Whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.

Sermon on the MountFor those of us who speak without thinking and spout off when we are irritated, the sobering words of our Lord in Matthew 5:22 are often dismissed. In today’s world, words uttered in anger may be considered to be a slight offense that can be justified by the circumstances. In our own mind, we may afterwards indulge in such justifications in which our focus remains riveted not on what has come out of our mouths, but on what the other person has said or done to us. “Well, I did get angry, but he was accusing me of something I didn’t do,” or “He had it coming to him. He didn’t recognize my hard work and efforts on this project. I had to get angry.” The Lord Christ suggests another focus. We should consider what we say and how we say it, keeping in mind that our words can be as soothing as oil or as scorching as fire. With them we can wound or heal, curse or bless. And those wounding curses and healing blessings have consequences not just for our neighbor, but also for ourselves.

In explaining the Lord’s words— “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna—, Saint Maximus notes that these insults differ in that the word Raca means impure and slanders the person’s way of life, whereas the word fool implies that a person is senseless like the fool that says in his heart there is no God (Questiones et Dubia, 10.40). Saint John Chrysostom likewise views Raca as a mere expression of contempt, but the word fool touches on “that which separates us from the brutes, and by which especially we are human beings, namely, the mind and the understanding, — when you have robbed your brother of this, you have deprived him of all his nobility” (Homily 16 on Matthew). The Saint continues, “So let us not regard only the words merely, but realizing the things themselves and his feeling, let us consider how great a wound is caused by this word and how much evil it causes” (Homily 16 on Matthew).

Psychologists have in fact been making such an investigation. For example, Caza and Cortina, in their 2007 study on incivility, have found that insulting someone else can make that person feel wronged or ostracized. The feelings of having no control over interactions with others and of not belonging to a group in turn can lead to anxiety if the individual ruminates on lack of control, while it can lead to depression if the individual instead broods over social rejection and personal shortcomings. Saint John Chrysostom even goes further, “The insolent mar all the beauty of love, cast upon their neighbor countless ills, work up lasting enmities, tear asunder the members of Christ, and are daily driving away that peace which God so desires: giving much ground to the devil by their injurious ways, and making him that much the stronger.” In other words, in addition to the psychological harm that an insult causes, there are theological consequences, moral consequences, spiritual consequences that are actually far-reaching.

Saint Ephraim the Syrian further adds, “whosoever despises the despised, despises with him the Almighty” (Hymn 4 on Epiphany). When we insult someone else, we forget about the image of God in both our brother and ourselves. Doing so we place ourselves in that Gehenna of fire, which in our Lord’s time was a valley south of Jerusalem, known as a place where human sacrifices were offered to Canaanite deities and at His time used for burning up garbage and the corpses of the poor. In insulting our brother, our contempt casts him into that valley in which we burn him by anger, rather than offering him the water of love.

It should now be clear that insults should not pass easily from the mouths of Christians. For this reason, Saint Paul reminds the Christians of Ephesus, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). The optimal time to struggle against the passion of anger is before it occurs in the thoughts and is rooted in the heart. The holy fathers counsel us to flee anger at its very first manifestation in our thoughts and being firmly committed to not allow it to be expressed in words. We can further guard against this passion through ongoing prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

In contrast to being angry with one another and insulting one another that brings so much harm, Christ calls us to love one another and be at peace with one another. Saint Isaac the Syrian writes in Homily 15, “If you love purity, in which the Master of all can be seen, do not speak disparagingly of any man or listen to another who maligns his brother. Is some quarrel in your presence and you hear words of wrath, close your ears and flee from that place, lest your soul perish from life. A wrathful heart is entirely devoid of the mysteries of God, but the meek and humble man is a well-spring of the mysteries of the new age.”

Saint Nikolai of Zicha provides us with a prayer that may seem counterintuitive. In his prayer, rather than bemoaning the fact that he has enemies, he thanks his enemies for providing him the opportunity to grow closer to Christ. When we are tempted by the passion of anger, perhaps we can pray this prayer (“Lord, Bless My Enemies”):

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth
and have demolished all my aspirations in the world. Enemies have
made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous
inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter
than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies,
found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your
tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself. They have
spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me
as though I were a dwarf. Whenever I have wanted to lead people,
they have shoved me into the background. Whenever I have rushed
to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.
Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened
me from sleep. Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long
and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out. Truly,
enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out
my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, Ο Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

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