"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny."
- Matthew 5:21-26
We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount. We began with the Beatitudes, then You are the light of the world. Yesterday, we read that Jesus taught, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire." Jesus has just said that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill. Here He begins with the law against murder (see Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17). Jesus elaborates on the law repeatedly in the following passages with the formula but I say to you. My study bible calls this a statement of total, divine authority (7:29). As Christ, the Son, He is both Creator of man and Author of the Law; this is how He speaks with this kind of authority. There is anger which is not sinful (Psalm 4:4, Mark 3:5), but here Jesus forbids a sinful anger, which He identifies with murder. The council was the highest legal body among the Jews. Hell is "Gehenna" in the Greek (see also 10:28), the final condition of sinners who resist God's grace.
"Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." My study bible tells us that peace with other believers is a requirement for worship (Mark 11:25). The ancient "kiss of peace" (which in the West today often means a handshake) comes at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer; as a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness, it is preparation to offer the holy gifts at the altar (1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Peter 5:14).
"Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny." In Luke's Gospel, this teaching comes in the context of the end of the age (Luke 12:57-59); here it's in the context of reconciliation, which also places it within the Liturgy. A delay of reconciliation, says my study bible, allows animosity to spread, as well as other evils (see Ephesians 4:26-27).
The ancient Law was designed to give community to the Jews, to form and shape a society for the "people of God." Here, Jesus' emphasis takes on the shape of the emphasis of community, the power of love working through community. A statute against murder becomes a powerful parallel against a sinful kind of anger and its potential effects. This extends both among individual personal relationships, and through to community in Jesus' teachings. He begins with name-calling. "Raca" is an insult (from Aramaic), meaning "empty" and used to indicate worthlessness or stupidity. If we extend the understanding of name-calling, we know that it is frequently used both to provoke and to demean, cutting down a person in a psychological or spiritual form of murder. Indeed, if one is reasonably upset or angry about something, the effective ways of expressing exactly what is wrong in a responsible way would not be to use this type of personally insulting language. More recent psychological understanding of verbal abuse in domestic, parental, or other relationships tend to support Jesus' view of equivalence to murder; there is no more dire warning to us about the use of demeaning language and uncalled-for insult than in the potential results of such abuse and its attack on peace, both within relationships and to individuals. We see it socially as well; how often does insult and name-calling lead to murder and destruction of community, particularly where gang proliferation (for instance) is high, or anyplace where social standing will be defended with violence or even through other means that destroy peace within community? To be reconciled as quickly as possible thereby becomes a deeply sensible advocacy, something we should wish to cherish if we cherish our communities. A Christian needing to pick out enemies within community is problematic. There are always ways to express discomfort or injustice (Jesus will explicitly give instructions for correction among believers, including forgiveness) which avoid such a route. To correct or point out an injustice is one thing; to humiliate and shame is another. As for festering anger in which peace is not established, there is no telling what results may come over time as grievances are allowed to grow and be nursed by yet more real or perceived injustice. It is important to see justice at the root of these teachings, as well as Jesus' great knowledge of human nature which we can see played out around us every day, if we but look around. All of this ultimately is about love, love at work in community, and what is best for community in that light. As His followers, we cannot correct everything and everyone around us, but we can at least do our best to play our part and follow His words and teachings seriously. Let us remember how much He says depends on it.