.
In a moment I’ll explain why I call “resentment” an intoxicant, like a drug. Or did we think I was going to talk about anger today? After all, Jesus says in today’s passage, “If you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment!” So we could add today’s message to all the other messages we may have gotten throughout life that says, “Don’t be angry! Anger is unspiritual! If ever you feel anger, that means you are in no state of grace, but are carnal, and worldly!” So, to that bump of adrenaline you get when you hit your thumb with a hammer, let’s add some guilt and shame for having felt that momentary flash of adrenaline, or for having expressed it somehow. Yet that’s pretty much all that anger is, basically: that surge of adrenaline we feel whenever we or someone or something sacred to us are under threat, whether the threat is real, or only perceived.
Like when you’re driving down the freeway and you signal for a lane change, and suddenly the driver behind you puts the pedal to the metal and peels out from behind you to race you for that spot, so that you have to stand on the brakes to avoid a crash. Does that happen to you here, like it sometimes did in the Twin Cities? I can still feel that bump of adrenaline just thinking about it, especially since it happened when our daughters were in the car with me. What I felt then was anger. The fact that I’m still talking about it, years later, might be resentment. If I should ever give in to road rage, God forbid, it may have more to do with resentment over that past, than with any anger over the present.
I distinguish between anger and resentment, because if Jesus is only saying, “Don’t ever get angry! Anger is unspiritual!” then he flunked his own class. Like the time he ran the money changers out of the temple courts. Or the times he criticized the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Or whenever he expressed his exasperation to his disciples. In such times, he felt anger, and expressed it, justly, fairly and constructively. Resentment, by contrast, is the corruption and misuse of the gift of anger. I think that resentment, more than anger itself, is what Jesus is warning us against today.
A Twelve Step slogan says, “Anger is whenever I think I’m not getting my way today; fear is whenever I think I won’t get my way tomorrow; and resentment is whenever I keep thinking about not getting my way in the past.” Calling someone the kinds of names that Jesus condemns, when we verbally try to damn people to hell, that doesn’t usually happen whenever we feel just a flash of anger over a minor misunderstanding, an act of negligence, or a thoughtless word. Cursing, damning, insulting, demeaning and dehumanizing someone in the ways that Jesus condemns as tantamount to murder, usually there’s some sort of memory and history of pain behind that. That suggests to me that a grievance against someone else has been long nursed into a grudge, and that we are projecting our grudge into the imagined future. Conversely, it could also mean that we ourselves have so long and so badly mistreated someone, that we have to justify it by hating them and holding them in contempt. Just as it is true that we may hate and curse someone for the way they have mistreated us, so can it happen that we may hate and curse someone to justify the ways we have mistreated them.
Again, that kind of contempt and resentment is what I hear Jesus warning us against, and in the most strenuous terms, warning us even against “the fires of hell.” For we cannot wish hell on someone else without being trapped ourselves in a hell of our own making, a hell of resentment.
Over 200 years ago, when the Lewis and Clark expedition was returning home from the winter they spent near Astoria, one of the expedition members requested and got permission to stay and explore the Yellowstone country and its possibilities for fur trapping. His name was John Coulter, and he was the first European American to see the geysers, the boiling, brightly-colored mud pots, the steam vents and other thermal features that make the Yellowstone Basin so amazing. The Blackfeet Indians could have told him all about it, but he was doing all he could to avoid them. What he saw in the Yellowstone basin, and smelled—lots of Sulphur—so frightened him that he called it, “the place where hell bubbled up.”
Now, we know better about that region’s geology. But John Coulter was right: there are times and places where hell bubbles up. Places like Syria, like the eastern half of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eastern Ukraine, Southside Chicago, Israel/Palestine, parts of Mexico and Central America where gangs and drug lords run the show, anywhere that histories of trauma, injustice and other grievances have been kept and treasured and allowed to putrefy into long-held grudges, spanning the generations. And, sadly, I can believe that people can become so addicted to the intoxicant of resentment over these things that they would choose it as their eternal identity and destiny, over the sweet grace of divine harmony and reconciliation, especially if they have to share that eternity with the people and the God whom they resent.
So the problem that Jesus names here is not our occasional passing feelings of anger, but willfully choosing the hell of a long-held resentment over the possibility of reconciliation, by choosing, cherishing and nurturing our grievances into longstanding grudges. Yes, his words do apply to our personal relationships, and to all the garden varieties of slights and slipups by which we injure and offend each other, so often without intending to. But his words in First Century Galilee and Judea also applied to the conflicted history of longstanding grudges and resentments between Jews and Samaritans, between Jews and Romans, and between Jews and Gentiles.
But consider how Jesus treated enemy Romans, Gentiles and Samaritans. Even though he felt and expressed anger, at times, he remained uniquely free from any addiction and enslavement to resentment, in his freedom of forgiveness. Jesus put his own body on the line for his very teaching, literally, as the Romans were nailing him to the cross, and he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Our friends in the 12 Step Recovery community call resentment an intoxicant, because it can warp our sense of reality, take over our lives, and demand as much constant feeding as any drug addiction. Resentment is often the entry level intoxicant that opens the door to other intoxicants, from alcohol to meth, because resentment says, “Those people, or that person, make my life so hard and so bad, I need this substance to help me escape and forget it for a moment.” Or, “I work so hard around here, unlike you-know-who, that I need this substance to help me keep going,” or “Given what I have to put up with, I need this substance to help me kick back and relax.”
What makes resentment all the more dangerous, destructive, and seductive an intoxicant is that it can look so right and masquerade as righteousness. All of us have hurts and hassles in this life. All of us are sinned-against, as well as sinners. None of us will get through life without experiencing disappointments, defeats, deception, betrayal, abandonment, grief, loss, even trauma. And some kinds of injury and betrayal deserve nothing but the most severe and swift No!, as well as that the offender take responsibility for his or her actions.
However valid our reason for feeling anger, and for distrusting someone else’s word, the sweet siren song of resentment is ever ready to join our anger with the following lyrics: We are superior to the one who offended us, by virtue of being the victims. He’s the one who did wrong, so why would I have to examine myself for anything comparable in me, or for any part I may have played in our falling out? Or in keeping the feud going?
The intoxicant of resentment can be so destructive to ourselves also because it blinds us to the blessings and the beauty always there and present to us. We won’t see them if we’re preoccupied with what people have done to us, or failed to do for us, or if we’re focusing instead on what we’re afraid they might do next, or how to get back at them, or take them down a peg or two.
But let’s not underestimate how destructive our resentments can be to others. Like the 27 million Russians, the 6 million Jews, the 7 million Poles and the 7 million Germans who died during World War 2 for Hitler’s crazy politics of resentment, nurtured over the generations.
We’re not immune to such politics of resentment in America. My first college roommate was from South Texas. And I was fresh from Ohio. I don’t know what possessed me to make mention of the American Civil War. But when he replied, “Don’t you mean the war of Northern aggression?” I knew better than to approach that topic ever again.
Much talk radio and journalism of the political left and the right, go beyond facts and logic, and are increasingly turbo-charged with the intoxication of resentment. Resentment that “those people are in power,” or resentment that “those people just can’t accept who’s in power.” Resentment that “those people even want to do that!” by way of policy or protest. So, opinions turn into teams. And teams can then turn into each other’s targets, targets of fear, distrust, contempt, loathing, and longstanding resentment. Then we’re more focused on wining over them, or destroying them, than we are on truth.
So, what’s the antidote to the intoxicant of resentment? Notice how Jesus doesn’t say, “If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that you have something against someone…” Jesus says, “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.”
Usually we’re very good at remembering that we have something against someone else. But to remember, or even consider, that somebody else may have something against us, that requires a humbling but liberating transformation of the heart that we call “grace,” God’s “grace that taught my heart to fear” and “the grace [that] my fears relieved.” That only happens if we can agree with God that we are sinners, as well as the sinned-against. We must also believe with God that he offers and gives us the same unmerited mercy that our enemies and opponents need.
It also requires that we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and walk around in them a while. We may even have to ditch some cherished illusions of innocence, and take some responsibility for bad things that were done in our name. Even if we didn’t do them personally, if they were done in our name, with our tribe, our group, or our benefit in mind, then we have some responsibility. For those kinds of sins that weren’t our own personal sins, I love what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Not all of us are guilty, but all of us are responsible.”
Responsible, that is, to do something. Like the time when Becky and I were in a shop in Detroit, Michigan that was selling international arts and crafts. There I saw a beautiful basket that looked like something from the part of West Africa where we had lived. But nothing on it said where it was from. So I asked the African-American clerk if she could tell me what its country of origin was. A perfectly innocent question, I thought. But the angry, fearful look on her face, and the hostile and defensive tone of her voice as she said, “I don’t know,” all said otherwise.
I was startled for a moment, just flummoxed, until it struck me that my question must have sounded to her like a test, one that I had set up to make her fail, as though I was saying, “See, I’ll show you that you’re such an ignoramus, you don’t even know where this basket is from; but I do.” Her response said that she was not going to accept being made to look or feel stupid by me for not knowing the answer to my question.
Which was not my intention at all. But somehow, that’s the message she got. If not from me, then maybe from other white people in her past. We had been in the Detroit area long enough to know how bad the racial tensions were, and how many grievances black Detroiters had with the few bad apples among the landlords, school teachers, police officers and civil servants they had to deal with, most of whom looked like me. Maybe she had had a school teacher with my skin color who assumed that she was stupid and who treated her that way. I’d had one or two teachers in my youth who treated us boys that way. Her history of hurt and anger was directed at me, even if it wasn’t entirely about me. After I got over my shock, I smiled and said, “I was wondering because this basket reminds me of where we used to live in Africa; it’s so beautiful and I’m so glad you have it in your collection.”
We got along better after that. There was even a gift for me in that testy encounter: it pushed me to consider the personal and communal histories that Black Detroiters brought to our encounters, and to watch myself for anything that might express superiority or condescension or fear or anything else African-Americans have suffered from my majority Anglo culture, whether I intended to convey those things or not.
Or I could have just taken offense at her offense, and held it as a resentment. Then we would both be feeding each other the mind-bending, reality-warping intoxicant of resentment. But someone had to be the first to say, “No thanks; not for me. I’ll own up to my part in this cycle of resentment, estrangement and condemnation. Even if I’m not personally guilty of the past offenses which brought about this moment of tension and misunderstanding, I’ll take some responsibility for bringing that past to closure.”
Jesus’ command is like what another Twelve Step slogan says, that you’ve heard me say before: “Whenever I’m fixating on you, I should be looking at me; and whenever I’m fixating on me, I should be looking to God.”
For Jesus, religious rituals, like sacrifice, and resentment cannot coexist, for the gospel is all about forgiving as God has forgiven us. God will not accept worship that comes from the same mouth that has not repented of cursing someone else. God will not accept a sacrifice from the same hand that is stained with someone else’s blood, or that has struck another person in rage, not until repentance, restoration and reconciliation have begun, for those are at the heart of his gospel. God takes personally the ways we treat each other. “Go and be reconciled to that person,” Jesus says. “Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”
For the greatest sacrifice we can offer up to God is the pride that keeps us feeding our resentments and corrupting legitimate grievances into longstanding grudges. Our reconciliation with anyone whom we may have injured or offended is itself a wonderful act of worship. Without it, no other act of worship makes any sense.