Can My Wrath Be Righteous?
There’s always someone who does it better. If you put on your best shirt to and come to church, there always seems to be that guy who not only wears a shirt, but it’s the sort of shirt that has some fancy bible passage on it. If you make it through catechism class and barely memorize the Apostle’s Creed, she has both the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene memorized. If you bring a box of donuts to the potluck, that other person always seems to bring the homemade cake, made from scratch. There’s always someone who seems to do it better. That’s the place where these words begin in Matthew 5. We read: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 CSB17)
It was hard to beat the Pharisees. If you fasted, they fasted longer. It was hard to beat the Scribes. If you memorized a part of the bible, they had vast portions of the bible already memorized. And in these words, Jesus was telling his people that their righteousness needed to go way and above the righteousness of the Pharisees and Scribes. And with these words, Jesus was showing them that the right attitude was far, far more important than the right action. What happens in the heart is far more important than what is done with the hands. And in all the words that follow he makes the point with a real-life example. We read: “21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.” (Matthew 5:21–22 CSB17)
Can my wrath be righteous? That’s the question that Jesus makes us ask ourselves. Can we ever be angry and be right at the same time. And the simple and clear answer is: yes. I remember when I was in catechism class. And we public school kids hadn’t memorized anything before we entered catechism class. And week after week for about a month we put in half-hearted work with sad results. And our pastor, who was this kind and amazingly patient man, one day lost all that patience. And in a rare outburst of anger told us that we needed to learn our parts of the catechism. His anger burned. And what made it burn so brightly and why I still remember it today is because every word he said was right and righteous.
Can my wrath be righteous? The answer is: yes. But notice that here in these words, the answer can also be no. The Pharisees and Scribes did not murder with their hands. But they did murder with their hearts. They would not lay a hand on those around them to hurt them or harm them. But they hated them. And so, Jesus teaches them that righteousness is first and foremost a matter of the heart, not a matter of the hands.
And where does that leave us here this morning? It is impossible for us to look at these words and not see our sin. There have been times in our lives when we should have had righteous wrath. But we didn’t. And, yet, there have been times where the opposite was true. There have been times when we had wrath—so much wrath. But it wasn’t righteous wrath. There were those times when we murdered—not with our hands, but instead, with our hearts.
Jesus preaches these words to us destructively and deliberately. These words are not soft punches. These are hammer-blows meant to crush us. Jesus preaches these words so that each of us would realize that we cannot win. We cannot manage our anger appropriately. There are times that we should have righteous wrath, and it’s not there. There are times that we have wrath—but it’s definitely not righteous.
We look at ourselves and we see how much and how often we have sinned in both ways. And if, like me, you look at your soul and ask, “how can I get out of this trap,” then lift your eyes up and look to Jesus. There are times I should have had righteous wrath, but didn’t. But Jesus, he is the one who had perfect wrath in our place. Do you remember the time when he drove the money changers out of the temple. What always amazed me most about those words is the time involved. This wasn’t a sudden outburst of anger. No, it was a slow boil. He took the time to walk through the temple courtyard. And he took the time to slowly weave a whip. And when he saw how God’s people could not worship his Father anymore, he unleashed his wrath. But his anger was perfect. And what gives us so much comfort and hope is that his wrath was perfect in our place.
But what about the times we were full of wrath. But it was not righteous wrath? Then look to Jesus on Good Friday. Here in these words Jesus mentions that whoever hates his brother enough to say, “moron” to him is in danger of hellfire. But who is the one who endured the hellfire for all those people he was speaking to? Jesus was. We so very often cannot manage our anger. And even more so, we cannot master it. But Jesus had righteous anger in our place. And Jesus endured the righteous wrath that we deserved in our place to pay for our unmanaged and unmastered anger. But where do these words go from here? “23 So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Reach a settlement quickly with your adversary while you’re on the way with him to the court, or your adversary will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:23–26 CSB17)
Can I have righteous wrath? As repentant children of God who know our sins are forgiven, notice what Jesus does. He gives us perfect and practical advice for our daily lives. So if we ask the question, “can I have righteous wrath,” the answer first of all is, yes. years ago I went to a wedding. And the pastor conducting the wedding gave one of the most muddled and confusing wedding sermons I had ever heard. And so, after the sermon, he offered up a prayer. And by that point I knew that from the lack of substance in the sermon the prayer wouldn’t be much better, so when all the others bowed their heads in prayer, I sat there in the back studying the people in the pews. The pastor opened up his prayer by calling on the “God of our many understanding.” In other words, he was saying that we all have different views of who God is and each is equally valid. Yikes! But it got worse. He told us, the congregation, to gather up our positive memories and energies and pool them together as a wedding gift to the bride and groom. And it only got worse from there. And what was amazing to see was one by one, Christians of different denominations lifting up their heads and refusing to pray with that pastor. I remember a dad looking up with this look of wrath and anger in his eyes and then reaching over to grab the hands of his children to make them stop praying. Those Christians, all at once, together, were so angry at what the pastor prayed, they all stopped together. But my friends in Christ, how did they know? How did they know that they had the right to be angry? How did they know if their anger was righteous anger? They heard the Good Shepherd’s voice speaking to them in his word. They read their bibles. They heard solid Christian sermons. And so they could be sure that their wrath was right and righteous. And the same is true for you. How do you know if your wrath is righteous? Read your bibles, come to church as your are right here.
But, my friends in Christ, what if the opposite is true. What if you lash out in wrath, but your wrath is unfounded? Then, take the advice Jesus gives here: be reconciled to your neighbor. And notice the urgency in these words. Jesus tells them to leave their gift right there and be reconciled to their neighbor. What does that mean for us? If you have wronged someone—you are in the wrong. And if you hold wrath and anger in your heart, then what should you do? Be reconciled with the person you have wronged. And when that happens, you will face the temptation to delay. You will want to find the right words. You will want to find the right time. No, instead, rush to be reconciled. Lay your sin at their feet. And, let me tell you as one who has had to do this more than once in my life, there is such shattering vulnerability in that action. But know this: The same Savior who died for your unrighteous wrath will be there for you and with you when you repent and try to reconcile with your brother or sister in the faith.
Can my wrath be righteous? Read God’s word and then the answer will be, “yes.” And for those times you fail, reconcile with the one you harmed. For your Savior who forgives you will shelter you and watch over you too. Amen.