(Jesus said to his apostles) “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Jesus’ sermon on the mountainside is one of the most famous sermons ever preached. He prefaces a lot of his statements with: “You have heard it said,” following it up with, “but I say.” It puts a lot of the things that the Jewish people believed into proper perspective, as he clarifies their laws, adds to them, or explains what lies at the heart of them. In this passage he puts anger into correct perspective, equating it with murder.
“You have heard it said that murder is evil,” he says, “but I say that anger is evil too, and that merits severe judgement too”. And, if you, like Jesus’ Jewish listeners, wonder if Jesus might not be exaggerating, he takes it further still. “In fact, if you call somebody “a fool” you will be liable to hell fire. Whoa! Thats super crazy! How are we to understand this? Are we to take it literally, or what?
First, Jesus is not saying that the punishment for both offenses is the same; he is saying that they are both grievous offenses. But why? We call people fools all the time! Let me try to explain by asking you a question. Do you believe murder is sinful? That it merits extreme punishment? Why? Because murder is taking the life of somebody who is created in the image and likeness of God. Now, verbal abuse is also denigrating somebody created in the image of God, and God does not like it.
We are given mouths to glorify God, not curse his people. As James writes: “With (our tongues) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10). And, then, without making peace with those we have offended, we approach their Father in heaven with our gifts — do we really believe he wants to accept them?
I mean think about it; this is just common sense, really. How can we call our spouses all kinds of nasty names, accusing them of doing all sorts of vile things, or be abusive to our children using language we would never use in civilized company, and then go to God with our offering of praise? Jesus is saying, “Make peace now, my friend, with all those you have offended, otherwise be prepared for the consequences. They are going to be quite terrible.”
And because anger is the root of this, let us cut it out, shall we?