It Only Takes a Spark
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Matthew 5:21 - 37
February 10, 2023, Words By: Hultner Estrada, Image By: Roberto Zuniga (Masaya, Nicaragua)
In the 1980s there was a popular song among Christian youth in Nicaragua named “La Chispa,” or “The Spark” in English. The song starts by saying “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and soon all those around can warm up in its glowing.”
Years later, I learned this song was written by the American composer Kurt Kaiser and had greatly impacted thousands of lives in the US in the ’60s and ’70s.
It amazes me how true this declaration is, and how easily we forget it. “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” No matter how many times I sing these words, I still struggle to remind myself of the positive effect a single spark — an act of love, compassion or forgiveness — can have on those around us. They can thaw the coldest of hearts.
But all sparks aren’t positive. This week’s lectionary text addresses some tragic human scenarios: murder, adultery, broken relationships, and lawsuits. All of them, when they happen, have the power of a devastating forest fire that consumes those around us. When they occur, the question is always the same: how was that possible, especially in the Church?
Jesus addresses these devastating issues with a list of warnings, the first of those saying: “anyone who is angry… will be subject to judgment… to the court.. and will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
It’s important to take a moment and point out what kind of anger Jesus is talking about here. It’s not the normal, healthy feeling of anger we all experience as humans. He’s addressing the kind of anger that simmers when we don’t deal with it. The kind of anger that is characterized by animosity and vengeance.
Jesus puts this anger at the top of the list. It’s this anger that, like a tiny spark, has the potential to terminate families, churches, and communities. We have all, unfortunately, come to know the devastating power of unchecked anger in our world.
We have seen disputes that began with seemingly minuscule verbal offenses between business or ministry partners grow into painful separations and lawsuits. Small acts of rejection or disagreement in relationships, left unaddressed, can morph into dysfunctional conflict, eventually leading to fractured relationships. We can all likely recall numerous other examples where small disagreements, left unchecked, led to disastrous consequences.
Unattended resentment slowly consumes relationships, couples, faith communities, corporations, and entire cities. We have all witnessed it.
The problem is not the spark itself, but our response to these seemingly little threats: later. “It’s not THAT big of a deal,” we tell ourselves, “So I’ll worry about it LATER.” That is an all-too-common initial reaction, at least in my culture. Tomorrow we’ll talk about it, next month we’ll focus on it, or I’ll work on that when I have the time. Right now, however, it’s not a big deal.
Given our tendency to procrastinate and push our relational conflicts into the future, Jesus’ words are so relevant to us today: “Settle matters quickly…” Matthew 5:25 (NIV). I feel Jesus saying: “do not play with fire!” Small flames in the kitchen can turn into raging infernos in just seconds, destroying substantially more than the kitchen if left unchecked. Distance, physical or emotional, from others will not extinguish the flame of discomfort in one’s heart. The longer we take to address the anger simmering in our hearts, the bigger the flames become. “Settle matters quickly.”
Dwelling Among Us
Jesus accompanies this warning with something else: “leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled.” (Matthew 5:24 NIV) To me, this is good news. It is as if God is saying: “do not worry about coming before me or bringing your offering to me immediately. If you need time to make things right with yourself or others, do it! I Support you. I am with you in this!
The Apostle Paul would later write to the community in Rome: “As much as possible, and to the extent of your ability, live in peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18 New Catholic Version) Perhaps today is a good day to make sure any signal of irritation toward somebody, or vice versa, is properly attended to.