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Liturgical Lessons from the Decalogue: Angry Worship?

By Nicholas Zork


“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court;” (Matthew 5:21-22 NASB)


This past week has been one of the angriest weeks I can remember. Anger over a tragic killing, a grand jury decision and ongoing systemic injustices in the United States has spilled out into the streets of Ferguson, Missouri and cities across the nation. Some protests have been violent; most have been peaceful; nearly all have been angry—as have so many responses to them. In fact, anger has been everywhere, dominating the 24-hour news cycle, Facebook posts, blogs and many face to face conversations. I’ve been angry. To be honest, I still am. So what am I— what are all of us who claim to follow Jesus—supposed to do with this anger? How can we respond? And how can we prepare to worship a God of peace, love and justice? 


The Gospels offer relatively few explicit instructions about Christian worship, but fortunately one of them deals directly with the issue of anger. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is appropriating the teachings of the Decalogue and challenging assumptions about them. The traditional Protestant understanding is that Jesus is basically shifting the emphasis from outward observance to inner attitude—adultery becomes lust, murder becomes anger—raising the proverbial bar of righteousness to a level that no one can attain. This, the interpretation goes, serves to highlight the universal need for God’s grace. Ethicists Glen Stassen and David Gushee, however, convincingly challenge this understanding in their book, Kingdom Ethics. They argue that this collection of Jesus’ teachings are, in fact, intended to teach not impossible ideals but very doable and significant practices. They contend, in short, that Jesus is greatly concerned about adultery, murder and the many ways we mistreat one another. He’s so concerned, in fact, that he gets at the underlying issues. Namely, our problematic thoughts and attitudes are not simply bad in and of themselves. The real problem with anger is that it leads to mistreating and, at times, even killing one another. For this reason, Jesus offers a way to break the destructive cycle of anger and violence, which relates directly to our worship practices: 


“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court…if therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” (Matthew 5:22-24 NASB)


Jesus teaches us that if we are angry with someone or if they are angry with us, we should stop whatever we’re doing and go reconcile with them. But, importantly, He specifically mentions worship: “if you’re presenting your offering at the altar, leave your offering there before the altar…” Why single out an act of worship? This is one of Jesus’ few statements about worship, and He’s telling us to stop! This might surprise us. But as a Rabbi rooted in the prophetic tradition, Jesus is actually echoing the ancient prophetic sentiments found in Isaiah 1: “Bring your worthless offerings no longer…Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.” Jesus, like Isaiah, knows what we often forget: the reconciliation with a holy God that we celebrate in worship is only possible when we are reconciled with our fellow human beings. Anger is unavoidable. Indignation at the injustices of this world is needed! But anger that goes unchecked by practices of reconciliation will never bring healing. You may have offended someone in your anger this week. I’m sure I have. Before we bring another gift of praise to the God who welcomes all, let’s seek out those with whom we need to be reconciled.


Sometimes the best worship practice is the lived worship of leaving the service early—or not going at all—if that’s what we need to do to reconcile with someone and break the cycle of anger and violence. May we be reconciled with our brothers and sisters just as God has reconciled with all of us through Jesus Christ so that we might participate together in God’s healing work in this broken world.