Raca, Respect, and the Agape Love of God, Part 3

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Jesus says those who treat others with contempt are subject to hellfire. It’s easy to think we know exactly what that means, but we may miss a lot if we just skim over this.

Let’s take a closer look.

When Jesus talks about anger, he takes it in levels, and he gives levels of judgment that come with it.

He begins with the simple act of “being angry with your brother” – of flaring up, lashing out, taking your frustration out on someone else. For this he says we become “subject to judgment”: the verdict is not certain and the judge isn’t specified, but when we are angry people, we subject ourselves to judgment.

The second level is that of calling one’s brother “Raca,” empty or stupid, idiot or retard. Here we aren’t just lashing out in a moment of anger; here we are making a value judgment of our own, counting another’s mind as vapid and useless. This, Jesus says, subjects us “to the Sanhedrin,” essentially the Supreme Court of the day. Judges of our brothers, now we’re judged by our brothers.

But it’s the last, the word translated “Fool” – moron or loser, essentially “waste of space” – our judgment of the actual value of another person’s heart – that is most serious.

When we go this far, Jesus said, we are subject to “hellfire” – more literally, “the Gehenna of fire.”

Open Questions . . .

In the last few posts, I’ve talked about anger being a surface problem, something that comes up from the deeper root of contempt, which is the real issue Jesus is addressing.

I’m not sure that’s always the direction, though. Maybe contempt, rather than necessarily lying at the root of anger, is the fruit of it. Maybe anger comes out of our sense of powerlessness, of frustration or angst about our own lives, and turned often and heavily enough upon others it becomes contempt for them.

I’d love your thoughts about this – if you see anger and contempt moving in one direction or the other, or both.

Gehenna and the Judgment of Fire

Gehenna, which is variously translated “hellfire” or “hell,” is Jesus’s primary word for the place of judgment. It’s actually the name of a real place: the Valley of Hinnom, located south of Jerusalem.

What exactly the word connotes in Jesus’s teaching is a matter of debate among scholars.

The Valley of Hinnom, also called Topheth — literally “the fireplace” — was notorious in the Old Testament as the place of Israel’s most appalling rebellion against God, a place where they sacrificed their own children in fire as offerings to pagan gods.

Because of this, God said, Hinnom would become a place of terrible judgment:

“For the Judeans have done what is evil in my sight.” This is the LORD’s declaration. “They have set up their detestable things in the house that is called by My name and defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom in order to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, a thing I did not command; I never entertained the thought. … Therefore, take note! Days are coming”—the LORD’s declaration—“when this place will no longer be called Topheth and the Valley of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.” (Jeremiah 7:30-32)

In a related prophecy – one Jesus quotes in connection with Gehenna – God’s anger is pictured as fire: “The LORD will come with fire … to execute His anger with fury and his rebuke with flames of fire” (Isaiah 66:15).

After this the nations will come to worship God and will pass by the dead. “As they leave, they will see the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against Me; for their worm will never die, their fire will never go out, and they will be a horror to all kind” (Isaiah 66:24).

Gehenna, in other words, is a symbol for the burning, fiery anger of God as he goes to war against his enemies.

The Fire of Anger

We’re all familiar with the terms “heaven” and “hell,” so we quickly read a lot of theology into what Jesus says here. But I don’t want us to miss some of the more subtle meaning in his choice of words.

With his three levels of judgment, Jesus is saying something very clear and powerful about the kind of anger that is spoken, contemptuous, and pointed at others:

It burns.

Throughout Scripture, God’s anger and wrath are constantly described as a fire. His anger burns; his wrath is fiery and consumes his enemies. Gehenna is the ultimate expression of that.

People too, made in God’s image, flush and grow hot when they are angry. We speak of an angry person as “hot-headed,” “hot tempered”; and we tiptoe around them lest they “explode” or “blow up.”

Our anger burns, just like God’s does.

The difference is that God’s wrath is not arbitrary, not misdirected, and not quick to fire: his wrath takes hundreds and thousands of years to heat up.

Ours is often careless and quick.

The victims of anger and contempt carry scars just as any burn victim does. Blasted by anger and contempt, we are shaped by it, disfigured and misdirected by words, spoken with power and aggression, that tore down our personhood and should never have been spoken.

Often, if we’ve been hurt by anger we become angry ourselves. We take the pain of our scars and turn it on others, “burning” one another in our anger, just as the people of Israel burned their children in the fire to Baal.

Jesus’s warning in Matthew highlights the justice of God: we who have burned one another unjustly in our anger become subject to Gehenna, when God’s anger spills over in fire.

The God Who Sees

In a story early in the Bible, in Genesis, God is given a name by a runaway slave who calls him “Thou God seest me”—or “the God who sees.”

Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:21-23 are strong. He is not soft on anger.

But this tells us several things.

It tells us we are seen.

If we have been hurt by anger, if we have been scarred and torn apart by contempt, God sees.

He saw it happen, and he did not think it was okay.

He didn’t think it was no big deal.

He didn’t let the offender off the hook because they’d had a bad day.

He saw how deep and how real those burning words were to you, and he thought they were an atrocity.

He’s angry about it. Emotionally, truly angry.

I hope that in some way, that heals you. God isn’t fine with what happened to you. He’s angry for you.

He will heal you if you will allow it.

If our hurts have turned into anger in our own lives, God sees the root of it. He knows how we got this way. He lays the blame where it belongs. He sees, and he cares, that we were damaged.

But God doesn’t excuse us, either, when we choose to turn the weapons on others that were turned on us.

He can’t. He’s just. Will he blame you for things that aren’t your fault? No. But some things are. To some degree, at some level, we make our own choices. Our responses, our retaliations, those are ours.

If we burn others with our tempers or with our contempt, God sees. He knows the damage it’s doing to them. He loves us. He cares. But he won’t excuse the damage we do to others no matter how much we want to justify ourselves.

This is the paradox of love and judgment. God loves us all, so deeply he gave his only begotten Son to die a brutal death for our sakes. His desire is to rescue, redeem, forgive, purify, clean up, cover, and transform every one of us.

So we don’t burn others anymore.

So we don’t come under the judgment of Hinnom.

So we can come to God to be healed ourselves, and so we can become conduits of healing to others, maybe even to those who bear scars we gave them.

But we have to let him. We have to surrender to love. If we choose to remain at enmity with God all our lives, Gehenna will find us on the wrong side.

The Hard Road of Healing

Jesus isn’t easy on anger, because he doesn’t think it’s no big deal. But neither does he just dismiss the angry. On the contrary: he invites them.

Invites us.

All of Matthew 5 is an invitation. An invitation to trade our empty hands for the kingdom of God. An invitation to get real, to repent. To confess that our no-big-deal sins are a big deal after all, that God has a right to be angry and is the only One who can help us and heal us.

The Sermon on the Mount invites us to take the hard road to healing.

And every step of the way, the one preaching it – Jesus himself, Lord of heaven and earth – offers his friendship, his forgiveness, and his help.

Old-Time Religion

It used to be a lot more common than it is now to hear the gospel presented in terms of sin and judgment and forgiveness: we’ve all sinned, judgment is coming, we need to repent and get right with God.

We don’t hear it much anymore, but it’s still true. That’s the human predicament: we’re damaged, and we damage others, and we need to be held accountable for it.

This is the offer of God: that though he sees the reality of our sins, he also sees the reality of our hurts; he will forgive the one and heal the other, transforming our lives if we will allow him to do so.

God looks at us and sees victims and perpetrators simultaneously, and his heart is big enough for us just the way we are.

But big enough, too, not to leave us this way.

(This is Part 45 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)



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2 responses to “Raca, Respect, and the Agape Love of God, Part 3”

  1. Ken Avatar

    Thanks Rachel,
    I very much enjoyed these three posts. I agree that agape love is at its root both highly personal; and consists of seeing another person as valuable. The opposite then may be to judge a person as worthless: is this then equivalent to contempt? I’m not sure, I’m just exploring here.
    What of valuing a person as a non-person? Is that worse?
    I often wonder if good and evil can be reduced to attitudes to persons; ie: either valuing persons as persons (valuable) or as non-persons (worthless).
    The personal is far more important in this universe we live in than we usually realise.
    Thanks again.

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Hi Ken,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      “The personal is far more important in this universe we live in than we usually realise.” ABSOLUTELY.

      “I often wonder if good and evil can be reduced to attitudes to persons; ie: either valuing persons as persons (valuable) or as non-persons (worthless).” When you connect to this the fact that humans are the image of God in the earth and are therefore central to the way we view and actually treat God (see 1 John on the connection between love of God and love of brother, or Jesus on “the least of these”) this becomes even more profound.

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