“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fires of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).
All religions regard human life as sacred. All religions regard murder as a sin against the Source of life. Granted: exceptions can be found to this command. Killing in self-defense is not called murder. Soldiers killing enemy soldiers in wartime, and executioners killing convicted criminals who have been sentenced to death, is not murder. (Religious people, including Christians, sometimes debate these examples, and differing opinions are possible.) Some people distinguish between the value of a human life and the value of an animal life; others make no distinction. Some consider it sinful to kill an animal for any reason, while most people accept killing animals for food and for clothing—and many feel that hunting or fishing for sport is not sinful.
Jesus does not address these matters in this sermon. He speaks of the commandment not to murder, and he carries it a different direction. Any harm we cause to another person—even the emotional harm of an insult—is a sin, violating the commandment not to murder, according to Jesus. He even seems to equate anger with murder—but we must be careful to understand Jesus correctly. Jesus himself expressed anger against people who were doing wrong. At times he used the energy of his anger to overturn the wrong. Anger in itself is not sinful. Anger is a temptation to sin. Anger offers opportunities to sin. Anger becomes sinful when it results in other sins. Anger is sinful also when we become angry for selfish reasons—because something has hurt us or has been inconvenient to us. On the other hand, when anger comes from seeing sin, from seeing that God’s will is not being done, from seeing others suffer due to sin, that anger is not necessarily sinful.
Jesus offers two examples of sinful anger. First he uses the general term “insults”; then he quotes a specific insult. Jesus says that people who are angry enough to insult one another deserve punishment; God will regard them as murderers, both at the time of the insult and at the Last Judgment.
This teaching is a frightening teaching. Only a few people of the world are guilty of murder under its narrow definition. All people have been guilty of selfish anger and even guilty of insulting the people who made us angry. We can hardly live a week among sinful people without sinning this way several times. We might even accuse Jesus of going too far. The best of us is not good enough to keep our tempers at all times. The best of us is in danger of the fires of hell.
Jesus wants us to understand that point. He is quite serious about this teaching, about this interpretation of the commandment not to murder. Even the smallest harm we cause to another person is a sin against God. Despite our good intentions and our best efforts, we cannot escape our guilt. For this reason, we need a better righteousness, the perfection of Jesus, credited to our account. Only through his blessing, his gift, can we escape the judgment we deserve. J.