“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.”
As to the specific meanings of the images of this passage, there is little consensus. Are the three examples Jesus brings up parallelisms, or do they increase in seriousness? That is, are “angry – judgment,” “Raca! – council,” and “fool – hell” simply three ways of saying the same thing, or is each one worse than the other, so that we should read more into what’s going on with the word “fool” that brings hell.
The “parallelism” interpretation would necessitate the final of the three examples introduced by the conjunction “and” rather than “but.” The “increasingly severe” interpretation makes more sense with the final conjunction being “but,” as in “This is bad, and this is worse, but this is really bad!”
Also debated is the severity of the “Raca!” and “fool.” Some say they were minor insults; others say the word “fool” in particular was basically a way of telling someone they were damned. If this is the case, then we’re back at the Gospel two weeks ago: “Condemn not, and you will not be condemned.”
This is the first of six “You have heard X, but I say Y” sayings of Jesus, which launch after Jesus’ previous teaching about exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees. Let’s look at each of them and perhaps get some insight. The first of each pairing is what “they have heard it said,” which we can surmise is what the prevailing teachers taught, and the second of the pairings is what Jesus taught.
Murder/Anger and name-calling
Easy divorce/Hard divorce
Keep Oaths/Don’t swear
Eye for an eye/Turn the other cheek
Hate enemies/Love enemies
Notably Jesus’ teaching is more difficult in each case. It certainly “exceeds” the teaching of the Pharisees. But that might be a simplistic way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that Jesus gives the “behind the scenes” insight into what God was thinking when He gave the commandments. God’s Law is about love, and Jesus shows how here.
Due to the Romantic movement love has been completely perverted. It’s understood purely as a feeling, or a political posture. “Love, not Hate” makes a good political statement and telecasts ones willingness to out-source ones love to the wealthy by taxing them, but that’s about it. “Love, not Hate” means you want a socialist economy where everyone gets their “fair share.” But if everyone gets poorer because no one is working as hard due to the negative incentives of socialism, how is that love?
I love to tell this story. A few years ago I was working in an inner city, volunteering at an after school program. When I arrived one day, a man (a “doctor” of some sort) was speaking to the small group which had arrived that afternoon for the program. He was drawing on the chalkboard and writing out all these abstract theories and slogans about all the problems faced by black people. It was replete with acronyms, abstractions that I hardly understood, arrows and lines tangled all over the board. The board was a mess. His audience ranged from 7 to 16, and they were all utterly clueless – as I was – about what was going on.
When I arrived, the man introduced me and proceeded to ask one of the children to summarize what they had been talking about. He picked one of the older teen boys, who had no idea what was going on, but was brave enough to venture a summary and said, “The doctor was teaching us that love makes the world go around.”
I decided to run with that idea. “Yes! That’s a wonderful truth, isn’t it. Let’s talk about that.”
So I invited them to another room (as more people were beginning to arrive) with a new chalkboard, and proposed a situation in which that principle could be applied.
“Say you had a neighbor, an elderly woman who is handicapped and cannot walk up the stairs. And lets say she had steps she had to go up to to get to her house. How would you love her?”
The children correctly brought up a handicap ramp. So I drew a handicap diagram on the board and began asking them specifics about it.
“Right! Now, how many of you know how to build a handicap ramp?”
No one answered. So I pressed them on what they would need to know and do (do and teach?) in order to build that ramp. They’d have to know state building code, to get the rise over distance ratio; they’d have to know basic math; they’d have to know what sort of wood and hardware to use. Knowing the height and length of the ramp, they’d have to know geometry so as to know the angle, so we could cut the wood at the right angle. I didn’t even know that (but one of the teens did, I’m proud to say).
My point to them being, it’s easy to say slogans about love and draw out esoteric slogans and bromides about love. But love isn’t easy. It’s not as easy as voting for a new “system” and trusting someone else to do it. It comes down to knowing civics, math, geometry, and basic construction skills. One person can speak wonderful things about love while grandma stays homebound. Another person may plow through a geometry problem, research code, and spent a Saturday sweating, and not say a single affectionate thing. But grandma has her ramp.
Jesus teaches a love that pulls the curtain back on our pieties and calls for something that actually benefits our neighbor, the way the Lord would have him benefitted. The Pharisees were using the Law as a way of releasing them from genuine love for their neighbor. Recall, their view of the Sabbath Day left men with dropsy in the pit and His disciples hungry. How’s that loving?
A view of the Law that says, “Just don’t kill and you’re good,” keeps a man alive, but not in the fullness of life as the Lord would have him. The Lord doesn’t just want us to be alive; He also wants us to be loved by others.
So each of Jesus’ teachings on what “you have heard” emphasizes the deeper love needed to execute that commandment. Anger and name-calling – bullying – leave someone as a living victim of a verbal knife – how many young people today commit suicide over bullying? Lust for someone other than ones spouse is just as toxic to marriage as the deed itself and leaves a spouse abandoned and destroyed, as does easy divorce. Nurturing a character for being truthful is far more beneficial to your neighbor than having to convince him that a specific deed is trustworthy – who gives you greater peace of mind, a trustworthy person or someone who has to convince you with a pinky swear? Turn the other cheek and love your enemies operate the same way – such are the non-judgmental reactions to injustice, for they may be acting in ignorance, as Jesus recognized.
I think if we over-focus on the specific behaviors of anger or name-calling, or the specific warnings Jesus gives about not following His teaching – what is the council, the judgment, and gehenna (hell fire) – we only fall back into the way the Pharisees taught. “OK, so, what do I need to do so I can avoid judgment? As long as I don’t name call or get angry, then I’m good.”
Jesus is giving an example here – don’t be angry and don’t name-call – but more deeply calling for a love the way our Father loves us. This is “His righteousness” which we are to seek. And of course, nothing better shows the Father’s love for us than Jesus Christ.
Yet, the example of not getting angry or name-calling are good rudiments of what this looks like, even if not exhaustive. There are many ways to build a handicap ramp, after all!
Ideologies, programs, and self-improvement plans are all about the steps one has to perform in order to better himself. It’s great self-love. It’s what the Pharisees taught – how to save yourself. Jesus teaches a love that must be rooted in something else, the foundation of which is the truth that there’s no need to save yourself, because you’ve already been saved. “Save yourself” love leads to “what must I do” love. “Already saved” love leads to a renewed perception of the true humanity of our neighbors.