Jesus began by blessing everyone in the crowd, both the godly and those far from God. Next, He affirmed the divine potential of every soul present. Then, Jesus prepared their hearts to go further with their faith than the religious elite had taken their beliefs. Jesus now launches into the details of the radical new lifestyle He came to bring. He begins with their understanding of murder.
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.
If you study the Sermon On the Mount (and I hope you will), you’ll notice the regular formula, “You have heard it said… But I say to you…”. Jesus is quoting common commands from their scriptures coupled with contemporary applications. Then, He gives His set of interpretations and applications to those commandments; always taking it further than the religious elite. Now, keep in mind that Jesus only does this for the commands that involve the good and fair treatment of other people. With rules that are for show, like handwashing and diet, Jesus has little interest. His applications challenge us to go all-in for loving people to the highest possible standard and disregarding the meaningless rituals. The murder command is our first example.
If the command was “do not murder”, the ancient application left it there. In theory, you could bad-mouth someone. After all, it wasn’t murder! You could oppress a group of peasants if your social status was higher than them. It wasn’t murder! God said, “Do not murder.” Most people follow that rule to the letter their entire lives. Good enough, right?
Jesus starts with murder but goes deeper into the spirit of the rule. He lumps harboring anger toward a person into the same category as murder. He also lumps insulting a fellow human into that category as well. He then gives a very ominous warning, saying such behavior is “liable to the hell of fire.” Yikes.
First, notice what Jesus is doing in general. We’ll see it throughout Matthew chapters 5 thru 7. Jesus is going for the spirit of the command. As God envisions His children interacting, His standard is not met by humans merely stopping short of bludgeoning each other to death. He’s not commenting to the heavens, “My children sure do hate each other, but look at the way they aren’t killing each other! I love how they’re following the sixth commandment!”
Jesus calls us well past the letter of the sixth commandment. Jesus is calling us toward love. Love includes mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, blessing, and the highest forms of interacting with each other. Not murdering is not God’s standard. God is not pleased with simply the lack of murder. Jesus calls us to the highest form of humanity. See what He does there? It’s not about the rule, it’s about the spirit of the rule. It’s not just doing the bare minimum to be human. It’s about understanding God’s dreams for His creation and living out our potential.
As for the “hell of fire”. The word translated “hell” is “Gehenna”. It was an actual place in Jesus’ day. When He referred to Gehenna, people thought of a region outside of Jerusalem. Scholars long ago wrote that it was the regional dump during the time of Jesus. Locals in Jerusalem hold this view today. If it wasn’t the regional dump, it was still at best a land abandoned from all the war and horrible acts and memories that were associated with the place. It was a place of immense death and even child sacrifice. It was a region associated with everything God didn’t want for His Creation.
We don’t know whether Jesus was referring to the hell we associate with the afterlife or if He was reminding people of a place of great despair for this life. Since Gehenna was a real-life location associated with real-life misery and human sadness, I advocate that Jesus is primarily wanting us to think about the here and now. He’s essentially saying, “If you go around calling people idiots and mistreating your fellow humans, your world will end up resembling a dumpster heaping with garbage!”
So… as Jesus lays out His lifestyle, His first concept has to do with our treating each other well. We are to shoot for the highest standards in treating other people. We are to believe the best about each other! Anything less moves us toward Gehenna.
What do you need to do with this teaching from Jesus? What does it mean for your Facebook comments and posts? What does it mean for how you treat your coworkers? Words spoken to bad drivers? Remember, if you say you follow Jesus, you have to treat everyone with love. Demand the best from yourself! Work toward the highest expressions of humanity.