He starts with what is seemingly the tamest case—“anyone who is angry with a brother or sister” (Matthew 5:22 NIV)—and renders it even tamer sounding in the concrete: “Anyone who calls a brother or sister ‘Stupidhead!’” (Matthew 5:22, my paraphrase). The potential punishment, though, is anything but tame: being subject to God’s judgment, even hellfire.
Sounds harsh. If you grew up with siblings or watched your own children closely, however, you are familiar with the secret ferocity of the rage he’s talking about—how, though it begins in earliest childhood, it truly is akin to murder. Indeed it would be murder more often, I think, if small ones were more adept in their violence. When I think back on the wraths of my own childhood—I remember, especially, an instance involving a handful of my or my combatant’s hair, ripped out by the roots—I see what Jesus is getting at. I honestly can’t remember whose hair it was, my own or my sister’s, but I remember the spongy pink underside of the scalpskin and, beneath that, the rage. It’s not merely the severity of the action, Jesus is saying; it’s the intent, the attitudes and feelings, that merit eternal punishment.
Also those without siblings are subject to anger on occasion. Rage spans our lives, beginning on the playground and ending in court. We fume against our parents, our employers, our spouses, our children, our closest friends. Even the total strangers who ring up our purchases in stores can kindle our annoyance, frustration, impatience—all synonyms for wrath. Anger is, hands down, the most common symptom of most mental illnesses. It is, on occasion, every person’s sin.
It would have been nice had Jesus iterated, here, what we believers know to be true: that we can’t escape our angry selves, that the only way to avoid hellfire is through genuine shame and acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice to pay for our murderous rages. But, of course, Jesus hadn’t yet made that sacrifice that day on the mountainside, and the sermon he preached is less about the next life than it is about this one—how we might live better, happier lives while we’re still here.
There is a cure for the inevitable rages of this life, and it is this: conciliatory heart.
Jesus is uncommonly clear about this. “First go and be reconciled,” he counsels (Matthew 5:24). And again, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary” (Matthew 5:25). Reconciliation is not only the wisest solution—you can’t win against someone else’s anger, he argues—but the best one, from God’s point of view. Even church attendance isn’t as important as getting along.
Such a simple cure, and yet so difficult to learn and do. To be reconciled. To settle matters when someone has it in for us. To give in.
Jesus’ gargle of a curseword, raca—“Fool!” but meaner sounding—sums up all sin, it seems to me. It is my father’s growl of annoyance that I have inherited. It my daughters’ arrogance, inherited from me. It is my certainty, in every situation, that I am right and whoever else is wrong.
And, in this early sermon, Jesus seems to be saying it’s up to me to do something about it.