A couple weeks ago was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday – he would have been 132 years old on January 30th. I’m a much bigger fan of Teddy Roosevelt myself, but FDR was FDR. FDR’s “closest political adviser was a man named Louis Howe. Mr. Howe, with some frequency, would be very rude and cruel to certain people at dinner or cocktail parties. On one such occasion Eleanor Roosevelt asked, “Louis, why did you do that?” “Because,” Howe replied, “he was once unsupportive of Franklin.” “Oh goodness,” Eleanor exclaimed, “I’d forgotten all about that.” “I never forget,” Howe snapped back.”1
I know people like that, you guys probably do to. There are people I won’t drive with because they go nutty at every intersection, not that I’ve never been guilty of a little road rage here and there. If we are honest with ourselves, we can all count the times that we have gotten so angry that we said and did things that would be anathema to us otherwise. Jesus had something to say about that today.
“You have heard it said, ‘Do not murder,’ but I tell you anyone who is angry is in big trouble, too.” So said Jesus in the first of what will become a string of words through which Jesus deepens and intensifies the meaning of God’s Law for his disciples. Some commentators note that what Jesus does in Matthew 5 is to “radicalize” the Law. The Latin word for “root” is radix, such that to radicalize something is to drive down to the roots.
“That’s what Jesus does in this passage: he gets down to the true roots of God’s commandments in order to expose not just the part of the sin you can see above ground but the roots of what feeds into those various sins. In this case Jesus wants to tell us that, as bad as murder is, God is also deeply concerned with the attitudes that feed into murder.”2
In our translation of the Bible, Jesus talks about the man who speaks angrily about his brother in front of a council, but it’s closer to the Greek to say that Jesus said that those who call their brother a “raca”is liable to judgment; raca is probably the equivalent of our word “idiot.” “Also, when Jesus refers to calling someone “a fool,” he uses a term that calls into question the other person’s morality–it might be the equivalent of calling someone “a dirty rat,” someone you don’t trust for a second. Taken together Jesus is decrying our belittling of people’s mental powers and our belittling of their moral status. “Let your anger get the best of you in simmering grudge-bearing,” Jesus says, “and sooner or later you’ll start to denounce the people around you as stupid and immoral–as not worthy of your time.” You may even start to regard them as sub-human, and it’s a short step from that to treating them in sub-human ways, too.”3
This is a thoroughly modern problem, of course, despite our modernist protests that the human race keeps making progress. In the 20th century alone we can list 31 cases of of full scale genocide, all around the world, perpetrated by and against all manner of people. Some of these are pure power plays, but almost all of them start out with the big lie. Hitler made it famous, but the big lie has been around forever: those people, whoever those people might be, are inferior, and so we can use them, discard them. Belgium, of all places, just passed a bill allowing euthanasia for terminally ill children, regardless of their age, which is essentially delayed abortion. Our own sins of slavery, racism, sexism, all manner of -isms, show that the human heart is capable of remarkable anger, and anger’s cousin, disregard.
Maybe that’s a radical thing to say, I don’t know; maybe I’ve hit the radix, the root of the issue. But in some sense Jesus has called us to be radical, to live our lives so radically that we treat everyone we meet as if we were running into Jesus. Is that so hard? Yes, it is, but remember what Jesus said next: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus offers us this altar as a place to remind us of our propensity not only for anger but for reconciliation; not only for disregard but that ultimate regard that is the love so great that a man lays down his very life for his friends. With the help of the Lord we can be radicals – Jesus has shown us the way.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week