What’s in a name?

Matthew 5:21-26 (New International Version, ©2011)

    21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

   23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

   25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

            Jesus opens today’s passage with a statement that really should not shock anyone here today.  He starts by saying, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’”  Murdering people is a bad thing.  This is important enough to make it into the 10 Commandments.  And Jesus is here affirming this commandment.  You have heard it said, “Thou shalt not kill.”  Jesus did not come to abolish this law.  He came to fulfill it.

            Now this may sound strange coming from a peace-loving Mennonite, but the modern translations that use the word “murder” in the 10 Commandments and in the Matthew passage are probably more correct than the KJV which uses the world kill.  I say this in part because of the times in the Old Testament when the Law did not prohibit the killing of other people in certain instances.  The Law actually commanded that a person be put to death if they were found to be doing certain things like being in an adulterous relationship.  When the Israelites take the Promised Land, they are told to kill all of the inhabitants.  And here is one for you parents: Deuteronomy 21 actually commands that stubborn and disobedient children to be taken outside of the city and stoned to death.

            The difference in the Old Testament between killing and murder is that taking another person’s life is permissible in certain situations.  We might say that the OT makes killing permissible when certain criteria are met.  Of course, those criteria are somewhat subjective.  Murder is the intentional act of killing another human being in an unlawful manner.  Now for those of you that are worried, we will look at how Jesus calls us to put aside all violent nature in just a couple of weeks.  But today’s passage is not calling us to shun all violence.  What it is calling us to do is to shun is all anger.

            Jesus goes on in verse 22, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”  Jesus is getting to the root of murder.  He says that anger in and of itself is wrong.  Things don’t have to progress to murder for them to be wrong.  You don’t have to hurt someone.  If you even entertain thoughts about hurting another person it is a sin.  So Jesus is saying, if we take care of anger, then we will not have to worry about murder.

            If you are a property owner, you are probably familiar with a product that first came on the market in the early 70’s and is now probably the most popular herbicide in the world.  I am talking about Roundup.  You can have whatever opinion you wish about Roundup and the issues surrounding its safety for home and agricultural purposes.  I am neither condemning nor condoning the use of Roundup today.  I understand that there is an on-going debate in the FDA as to how Roundup can and should be used, or if it should be used at all.  But one thing that we can’t deny is that this stuff works.  If you want a plant dead, you spray a little Roundup on it and it will be dead in a few days.

            We don’t use herbicides in our garden because of the unknown affects that they might have on human beings.  So this means one of two things.  Either we are going to spend a lot of time out in the garden, bent over, pulling weeds, or we are going to have a weedy garden.  We have traditionally taken the second option.

            The problem with pulling weeds is that if you don’t get all of the root pulled out of the ground and disposed of properly, the weed will come back.  If you tear off the weeds without getting the root, it is like cutting your lawn just below the surface.  It might take a while, but it will grow back.

            The reason that Roundup works so well on plants is that is blocks an enzyme that plants need in the process of photosynthesis.  If you block the enzyme, the plant essentially dies of starvation.  And when you kill a plant with Roundup, you kill it all the way down to the root.  That plant isn’t coming back.

            What an interesting illustration to use for Jesus’ teaching which begins with affirming the commandment not to murder.  I use an illustration about murdering plants!  No, my point is that when Jesus comes in and commands his hearers to not even allow themselves to become angry, he is cutting off the problem at the root.  If we can learn to control our anger, then we don’t even need to worry about not murdering someone else.  Murder comes about because we are angry.

            We trace murder all the way back to Genesis chapter 4 when the first two boys born to Adam and Eve, named Cain and Abel, brought sacrifices to the Lord.  Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing to the Lord and Cain’s was not.  This obviously led to Cain’s anger against Abel.  God asks Cain in verse 6, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?”  His anger then led Cain to plot and kill his brother.  He took the life of another human being, his own brother, even.  He took the life of a person who was loved and precious in the eyes of our creator.  He took the life of a person who was made in the image of God.  And Genesis 9:6 makes clear that this is the main offense of murder: taking the life of a person made in God’s image.  But if you don’t get angry, you don’t murder people.

            Jesus goes on in the second part of verse 22, “Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”  I have heard that nobody really knows what the word “raca” means.  It was likely some Aramaic slang.  But based on the way that Jesus uses it here, we can assume that it was not meant to be a compliment.  It is likely similar to the next phrase that Jesus throws out there, which is much more familiar to us.  We all know what a fool is.

            Nobody likes to be called a name.  Our parents gave us all names, and we may or may not like them.  But we all have a chosen or preferred name that we want people to call us by.  My maternal grandmother went by her middle name.  I am fine with being called Kevin.  Sometimes we give each other nicknames.  In high school my friends called me KG, which tells you just how creative my high school friends wereJ.  That was fine with me as well.  KG is my initials.  I am not insulted if you call me KG.

            However, sometimes names are meant to insult someone.  To call a person raca or fool is meant to be hurtful.  And I would assume that we have all heard names or been called names that are a lot worse than fool.  If you grew up around other children, you know how hurtful and mean kids can be.  And some children never grow out of this.

            But to understand why Jesus was so against calling others names, we need to remember that in Jesus’ day, and even in some cultures today, your name wasn’t just something that others used to get your attention.  Your name was a part of who you are.  Your name had meaning.

            If you read through the Bible, when a child is born and they are given a name, we are often told what that name means.  When Pharaoh’s daughter finds a baby in the water, she names him Moses, because “I drew him out of the water.”  Moses means, “the one who draws out.” 

When Elkanah and Hannah were not able to have children together, Hannah began offering a double portion and praying to God for a son.  She even prayed to God, saying, “If you give me a son, I will dedicate him as a special servant to you.”  Hannah became pregnant, gave birth to a son, and she eventually gave him to the Lord.  She named her son Samuel, which means, “God hears.”  God had heard her prayers.

            When the virgin Mary and Joseph were told that she would have a child, they were told that they should name him Jesus, which means “God saves” or “God is salvation”.  They were also told to call him Emanuel, which means “God with us.” 

Names in the Bible had a lot of meaning behind them.  And when you called someone a fool, or anything else, you were not only insulting them.  You were robbing them of their identity.  And in some cases, you might even be robbing them of their humanity.

            Something that you might not know about me is that I give nicknames to a lot of people, especially those who I see frequently but don’t know their real name.  So people who work at the grocery store, coffee shop, gas station, and other places that I frequent who I see every now and then but don’t really know them, yeah, they have nicknames to me.  But I have found that the people that I don’t want to like tend to get nicknames first.

            The nicknames that I give are never meant to be mean or hurtful.  That isn’t how I do things because that wouldn’t be very Christian, now would it?  But I think that I give people nicknames so that I can better identify the people that I don’t like when I happen to be thinking about them.

            For instance, there was a time when I was working out at the YMCA (a long time ago), who was laying on a mat, working out right next to a bench that I wanted to use.  So I went ahead and used the bench just like I had planned.  The guy just got up off his mat, looked at me, and let out a big “humph!” sound.  So from then on he became known as Humphrey. 

            Every time I saw Humphrey after that, I avoided him.  I didn’t make eye contact; I walked the long way around him to get where I needed to go.  I even heard someone else at the Y making fun of him once and rather than stopping the conversation, I kind of enjoyed listening in.  Some people call that eavesdropping.  I just call it paying attention to my surroundings.

            One day I heard a person share about his experience in his homeland of Rwanda in the early 1990’s.  Rwanda is and has been a nation filled with ethnic tensions.  Many of these tensions lie between two tribes known as the Hutus and the Tutsis.  And to say that there are tensions is putting it gently.  These tribes have for hundreds of years hated one another.

            This gentleman that was sharing about his life experience is a Hutu.  He was a property owner, a business person, and a family man.  One day as this man was working in his yard, his son came running in off the street, scared half-to-death.  The father asked what had happened and it turned out that a neighboring man in their village, a Tutsi, had thrown a large rock at the boy, just missing his head, just for walking past his home.

            Obviously this infuriated the father.  He became so angry with the Tutsi that he began to plot his revenge against him.  He tried to figure a way that he would kill this other person for trying to harm his son.

            Then, on April 6th 1994, the president of Rwanda’s plane was shot down, killing the president and several others.  The president was a Hutu.  Although the exact person or persons responsible for the killing was never found, the Tutsis were blamed for the murders of these Hutu leaders.  This began a violent uprising of Hutus against the Tutsis which led to the death of about 800,000 Tutsis in the period of 100 days.

            It was during this period of genocide that something amazing happened.  As he was sitting in his home one evening, the father of the boy who had a rock thrown at his head heard a knock at his door.  He went to see who it was, and it was the neighbor who had thrown the rock.  He was looking for a place to hide; he was looking for someone to protect him.

            The father at first felt like slamming the door in the face of his Tutsi neighbor, but he felt the nudging of the Holy Spirit within him to welcome his enemy into his home.  He remembered Jesus’ words, “leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister.”  He provided a safe place for his neighbor to stay and they both lived through the entire period of genocide.

            What a powerful story!  The father had forgiven the man who tried to hurt, maybe even kill his son, and protected him from facing death himself.  All because he had refused to hate, all because he had refused to be angry.  All because he was a follower of Jesus Christ.

            I heard this man speak about his life in Rwanda, and all at once my heart sank.  My heart sank because I thought of Humphrey, the guy from the Y.  I didn’t like Humphrey because he got up and grunted at me one day.  If a man in Rwanda can forgive the guy who threw a rock at his son’s head, surely I can forgive him for grunting at me.

            You might be thinking that if this is the worst scuffle I ever get myself into, that I am doing okay.  But the whole point of Jesus’ teaching on murder, anger, name calling, and reconciliation seems to come down to one point.  We need to see all people for what they truly are.  Regardless of what the color of the skin might be, regardless of their background, regardless of the education, IQ, religion, or nationality, we need to see everyone as people made in the image of God.  These are the people that Jesus came to the world to save.  As Greg Boyd says, these are the people to whom God has ascribed unsurpassable worth.  When you see someone who is different than you are, remember that Jesus loved them enough to die for them.  All he asks of us is that we love each other.

When we call people names, whether that is grouping people together and referring to them by their race or nationality, or just calling someone by a nickname because you really don’t want to get to know them, we are robbing people of their humanity.  We are seeing them as less than who they are.  Each and every one of us has the highest value in God’s eyes.  We were created in his image, and Jesus thought and continues to think that we are worth dying for.  Not murdering is a good start.  But Jesus addresses things at the root of the problem.  Jesus calls us to value one another and love each other with Christ-like love.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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