Is there anyone who hasn’t called someone an “idiot” at some point in their life?
Image via Pixabay
I don’t mean when we say it in a good-natured or jokey way. My wife sometimes calls me a name while joking around, usually because I’ve been purposely trying to bug her to make her laugh.
At least, I think that’s why she calls me that. Now that I say it out loud, I’m having second thoughts…
But for real, haven’t we all called someone an idiot? Or said it about someone behind closed doors? Or used a similar term? Or at least carried some such thoughts towards someone?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks to the issue:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 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.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5.21-24)
Across all culture and times and places, there generally seems to be a predilection opposed to murder. Murder is the big one. Most of humanity has generally agreed: Murder = bad.
Jesus starts His teaching with avoiding murder, a most obvious commandment, but then takes it much deeper than simply the violent act.
In the next section of the Sermon, Jesus will talk about how adultery is sin, but it starts with lust in the heart, and this inner lust is also sinful (Mt 5.27-30). Similarly, here He seems to be saying that murder is sin, but it starts in the heart with anger, which can also be sinful.
Murder will bring you under judgment, of course. But Jesus says that so can this anger. We are warned a number of times about anger in the New Testament (Eph 4.26-27; Col 3.8; 1Tim 2.8; Jam 1.19-20), and these passages help support what Jesus is talking about here.
Like with the lust issue, it is as if Jesus is saying “Don’t think that because you haven’t killed anyone that you’re completely pure of this. Take what’s going on inside you seriously. Deal with it there first.”
He notes that if you say to your brother or sister, “Raca!” (an Aramaic word that likely meant “Empty-head!” or what we would probably call “Stupid!” or “Idiot!”), you could apparently be charged or sued in the Jewish courts of that time, presumably for slander.
But the real warning from Jesus is that to say such a thing to another (like “You fool!”) puts you in danger of hellfire.
It seems to be less about using the actual words or calling names (although Jesus would also note that our words would be something that we will be judged by – Mt 12.36). These words flow into the next couple of verses, which talk about reconciliation.
And look how seriously God takes this – if you are coming into the worship service, and you are not right with your brother or sister, then stop right there. Leave your worship for a moment. Go make things right, and then come back.
Given how much God desires our worship, I wonder what this says about His desire for our reconciliation, that He literally says “Make things right with your neighbour first, before you offer your gift of worship to Me!”
We watch our words, then, because we know that our words can damage or destroy our relationships. Harsh words typically come from a place of anger, which we are warned against.
So, we watch what we say. Little kids slander and call names because they lack the words to properly express themselves. It is understandable, but we are supposed to grow out of that. Mature adults find ways to make their points and even express their disagreement without resorting to insults or harsh language.
But what of Jesus calling names sometimes? (e.g. Mt 23.13-29). When I’ve taught on this topic before, I sometimes get that pushback. “Jesus called the Pharisees names and used harsh language at times, therefore I can do it and still be like Him.”
And while the logic seems to track, I don’t know how to justify it alongside the biblical commandments to avoid such things. God gets angry too, but we are still warned against it ourselves.
This must mean that anger in itself is not sin, of course, but the fact that we are commanded to deal with it quickly in our lives must mean that there is a very real potential that it can spill over into sin if we are not careful.
The simplest answer to wrestling with all of this is that Jesus is Lord, and perfect, and therefore His anger and words are also always perfect. I am not Lord, and far from perfect, and therefore my anger and words are also far from perfect.
Jesus can use whatever words He wants, because He is perfect in expressing them, even in judgment. I, on the other hand, am commanded to keep a close watch on my words and my anger, and therefore my job is to obey God’s commandments on the matter.
And so we seek to avoid the hypocrisy of using our mouths to praise God and yet curse those made in His image (Jam 3.9-12). But, as we have discussed in a previous column, our words come from the overflow of what’s going on inside of us, and so our words reveal our hearts every time.
Therefore, we pay attention to our words so that we can watch for the anger against others that may be growing in our hearts. And while murder is likely not the end result for most of us, the fact that Jesus tied the two together reminds us that He takes this very seriously, and so of course should we.
May we be wise and perceptive, paying to attention to our words and our hearts, and inviting the Lord to be in the midst of both.
And may we grow in the patience, the grace, and the mercy of Christ in our interactions with one another, seeking to love as He loves us.
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