It is relatively easy not to murder a man. I know. I am thirty-five years old, and I have never murdered anyone. Nor do I intend to in the next thirty-five years of my life. You probably haven’t and don’t too.
If righteousness consisted of not doing what the vast majority of us would never do anyway, then we’d all be extremely righteous. But Jesus calls his disciples to practice a righteousness that “surpasses” or goes above and beyond minimalist expectations of decent behavior.
Notice, in this regard, what Jesus says about murder in Matthew 5.21–22: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Several important points need to be made about this pronouncement. First, the contrast Jesus draws between “You have heard that it was said” and “But I tell you” is a contrast between traditional interpretations of the Law and his own. It is not a contrast between the Old Testament law and Jesus’ commandment (although some commentators argue this). When Jesus introduces a quotation from the Old Testament, he typically says, “It is written” (e.g., Matt. 4.4, 7, 10). The phrase “it was said” more commonly introduces a rabbinic interpretation of the law.
Second, Jesus traces murder to its source in anger. Over the past year, I have become an aficionado of crime shows, especially “Cold Case Files.” This show examines real murder cases from the “cold case” (or long unsolved case) files of various metropolitan police departments. A common element of these cases is the anger of the murderer toward his (rarely her) victim. According to Jesus, what the law really prohibits is both the murderous action and the murderous attitude. Overcoming anger is part of the surpassing righteousness Jesus requires of his disciples.
And that leads to the third point. Overcoming anger means getting control of one’s tongue. Anger may begin in the heart, but its first manifestation is usually speech. So Jesus warns us not to demean our neighbors through insulting terms, like calling someone a “fool” (literally, “moron”). Hell is the divine judgment against such abusive name calling.
As I said at the outset, it is relatively easy not to murder a man. It is harder to stifle an insult, and far harder still to get control of one’s temper. Speaking only for myself, if anger and insult are the true threshold of murder, than I am a killer many times over. Perhaps you are too. What Jesus wants of us is not a minimal conformity to easily obeyed commandments, but a maximal commitment to serious heart change. Only a changed heart surpasses the otherwise easily attainable righteousness of the Pharisees.