Matthew 5:21-22 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
I have met people who could rationalize theft, who didn’t believe that adultery was really a sin. But murder is universally considered a sin and a crime. Of all the commandments, the one against murder probably enjoys the widest acceptance. And like the Pharisees, most people think they are innocent when it comes to murder.
Anger, on the other hand, doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Anger is just an emotion or attitude. Who of us hasn’t been angry with someone before?
The anger Jesus describes is that kind of habit of the mind, that kind of cultivated resentment against someone, an emotion that wants revenge. When we harbor this kind of anger, it is really a form of self-pity. We are feeling sorry for ourselves. It is all about me, and my honor, and my feelings. I want the satisfaction of seeing someone pay for what they have done.
It’s not impossible to love someone with whom we are angry. But anger works against love. You know Paul’s great description of love in 1 Corinthians 13? “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking…” Couldn’t you insert the word anger and in each case make just the opposite observation? Anger is not patient, anger is not kind. It does envy, it does boast, it is proud. It is rude, it is self-seeking… If love is the fulfillment of the law, then my anger puts me a long way away from God’s law. Attitudes matter as much as actions. Jesus is showing us our hearts here, and they don’t look righteous.
Sometimes those angry hearts reveal themselves with angry words. “Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of difference between the insults Jesus quotes here. “Raca” means something like “air head” or “bubble brain.” It’s like telling a person they have nothing between their ears but a space for rent sign. The Greek word for “fool” is the same word from which we get “moron.” These all seem to say the same thing about a person.
We don’t know the tone of voice with which Jesus said these words, but some commentators suggest he may have had a bit of irony in his voice. He didn’t mean to distinguish “Raca” from “fool.” He is satirizing the rabbis, who tended to create man-made distinctions between things. Behavior A deserved punishment X, but behavior B deserved punishment Y. The truth is: sin is sin. It all deserves death and hell.
We might be tempted to debate just how much harm insults like “Raca” or “fool” really do. Words can do more harm to others than some people think, but that isn’t Jesus’ point. The point is the harm our insults do to us. They are a window to my heart, a heart that is proud, angry, and lacking in love. Those attitudes matter as much as actions, and they make us anything but righteous.
If we are honest, we have to look outside ourselves for righteousness. And that is exactly what our Savior wants us to do. Trying harder isn’t going to save us from the judgment Jesus warns about. His words drive us to look to him for help. The help we find is not Jesus showing us some nifty little secrets for getting this all under control. He offers nothing in the way of self-help. Instead, he would say to us, “I will give you a real righteousness, because I will give you the credit for my perfect control of my anger, my mouth, and my hands. When you stand before the judgement seat of God, I will give you a perfect record of love and self-control, because it won’t be yours but mine he sees. I will wipe away your angry thoughts and plots, your loveless words, and if necessary, even murder with my blood shed at the cross. I forgave the anger of Joseph’s brothers, the insults of the thief crucified next to me, and even the murders committed by Moses, David, and Paul. I will forgive your thoughts and actions, too.”
That is how our angry hearts and insulting mouths can be more righteous than the Pharisees, or the moralists we know today.