Matthew 5:21–22 – 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 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 hell of fire.
In Matthew 5, Jesus repeatedly teaches with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said … but I say…” In this, Jesus is challenging the faulty way that the religious in his day handled the Scripture.
In the religious community of Jesus’ earthly ministry, there were many people who made the law of God about outward acts and not so much about the heart. This allowed sinful men to be sinful in their hearts, attitudes, and sometimes in certain behaviors while claiming righteousness because they had not broken the specific law in question by the exact wording of that law.
Let me illustrate. Picture a child rebelling against his mom. She tells him not to eat any candy from the candy dish before dinner. But, during the day, somebody bumps the dish, and a piece of candy falls out onto the table. The child gobbles up the candy, reasoning that this candy was no longer in the dish and therefore fair game. Of course we know that is not the mom’s intent, but the kid thinks he has gotten away with it on a technicality.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has no tolerance for technicalities that allow hard-hearted men to go against the Lord. And the first area in which we see his teaching is on the issue of anger. The religious of Jesus’ day knew the command from the Ten Commandments not to murder. They reasoned that it was OK to hate people, be cruel in their hearts or even with their words toward people, so long as they did not actually take physical action against them. But Jesus clearly shows us this is not the case.
Now, let’s cut to the chase. Jesus tells us that, of course, murder is a sin. But so also is it a sin to hate people made in God’s image. It is a sin to belittle others made in God’s image so that you think of them as lesser than you or even subhuman. Jesus’ pointing to being angry, insulting, or even calling another a fool is him showing us that there is no room to claim to be righteous while murdering another in your heart.
Now, does that mean that, if we ever disagree with someone and they find it insulting, we are outside of the will of Jesus? No. The Savior himself called men fools (cf. Mat. 23:16-17). But when Jesus said that men were fools, that they were actually behaving as fools, he was not hating them. He was not devaluing them as people. The Savior spoke the perfect truth.
Christians, let’s be careful. Yes, we should always speak the truth of people and their actions. But we should not let our claim to be speaking the truth allow us to be ugly and hard-hearted toward others. We should grasp that sometimes we face the temptation to say that we are telling the truth while we look at others as lower than us, lesser than us, just plain stupid. That kind of thinking leads people who do not check it toward thinking of others as worthless or subhuman.
What is a wrong application here? Do not let yourself read what I just wrote and move toward embracing society’s new love affair with legislating speech. It is not hateful to tell someone they are wrong. It is not hateful or harmful to disagree with somebody. It is not dehumanizing to tell a person that their lifestyle choice or in fact their presenting identity is outside of the bounds of the word of God. You can say of someone that they are in sin, and that is neither hate nor invalidating their humanity. Speech, contrary to popular acceptance, is not violence.
But we also should be honest with ourselves and with the Lord. There is a way that we can put down those who oppose us in such a way that we no longer treat them as human. We can allow ourselves to think of those who disagree with us as evil simply because they do not agree with us and not for their actual behavior in relation to Scripture. It is one thing to believe somebody is wrong or even sinful. It is another to so belittle them in your mind that you no longer believe that they should be treated with the proper dignity appropriate for a person created in the image of God.
Jesus looked at the command not to murder, saw how men around him were handling it, and challenged his followers. Jesus tells us not to murder others in our hearts. This includes holding to boiling anger, speaking insults, and calling someone a fool.
We know that Jesus used the word fool, so the issue is not the word itself but rather a degrading of another person.
Let me close with a modern example that might help. Pick a political issue where you disagree with others. It might be COVID and vaccines, gun laws, the border, taxation, racism, or whatever. It is surely OK to disagree with others on these issues. And I believe that, in every one of these issues, there are people who are right and people who are wrong. There are people who are thinking clearly and people who are being foolish. And I do not think that Jesus is in any way telling us not to think they are wrong or even say that their view is foolish or even sinful.
But, and here is the point, do you think that people who disagree with you on your pet political issue are so stupid as to be somehow less than you? Do you think to yourself that you wish those people would all be locked up, muzzled, kicked off the Internet, or just not allowed to walk the same streets as you? Be careful. Yes, there are some political positions that lead people to do such immoral things that God’s word is clear that they are committing crimes, and those crimes must be addressed. But in general, if you assume that those who disagree with you are bad people, stupid people, people unworthy of life, you are going against the command of our Savior to avoid the sins found in the murder family.