Red: Week 4 - "'You Fool' Merits Hell Fire!"
This week we are concluding the sermon series that we've been working on for the past month--a sermon series entitled "Red: Understanding the Hard Sayings of Jesus." Each week we've been tackling some of the challenging and confounding red letters of the Bible--the saying of Jesus that are printed in red, for those of you who find that last bit odd.
Some of the words of Jesus that we read in the Bible seem completely out of character for him--it's hard to imagine him saying some of them, to be honest.
Today we're going to focus on a verse from Matthew 5:22. It's a passage that is right smack dab in the middle of the incredible Sermon on the Mount--a sermon filled with beautiful words, challenging calls to discipleship and hopeful visions of the way the world should be.
And as you are reading through the Sermon on the Mount you hit verse 22 of chapter 5 and suddenly you realize that Jesus just said that calling someone a fool is the same as killing them, and the person who does such a thing will be subject to the fires of hell.
I know. That doesn't seem very Jesus-like of Jesus--to condemn someone to the fires of hell because of something they said.
Which is why we are going to dig deeply into this text today to understand exactly what Jesus was saying, and how what Jesus was teaching here is something that I believe we already know deep down in our souls because we were created, embedded pre-programmed to know it by God himself.
Here's what I believe Jesus was teaching his followers:
Speak carefully, your words can kill.
We know how deadly and powerful our speech can be. And for many of us we struggle with this knowledge, giving in to the impulse for deadly language more often than we'd like.
Have you ever had one of those moments when someone was being completely crappy to you, dressing you down verbally, making you feel like garbage, and then they walked away in triumph leaving you smoldering and used-up? No one? You know that moment. It's when you say afterward, "Ohhhhhh I wish I'd said THAT thing to them," or "I wish I'd had a better comeback!!"
So I'm going to help you out today. Because I'm that kind of pastor. I'm going to give you a list of insults that you can use in those moments when you feel a bit speechless while the bullies in your life are stealing your lunch money.
I'm not saying I hate you, but if you ever got hit by a bus, I'd be driving it.
Some people deserve to eggs thrown at them, brick shaped eggs, made of bricks.
I'm a pacifist all right, I'm 'bout to pass a fist right across your face.
Nothing brightens up a room like your absence.
Your problem is you lack the power of conversation but not the power of speech.
I thought of you today, and it reminded me to take out the garbage.
Like I said, I am here to help.
Seriously, though, our anger and frustration can lead to serious destruction. The anger that wells up inside of us when we feel wronged, or attacked, or slighted in some way--that anger can quickly turn into a dark, cruel wish for harm to come to those that hurt us.
Resentment, anger, the inability to forgive wrongs---all of these things can eat away at us inside until we become hollow. That old saying is true--Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
Jesus was tapping into the universal, God-breathed desire of all human beings to be right with the universe and with one another. He was also identifying the things that keep us from making those kinds of things a reality.
In Matthew 5:22 Jesus says this:
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.
So let's set the scene here... Jesus is sitting on the hillsides of the Sea of Galilee in what was essentially a "no-man's" land between villages. He is teaching the core of the teachings that would define his ministry--an exposition on the kingdom of God that was both "now" and "then." Jesus also was reframing the Law of Moses in a way that moved away from superficial--"let-me-see-what-I-can-get-away-with-and-still-be-right-with-God" theology to something a bit more relational.
Which is why Jesus began so much of the teachings that we read in the Sermon on the Mount with these words: "You have heard it said..." and then he would quote the law. Then he would say, "But I say to you..." and then he would give them a new understanding of how the laws weren't enough to keep us in right standing with God.
Prior to verse 22, he states the obvious law about killing someone could result in you being subject to the death penalty. Then he hits them with verse 22. "But I say to you that even being angry with your brother or sister will end in judgement, calling someone a Raca the ancient word for "airhead" ought to land you in court, but calling someone a fool will land you in hell fire.
Death penalties in the ancient world were no joke. If you killed someone by accident that was one thing, but if it was intentional all it took was two witnesses to verify you had done it on purpose and then you would have rocks thrown at you by the whole town until you died.
But Jesus takes it a step further. Jesus says, "Ah, but murderous thoughts start in the mind, then go to the lips... and then destruction, the kind of destruction that results in murder unfolds." So if you get to the point in your thought life, he is teaching, where you are giving voice to the dark, cruel anger you feel toward someone who has wronged you, and you speak violence then you are guilty of murder as if you killed them with your bare hands. And as such, you are then subject to hell fire.
Now when Jesus speaks of hell here, he uses the word Gehenna, which was probably the worst place that anyone in first century Judea could think of. It was a trash heap that was constantly burning, constantly full of garbage, refuse, horrible smells. And it was on the site of ancient, evil altars to the Canaanite god Molech, a place where child sacrifice had been performed in the ancient world. It was an evil place of torment--the opposite of Paradise.
This is how serious Jesus was about what he was saying.
How would we teach this in our own context? Well, we might say something like "Our relationship with God is predicated on our relationship with others." Or we could just say what we said at the beginning of this sermon: Speak carefully your words can kill.
And the words that kill aren't always words that are spoken directly at someone--although those have their own particular power to gravely wound others. Sometimes our killing words are spoken in gossip about someone to another person, diminishing them, slaying their reputation. Even flip remarks, offhand comments have the potential to destroy someone in the eyes of another.
Almost every single one of us who is here today struggles with this.
What can we do to keep anger and venomous speech out of our lives, and our habits? What can we do ensure that we are as close to God as we can be--not in places of torment, darkness and cruelty? What can we do in those moments when we are being hurt, shamed, wounded by the actions or the words of others--and we want so badly to lash out.
First, I believe we need to admit the pain and vulnerability that we are feeling. There is nothing wrong with admitting that the most likely reason why you are feeling angry and frustrated is because you are hurting. The Bible is full of passages where people are crying out in pain. Most of the Psalms in the Old Testament are filled with these kinds of admissions.
But what happens to most of us is that anger, rage and hard words become the ways we mask our true feelings. They are like puffs of smoke, covering up the fact that what we really want to say is "I'm hurt--I am wounded."
And maybe the hurt that we are feeling is so deep, so absolutely devastating that it doesn't take much to bring it to the surface. We need to admit and own the reasons we feel the way we do.
Second, I believe that we have to surrender our whole heart to God. When we let God have "part" of our heart, but hold on to the angry half--it's like we are holding God off at arms length.
Some of us stubbornly hold on to our anger and our resentment toward others because we don't know what we would do if we stopped feeling that way. They've become old friends in a way. We start to define ourselves over and against another person with whom we are angry, and then we don't know where to stop.
As Jesus taught over and over again, you have to let all of it go in order to be in the kind of relationship with God where things start to transform--things like deep-seeded anger, resentment and the like.
Finally, we need to seek reconciliation if we are going to work through our anger and keep our anger from spilling over into our speech.
Trying to make up for our anger and venomous words outside of reconciliation doesn't work. God isn't fooled by us. Our guilty sacrifices, our efforts to make up for the fact that we aren't all in when it comes to our faith--God sees through all of that. Some of us make promises in a way--we bargain with our service to the church or our tithes and offerings. "God, I'm giving you my time and my money, I'm volunteering and tithing and going to church---all I want is to hang on to this one little piece of my angry, pea-picking heart."
So what happens to us when we hold on to that anger? Well, there's a good chance that it will turn inward if it's never resolved. And anger turned inward is called depression. During most of my struggles with depression, I found myself thinking dark, cruel and angry thoughts, some of which made their way to my lips. So many of us are fighting depression because we haven't learned how to make peace with ourselves first, and then with those who have wronged us.
Or we can let our resentments back up like a nasty toilet that then overflows at the most inopportune moment. I know that's a pretty awful visual, but it kind of works. Some of us store up our anger, our resentment and then when we finally have had enough it all comes tumbling out like a bunch of raw sewage into the world.
But here's the thing---reconciliation requires two people. It takes two to reconcile, because reconciliation requires repentance. You notice that earlier I said "seek" reconciliation not "achieve" it. Sometimes your efforts at reconciliation will not be received with grace. In those moments you may just have to forgive that person and move on, knowing that you did everything you could to release your anger and find connection with them.
These words that we read today--these words of Jesus--they are hard words to hear. But try as we might to parse them, gloss over them, ignore them, we can't do it. We need to step into this hard saying, and the hard truth behind it if we are going to become the people that God has always dreamed for us to be.
Beloved, speak carefully your words can kill. But also know that out of the same mouths that produce dark, cruel and angry words--can come words of life, beauty, hope, peace and grace.