A Pepper Grinder Post


I recently received an email from one of my sons, saying he would be interested in hearing me talk about Matthew 5:22 (where Jesus warns against calling people names).  He asked, “Specifically, how would that relate to the (hypothetical of course!) situation where somebody cuts me off in traffic and I angrily inform the air inside my car what an idiot this person is?”  As you probably know, Matthew 5:22 is in the Sermon on the Mount.  I have always loved the Sermon on the Mount, and I even memorized it early in my Christian life.  I find its words amazing,  challenging, and sometimes perplexing.  This passage is no exception.  Here is my translation of Matthew 5:21-26:

You have heard that it was said to people long ago, “You shall not commit murder, and whoever commits murder deserves to be brought to judgment.  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother deserves to be brought to judgment, and whoever calls his brother an idiot should be brought before the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ deserves to go into the fire of hell.
Therefore, if you’re offering your gift on the altar and remember there that your brother has something against you, leave your gift in front of the altar, and go be reconciled to your brother first; then come and offer your gift.
Make friends quickly with your opponent while you’re on your way to court, or else your opponent may turn you over to the judge, and the judge will turn you over to the jailor, and the jailor will throw you into prison.  I’m telling you, you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid every penny.

Napoleon DynamiteWell, I guess that answers my son’s question.  If he were (not that he has, of course) to call another driver an idiot, he should get hauled before the Sanhedrin.  The Greek word I translated as “idiot” literally means empty (as in empty-headed), so I think this should also apply if he were to call a driver a moron, or a pea-brain, or brainless, or … you get the idea.

OK, that settles that. Talk to you next week. 

Huh?  You want me to STUDY the passage?  Oh, all right.

The first thing we need to note is the context.  The larger section of which our passage is a part starts in verse 17, where Jesus addressed a topic that was critical for his Jewish audience: his relationship to the Old Testament Law.  Keeping the Law was essential for serious Jews, so when a new holy man appeared preaching a new message, a natural question was whether he was trying to buttress the Law or replace it.  The Pharisees, for example, worked very hard to build what they called a hedge around the Law.  Did the Law say not to give a man more than 40 lashes?  Better limit yourself to 39, just in case you miscounted.

At first glance, it sounds as though Jesus is doing something similar.  In verses 17 to 19 (in the NIV), Jesus says:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.  So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. “

That certainly sounds like he is going to fit right in with the Pharisees’ approach, but then he says something odd in  verse 20 (NIV):

For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

You have to be more righteous than the Pharisees??  Unlike now, when “Pharisee” is a euphemism for a hypocrite, at the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the quintessential righteous guys.  And Jesus is saying that his followers have to be more righteous than THEY are? 

high jumperThe Law of Moses said you could not murder someone.  The Pharisees determined exactly what did and did not constitute murder, and then they made very sure they did not commit murder, according to their definition.  But Jesus went WAY past this.  He pronounced the same sentence (being brought to judgment) for somebody who was angry with someone as for somebody who committed murder.  While it’s certainly true that if you avoided becoming angry with anyone, you probably wouldn’t have to worry about committing murder, it also seems like an impossible standard.  The Pharisees set the bar relatively high, but it was do-able; Jesus seems to have established a standard that no one could meet.

Could it be that the anger Jesus is talking about is some special, murderous kind of rage, and that’s why Jesus acts like it’s so bad?  It doesn’t seem like it.  Certainly the Greek word used in our passage describes anger that is more than mere annoyance.  On the other hand, it is often used in situations where the anger seems justified.  For example, when Jesus tells the parable of a ruler who had mercy on one of his servants, and then finds out that the same servant was merciless toward his fellow-servant, the ruler becomes angry with his servant.  There is no doubt that the ruler had every right to be angry.  In another parable, a man who generously invites people to a wedding feast is angry when his invitations are refused.  The older brother of the prodigal son is angry when his profligate brother gets the red carpet treatment (perhaps not exactly righteous anger, but certainly understandable).  Last of all, Paul uses the same Greek word when he tells us in Ephesians 4:26 to be angry but NOT sin, and adds that we should not let the sun go down on our anger.

Even more perplexing, although I saw nowhere where this particular word was used when talking about Jesus, he certainly seems pretty mad sometimes.  In fact, later in the book of Matthew, Jesus uses the word I have translated as “fool” (the one that our passage says will make you worthy of going to hell!) when he is lashing out at the Pharisees (Matthew 23:17).  What is going on here?  Jesus seems to be setting a standard that not even he lived up to.

call centerThe answer, I believe, is that Jesus is not trying to establish a new set of rules.  He was not adding commands to avoid calling people certain bad words to the command not to murder.  Instead he was showing us God’s heart that lay behind the commands. 

It is as if you are running a company.  You have made your company successful by consistently treating your customers with kindness and respect.  You personally can’t speak to every customer who calls, but you want ALL your employees to treat the customers the way you would.  However, when you do trainings for your call center employees, you find that you have limited success in teaching them to treat customers with kindness and respect.  Many of your employees don’t have a lot of experience with kindness and respect themselves, so how can you teach them to show it?  After consulting with your board of directors, you decide on a reasonable course of action.  Rather than trying to teach your employees to have the right attitude, you will teach them a set of rules such as:

  1. Always call the customer sir or ma’am.
  2. If a customer expresses frustration or unhappiness, tell him you can understand why he feels that way.
  3. Never raise your voice to the customer.
  4. Never hang up on a customer.
  5. End each call by asking the customer if there is anything else you can help her with.

A call with one of these employees won’t be as good as a call with someone who showed genuine kindness and respect, but it will be a lot better than a call with people who didn’t follow these rules.

Jesus is saying, “I know about the rules God gave you. Now let me show you the real intent BEHIND the rules.”  In one case (when Jesus spoke of divorce), he even explicitly SAID that the rule was given to the Israelites because their hearts were hard.  In other words, God knew that the Israelites couldn’t handle what he really wanted them to do, so he gave them a rule that would limit the damage which could be done (by sending a wife away without any proof that she was even divorced).  But now Jesus is lifting the hood of the Law to show us what lies beneath the shiny metal.

Good enough, but if the Israelites couldn’t do what God truly desired, how are we supposed to?  I think there are two things we need to remember in considering the new standard presented by Jesus.

  1. In setting the bar so high, Jesus is showing us that we cannot possibly fulfill God’s requirements on our own.  The Pharisees had devised a system that made it possible to do everything which they said God required.  Christ revealed the truth that pleasing God was utterly impossible without relying on his righteousness and his Holy Spirit.
  2. Right after Jesus presents this new standard, he gave us two examples of what to do when we have failed to live up to the standard.  This tells me that, unlike the Pharisaical rules (which you had better keep or else you are a sinful scumbag), Jesus knows he is dealing with imperfect people who won’t always get it right.

bridgeI believe the point of Jesus’s teaching is not for us to try to avoid doing a certain set of bad things.  Instead, we should be striving to be closer to and more like our heavenly Father.  As in a marriage, when we screw up and do something selfish that upsets our spouse, the solution is not to pretend we did nothing wrong, or just give up on the relationship in discouragement or disgust.  The solution is to apologize, do what we can to make things right, and get back to pursuing the relationship.

It is interesting to me that Jesus gives two different examples of what to do when we are not in harmony with someone.  One example is for when someone we are close to is angry with us.  We should put aside any kind of “religious” stuff and go get straight with that person.  The other example is a case of someone to whom we are probably not close, but with whom we are involved in a lawsuit.  In that case, we should do all we can to settle the suit before it gets fought to the bitter end.  Jesus knows that we will not be able to be on close, harmonious terms with everyone, but we should do what we can to “live in peace with all men.” (Hebrews 12:14)  In some cases, we’ll be able to have real closeness. In others, we may have to settle for the absence of outright hostility, and it is clear that there are times when people will hate us no matter what we do.

So what about that guy who just cut you off?  If you called him an idiot under (or on top of) your breath, the right approach is not to say, “Oh dear, I broke rule #34!  I’m in trouble now.”  It would be more useful to realize that your feelings toward the other driver show that you are not thinking about him, or driving, or your day, or your life the way God thinks about them.  You can then apologize to God, confess your inadequacy, thank him for providing forgiveness through Christ, and ask him to fill you with his Spirit and live through you. 

The teaching of Christ is not another set of rules to follow, but rather a warning light to show us when we need to get back in touch with God, so we can see people (even inconsiderate drivers) the way he sees them.


*Photo Credits: Napoleon Dynamite image from sfsketchfest.com/x/performers/napoleon-dynamite-10th-anniversary; Call Center image from www.ather-telecomsolutions.com/cchosting.html; high jumper by Krzysztof Szkurlatowski, bridge by John Nyberg