Kneeling with murderers
Think about all of the people in your church. At your job. In your family. Think about yourself. Now, imagine: What would it look like if all those people — including you and me — came to the sudden realization that none of us are any better than common murderers?
This is the painful and humiliating conclusion we must face in today’s Gospel reading, and in our path of introspection and penitence this Lent.
Jesus tells us in our reading from Matthew, if we hate a brother or sister, it is as good as murdering them — and will subject us to similar judgment. This passage calls us to overcome two of our chief obstacles to a life defined by Christ: the obstacle of hatred, in which we hide from God’s love; and the obstacle of pride, whereby we look down on others as more sinful than ourselves.
Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms love is at the heart of our Christian walk. The greatest commandment is to“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’” and “the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
You want to follow God? You have to love.
Numerous philosophers have co-opted and expanded Elie Wiesel’s assertion that “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” But, without getting into the debate over whether or not hate is the opposite of love, we can see hate and love are not compatible within our hearts.
You cannot carry love and hate at the same time. Hatred is a festering sickness, that blocks light, dispels love and eats at our spirit.
St. John, in his First Epistle, tells us love isn’t just the essence of God — it is God: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
God is love. It follows, when we turn our backs on love, we turn our backs on God. So, when we hate, we are turning our backs on God.
This is why Jesus draws such a sharp line around hatred, much as he does around adultery. It is what’s in our heart that matters, because it is there the Kingdom of Heaven resides, “for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” If we fill that space with hate, we are not only doing as bad as killing another; we are barring the gates of the kingdom against ourselves. In a very real way, when we hate, we are doing worse than murder. We are doing worse than murdering ourselves.
In our translation today from Matthew, Jesus tells us “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
The message remains: carry around anger and insult in your heart, and it’s as bad as killing in the street.
But, other translations use the term “raca” in place of “insult,” as in “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council (KJV).”
This is an important distinction, because “raca,” taken from the Aramaic term “reqa,” doesn’t mean to just insult someone. It means to insult them in a particularly derogatory way, taking on an air of superiority, placing them in a position of inferiority.
In other words, looking down on others is akin to hating them, which is akin to killing them.
And, who among us has not hated someone, or looked down on someone, or considered someone a fool, at some point? If this were the standard we had to meet, how many of us could measure up? I could not.
An essential lesson here is, while most of us haven’t committed murder, most or all of us have, at some point, carried hatred or a sense of superiority in our hearts. And that, Jesus tells us, puts us on the same level as a murderer.
Imagine coming to the altar to kneel next to a hardened murderer. Jesus tells us that’s you — the hardened murderer. And it’s me. And most everyone else. There’s no point in looking down on or looking differently at anyone else because of their sins, because at the end of the day, we’re all just murderers in need of grace from a loving God.
Act on it
But, it is not enough to simply know this. We must take what we’ve been given and act on it. We must search out that within us that draws us away from God.
Pope Francis, in an October 2018 homily, said we’re deceiving ourselves if we say “I’m fine because I do not do anything wrong.”
“A mineral or a plant, or the sampietrini stones in the piazza, have this kind of existence, a person – a man or a woman – no,” Francis said. “More is required of a man or woman. Human life needs love.”
To be fully human, to live into the image of God, we need to dispel hatred with love — in our communities, in our families, our relationships, our workplaces, on social media, and, most especially, in our hearts.
This process of searching out our hearts for any hint of hatred is central to, but must go beyond Lent. Jesus tells us it is the prerequisite to all proper worship: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
What would it look like if we all, before we came to the altar, realized we’re no better than common murderers? I think we would look like the Body of Christ, living in humility, surrendered to our need for the grace of the Living God. I pray for that humility. I pray for that surrender.