Sermon on the Mount: Contempt
As of Matthew 5:21, we are officially past the introductory parts of the Sermon on the Mount. The meat of the sermon is framed by two statements about fulfilling the law and the prophets (5:17-20; 7:12). On this theme, Jesus will spend the rest of Matthew 5 exposing ways that people keep the letter of the law, but totally miss the heart.
He starts with a bedrock moral principle, something no one is going to disagree with: Murder is bad. In our pluralistic culture, we dug down to see what morality we could all agree on. This is basically where we finally hit something solid.
As a culture, our core morality is, “Don’t hurt people.” So Jesus is making sure that we’re all starting on the same page.
That’s good, because that page is about to get flipped.
“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.’ 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. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matt. 5:21-26)
To understand how Jesus connects murder to anger and name-calling (Matt. 5:22), we have to remember that Jesus is not interested in just tightening up the rules.
He is interested in heart attitudes. This is fairly easy to see when it comes to name-calling. He says not to call your brother “Raca” or “Fool.” In nice Hebrew parallelism, these are basically synonymous. One is Aramaic, the other is Greek, but they are both rather harsh ways of saying that someone is “empty-headed” or “stupid.”
We know that Jesus is going deeper than simply saying that you should avoid these particular words. In fact, most of the uses of “fool” in the New Testament come from Jesus himself (cf. Matt. 7:26; 23:17; 25:2)! There’s an attitude going on, here.
The same is true for anger. It’s obviously unrealistic and unhealthy to simply say, “Anger is bad.” So we tie ourselves into pretzels trying to delineate what kind of anger is okay and what kind isn’t. Not the point. Paul makes a distinction between anger and sin: “In your anger, do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). This implies you can be angry without sinning. In saying this, Paul uses the exact same word Jesus uses in Matthew 5:22. Therefore, anger is not, itself, bad. So, again, we’re looking at some underlying attitude.
So what attitude do murder and name-calling have in common?
If murder is on one end of the spectrum and name-calling is on the other, what is the spectrum? The answer is contempt. Name-calling is always an act of contempt. It is a way to “other” someone, to make them “less than.” It devalues another human being. It takes someone who is created in the image of God, who is infinitely and inherently valuable, and says that they’re just one of those “idiots.”
Murder is simply the ultimate act of contempt. It reduces the value of that life to zero. Murder and name-calling may be on opposite ends of the “contempt” spectrum, but Jesus is pointing out that they are on the same spectrum. In our hearts, what’s the difference between making someone dead and thinking that they may as well be? To be appalled at one while enjoying the other is to keep the letter of the law, but totally miss its heart.
Again, in the same parallel statements, Jesus points out that this mindset is going to get us into trouble with both God and man (Matt. 5:22). In fact, 5:22 starts off a chiasm—a literary form that Jesus seems quite fond of.
The basic structure of a chiasm is A B B A. Here, it looks like this:
A – man (the Sanhedrin)
B – God (the fires of Gehenna) (5:22)
B – God (offering a sacrifice—5:23-24)
A – man (going to court—5:25-26)
First, Jesus discusses getting into trouble with God. As we mentioned in a previous article, the whole purpose of the sacrificial system is fellowship with God. You deal with your sin so that you can draw near to God. This culminates in the fellowship offering, part of which becomes a feast that you symbolically share with God Himself. So, in 5:23, we have someone presuming to draw near to God while harboring contempt for their brother in their heart. That’s not how this works.
John is constantly drawn back to the theme, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1 John 4:20). If you don’t love your brother, you don’t have the heart of God.
For the church in Corinth, Paul can make the reasoning even tighter.
If your brothers and sisters are the body of Christ, thinking that you can commune with Him while despising them isn’t even logically coherent. In his discussion of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34), Paul is dealing with a situation almost exactly like the one Jesus depicts. People presume to draw near to God, enjoying a feast that was the very sacrifice that reconciled them to God, yet they are clearly showing contempt for each other (11:18-22).
So Paul tells them, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup” (1 Cor. 11:28). This specifically means “discerning the body of the Lord” (11:29). What is that “body”? The person sitting next to them. The one they have contempt for. Paul agrees with Jesus: they need to get their heart right concerning the other person first. Otherwise, whatever they’re doing doesn’t even count as the “Lord’s Supper” (11:20).
Drawing near to God should cause us to examine our hearts, and if there is contempt for our brother there, God is going to want to deal with that. If our heart isn’t right with them, it’s not right with Him. So if you draw near to God, but are not convicted about contempt you have for someone, you are blinding yourself. God is trying to get your attention, and you are refusing to yield. You are choosing to hold on to contempt and pretending (for yourself, at least) to come close to God.
But you aren’t.
Quite the opposite. And thinking that you and God are cool when you are not is a very dangerous place to be. For their part, the Corinthians were paying for it (11:30).
Contempt also blinds us to our own guilt (Matt. 5:25-26).
Seeing someone as “other,” as “less than” justifies treating them as “less than.” There is a self-justifying cycle here. Our anger justifies our contempt, and our contempt justifies our anger. In turn, our contempt justifies treating someone in a way we would never treat a fully human, inherently valuable person. And as our actions degrade them, this justifies (and intensifies) our contempt for them. As one author puts it: We butcher animals. We don’t butcher people. But if you keep that contempt going long enough, if you dehumanize someone else enough, then they’re not people any more.
Every criminal in history justified the harm they did by finding some reason to view their victim with contempt. Totally blind to the horror of their actions, they say their victim simply “had it coming.”
That works fine until you’re standing in front of a judge.
That’s probably what’s going on with the person in Matthew 5:25-26. We have no clue that they did anything wrong until they get the book thrown at them. Presumably, neither did they. Contempt can cause you to seriously wrong someone (turning them into an “adversary”) yet be totally oblivious. “What, that? They totally had that coming.”
You should have taken a hard look at yourself before you ended up in court. At that point, it’s too late.
Just ask the January 6th Capitol rioters. After marinating in contempt for months and years, they seriously thought there was nothing wrong with their actions, up to and including those who went in intending to physically harm someone. Many of them laughed all the way to court. And they’re paying, now.
This is the first issue Jesus brings up as he gets into the meat of this sermon, so contempt isn’t new. But it does seem to be the plague of our age. After all, it makes for great ratings. How many reality shows survive precisely because we love to feel superior to the people in them? How much news is a thinly-veiled version of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate”? Except it’s not two minutes. It’s 24/7. Our culture is suffocating in the atmosphere of contempt.
We desperately need to come up for air.
Contempt is not entertainment. It is not information. It is death. It is the exact opposite of the Kingdom. If you sense contempt, don’t leave it on as background noise. Run for your life!
The call of the Kingdom is not to learn to have contempt for the right people. It is a call to avoid contempt altogether.
How? Remember: Jesus thought the person you despise was worth dying for.
That is their value.
Just like it’s yours.
Jesus thought the person you despise was worth dying for.