Is anything stifling your faith growth? Or the use of God’s gifts? Or your unconditional love for others?
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7) is a seminar on how to reach our full potential. Near the beginning of the program, which is in our Gospel reading, Jesus gives an example of how to turn a literal interpretation of the law into a faith that’s fully alive.
The message is this: A fully alive Christian takes the harder but more loving approach. Mediocre people take the lazy, comfortable route and don’t accomplish anything of lasting value.
Jesus makes this point by addressing the sin of anger. He describes the increasingly destructive effect it has on the angry person’s soul. At first, anger in the heart results in “judgment,” represented by the Jewish local court where the easiest of punishments were meted out.
Then, Jesus names one of the initial ways that anger kills: To shout “raqa” at someone is to call them a nitwit or imbecile. It destroys their self-esteem. It belittles them. The abuser — yes, name-calling is abuse — must now face a trial before the Sanhedrin, the highest judicial body.
Next, Jesus warns that calling someone a fool is even worse. No longer an “imbecile,” the person under attack is “worthless” (the direct meaning of the Greek word). The listeners understood that this word was filled with contempt. To hate someone so much as to see no value in them (for example, seeing unwanted pregnancies as burdens to get rid of rather than as precious humans) is to condemn oneself to Gehenna. Gehenna was a name given to a nearby valley where followers of a pagan cult killed children by fire. Jews used the name to illustrate the concept of punishment by fire; today we call it “hell.”
The rest of this scripture passage is God’s remedy for anger. In essence, Jesus says: Go and do whatever is necessary to be reconciled with the one who’s made you angry. This, he points out, is even more important than worshiping God. How genuine can our worship be if anger has replaced love in our hearts, since God is love?
We all have people in our lives whose behavior angers us. Righteous anger includes forgiveness; sinful anger wants vengeance. If we’re walking down the aisle in Mass to receive Communion while refusing to love anyone, how can we love the Christ who’s in the Eucharist, who has united himself to the community (that’s what “communion” means) including that person who makes you feel angry? How can we receive love while our hearts are closed to love?
To ignore the need to heal from our anger is to stifle the Holy Spirit within us. We grow in the Spirit and in holiness when we accept the difficult challenge of humbling ourselves so that we can give love to those who don’t deserve it.