August 15, 2000
Elie Wiesel’s book, “Night” tells of his experiences as a fifteen year old in a German concentration camp. Not only did he and his people bear the brunt of their captors’ contempt, Wiesel also struggled with the way starvation and desperation affected his treatment of other people, including his own father.
Sometimes desperate situations or the heat of emotion pressure us into extreme actions. A mother is concerned for her children so steals to feed them. A father is angry at a rebellious teenager so takes a swat at him. These actions are not right, yet under pressure we sometimes respond with words or behavior we might not otherwise say or do.
“Night” was a sobering read. It made me realize that pressure can push ordinary people beyond common responses and bring out the deepest possible negatives. The human heart is capable of so much disdain for human life that it will not only murder, but do so in cold blood and even enjoy the process.
Jesus linked the heat of emotional pressure with the perversity of inner disdain. He said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5).
The Bible talks about one kind of anger that has a cause; something happens and we get mad. Scripture says we can “be angry” but do not sin, nor should we “let the sun go down on our anger.” This indicates God is not surprised at outbursts but does caution us to manage our anger.
However, Jesus seems to be talking about a more continual attitude than an occasional flaring of temper. In the above passage, He indicates an anger that is rooted in contempt or an attitude of disdain for others. Ordinary anger can occur without denying worth, but those who call people names have gone beyond the ordinary. For instance, we get angry at our children for disobedience yet still consider them valuable people, unless we begin calling them demeaning names.
Jesus referred to the name-calling of His day with the words ‘raca’ and ‘fool.’ Raca was an expression of contempt and degradation, much like spitting in someone’s face. Calling a person a fool was even more serious, going beyond anger and disdain to include malice. Saying this meant the speaker wanted the person cast in the garbage where they belonged. Today’s equivalent would be unprintable.
Jesus started His warning with mention of murder. People do kill in angry outbursts; we call them crimes of passion. A more serious charge is laid against someone who kills after a sustained anger, but we are most appalled when a murder is committed as an expression of contempt. The murderer has no regard for the victim and a complete disdain for human life.
Disdain is pride, a superior thinking that ‘I am not like that person’ or ‘I am so much better than you.’ Jesus warns that anyone who feels this way will face judgment for their attitude. They may openly consider others as valueless or they may hold this opinion to themselves, but they are walking time bombs. One day, their contempt will break out in malicious treatment, maybe even murder.
Jesus tells us what to do. He says, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary . . . .” Don’t wait until you come to a boiling point. Go to them. Talk about it. Remember how much God has forgiven you and forgive them for what they may have done. Holding a grudge benefits no one. Instead, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Also, confess your pride. Who made you different than anyone else? If you have any good qualities, give the glory to your Creator and don’t ruin them by harboring contempt in your heart.
Wiesel survived the holocaust but the pain he suffered then and the scars he bears now do not begin to compare to what his unrepentant tormentors will face in an eternity separated from God.