Ye have heard that it was said to men of old, Thou shalt not murder; and whosoever shall murder shall be liable to judgment. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with His brother without good cause shall be liable to judgment. And whosoever shall be liable to the council. But whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be liable to the gehenna of fire.
Therefore, if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave thy gift there before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him, lest at any time thy adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into the prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou has paid the uttermost farthing. (Matthew 5:22-26)
The above lines might seem like they are straight out of the King James Version (KJV), but in fact they are a bit amended. I took these amendments from the Scripture published in the Blessed Theophylact’s Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Matthew, which borrowed commentaries from the early church fathers. The Explanation in fact uses a translation based on the KJV but takes liberties to correct the few places where the KJV erred. I used to believe that the KJV was all but infallible, but now I understand the only the Orthodox can lay claim to the true interpretation of Scripture. In this case, these corrections are significant. Take the opening passage: The KJV says, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time,” while our version reads, “Ye have heard that it was said to men of old.” Thus, “Thou shalt not murder,” which follows, was not simply an old saying of yore, but it was a command of God. Also, the KJV says, “Thou shalt not kill,” while the B.T.’s instructs, “Thou shalt not murder.” I think the latter is more descriptive and more useful for understanding’s sake. But as we will learn in the following passages, avoiding murder requires the mastering of one’s anger first.
But first, let us focus on another aspect of this opening passage: “…it was said to men of old.” The Blessed Theophylact notes that Jesus Christ spoke indefinitely here because He did not want to emphasize that the One who spoke to the men of old was God, because it would have been difficult for the audience of the Sermon to stomach that God was now putting forth a new law in opposition to the Mosaic law. Remember, he had just acknowledged that the law had been fulfilled. Indeed, it was time for His disciples at least to take their righteousness to the next level. “This, ‘it was said by them of old time,’ shews that it was long ago that they had received this precept,” says St. John Chrysostom. “He says this that He might rouse His sluggish hearers to proceed to more sublime precepts, as a teacher might say to an indolent boy, Know you not how long time you have spent already in merely learning to spell?” A moment later Christ makes it clear Who is really addressing the audience at the Mount – God. He says, “But I say unto you…” The prophets used to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” Of course, Jesus Christ does not need to qualify in that way, because He is the Authority – the One. For those who think that Christ was just a prophet or anything less than the I Am, the Existing One, think again.
The Lord wants us to respect others even in the small things. “And whosoever shall say to his brother Raca, shall be liable to the council.” “‘Raca’ means something like ‘Hey, you!’ as when we say to someone whom we scorn, ‘Hey, you, get out of here!’” And if we hurl insults at one another, we are deserving the fires of hell. “He who reviles and insults dissolves love,” Theophylact says. “The Lord exhorts us in these matters because He desires to teach us to be strict even in small things and to give honor to one another.” Instead of calling others out on why they wronged us, we must be reconciled to our brethren – especially when we approach the Holy Mysteries. “If love alone is not enough to induce us to be reconciled to our neighbour, the desire that our work should not remain imperfect, and especially in the holy place, should induce us,” writes Chrysostom. Also, let us not be given to lawsuits and human entanglements, “lest we be distracted from doing the works of God,” the Explanation adds. Moreover, when we go to court with an adversary, we might just get our butts kicked, which will add even more to our earthly misery.
Bottom line: We need to work on our anger. We need to shut our mouths when ready to upbraid our brethren. We need to stay out of court and, perhaps most importantly, bring the sacrifice of love to the altar.
But before I go, I would like to provide a few more thoughts on the correlation between anger and hell: I can certainly attest as one that has struggled with wrath for most of my life, that anger does indeed make one’s life a hell on earth of sorts. But the Sermon on the Mount goes farther than that. Christ correlated insulting our brother to the gehenna of fire. This is serious business! In other words, unrepented sins committed in anger or disgust with others gain eternal punishment. Thus, I see that the Christian life is one to work towards freedom from anger, towards love. But therein sits a paradox: We must approach Christ with love, but how can we truly love without Christ? Betwixt these two poles lies the human striving to shut one’s trap – at least as a starting point.