Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
To truly appreciate the antitheses that Jesus pronounces in this section of the gospel, we need to keep in mind his words in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” The scribes and the Pharisees are not authentic teachers because they have become legalistic. They have ceased to understand the true sense of the Law as the Torah teaches and have turned its teachings into mere legalisms.
Because we are taught the Ten Commandments when we are young, we hear its “Thou shalt nots” in the same way we hear the prohibitions of our parents that will result in punishment of some kind if we do not obey them. We thus see the Law of the Jewish tradition as we see the laws that we must follow in our own societies. They are limits of human behavior beyond which we must not trespass. Yet, some years ago, strangely enough while reading the Tao Te Ching, I realized that the “Law” in the Hebrew scriptures was speaking of the “Way,” as did the Tao. It was intended to offer a way of living that was a way to human flourishing. It was a teaching about the very nature of things and of what constituted living in “right relationship” to other human persons as well as to the entire cosmos. In Matthew, Jesus, the teacher, is showing how the Law is to be seen not as mere prohibition but rather as such a way of our human and spiritual formation.
The effect of following the Law with one’s whole being could thus never be the self-righteousness of the Pharisees, for the more we attempt to truly follow it the further we realize we have to go. So, Jesus continues to teach more specifically the way of living to which the Law points, a way that affords the way of being that is the eternal life of the Kingdom of heaven.
A very basic question in life is how are we intended to live with each other. What is “right relationship” to the human beings with whom we share a common home? Most could agree, although clearly human beings find many aways around even this outer boundary of relationship, that we are not to kill another human being. We are created so to experience killing another human being as abhorrent. This is why there must be real strategies for behavior modification in training for the military, if soldiers are to be able to kill another as part of “doing their job.” The effects of this, however, create extraordinary mental and emotional difficulties for many after their term of “service” is over. Our human capacity to become dehumanized is apparent in our surprise that people develop such difficulties after witnessing and participating in violent and barbaric behavior. From the spiritual perspective, it would seem healthy to have trouble adjusting and accepting the transgression of the boundary of human behavior. The words of Macbeth to his wife as she prods him to carry out their murderous plot come to mind: “I dare do all that may become a man; / who dares do more is none.” It is a striking, and what should be alarming, contradiction in American Christianity that those who would most demand outer manifestations of faith in the society (e.g. displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings) tend to be among the most militaristic in attitude.
As we all well know from personal experience, however, merely refraining from killing others does not lead to right relationship or human flourishing. And so, Jesus says that “Whoever is angry with his brother or sister will be liable to judgment.” It may be fair to say that no tasks in human formation are more difficult and require more work than learning how to integrate our two strongest drives: sexuality and anger. It is, of course, neither desirable or profitable to attempt to repress our feelings of anger and aggression. In fact, they are among the most important tools we have to discover our own unique way to live fully. Jesus’ examples, then, are very helpful to us. In his translation of this passage, Daniel Harrington, SJ translates “raqa” as “empty-headed.” So, Jesus says that to call our brother or sister “empty-headed” or a “fool” will make us liable to judgment. Thus, he distinguished between affect or feeling and word or action. To feel angry is a continual experience of our humanity, but to resolve the tension of that feeling by diminishing or humiliating another is evil.
When we diminish, hurt, or humiliate another we are dissociating from our deeper identity; we are making our feelings ultimate. When we feel angry at another we want to reassert our superiority to them. We are intelligent and they are empty-headed. We are wise and they are fools. To act out our feelings of anger in such ways is to forget our true place in the universe. It is to assert the prerogatives of our “royal ego.” When I reflect on how often I and others speak about the failings of others, I begin to realize how fragile and vulnerable I am. I need to assert my significance by diminishing that of others.
What this signifies, of course, is that I am living in fear of my own insignificance. I am not even truly living, because my self-perception is based on an illusion, the illusion of my own superiority and the inferiority of others. If we are called not merely to refrain from killing others but to restrain our impulse to diminish and humiliate them, we shall have to reckon seriously with who we are, with what is our true place in the world.
When we are really angry at someone, it is because we are upset at our relationship to them. In this sense, as I heard long ago, anger is a call to intimacy. To experience such a call in feelings of anger is often quite threatening. To understand the call requires us to distance from the strength of the feeling and then to reflect gently on its meaning. It requires of us to delay the gratification of striking out, of balancing the scales, of calling another fool, and then to ponder our deepest desire in the other’s regard. Sometimes this can lead to a deepening of relationship, and sometimes it can call us to endure the suffering of our distance or misunderstanding.
Jesus’ teaching would suggest that he would not be an advocate for “venting” our angry feelings. In the times in life when I’ve felt I had to express my anger to someone, more often than not I have done more harm than good. When we “have to” do or say something, we are usually merely gratifying our own unconscious. It may feel good in the moment to put another in his or her place, but all that ultimately does is hurt the other, increase our distance and so diminish the possibility of future relationship, and enhance the carapace of my own false personality.
Thus, Jesus tells us to reconcile with our brother or sister before offering our gift to God. It seems that Jesus understands that we grow in self-knowledge and become authentic only in relationship, and that especially is true in reconciling with the one with whom we are angry, “the enemy.” A few verses later in Matthew 5, Jesus will teach that the greatest good lies not in loving those who love us, but in loving those who do not. Learning to love our “enemies” is the way in which we come to know the “hidden” in ourselves and to understand more deeply the demands of love. Where, at the level of body and ego, we would kill our enemies, as spirit, says Jesus, we are a capacity to love them
We do not become fully human, become our true unique life call, spontaneously. We do it, rather, by practicing “the Way.” As we see in the scribes and Pharisees, and in ourselves, we can keep the legalistic sense of the law perfectly and as a result become but more arrogant and prideful. Yet, if we follow the spirit of the Law as our “way of life,” we can slowly approach life in the Kingdom of heaven, the “life to the full” that Jesus promises.
When your mind is in the present moment, you can see deeply what brings you suffering and what brings you happiness. Your concentration and insight will allow you to think, act, and speak with more clarity. We know that other people are impermanent, but in daily life we assume that they are permanent. With this awareness, we can treat others with more love and understanding. They will soon be gone. With this awareness, we can also have more understanding of our own role in our suffering. Instead of blaming others, we can look at our own being and work on whatever unskillfulness on our part may have contributed to our difficulty with another.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear, pp. 82-3