Newsflash: Radical Rabbi Reveals Self-Expression Can Be Murder!

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Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and 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 hell fire. Matthew 5:21-11 (KJV)

News exclusive. In an insider, exclusive interview today, well-known rabble-rouser and sometime blasphemer, Rabbi Yeshua ben Joseph was quoted as saying, "If you have called your brother a fool, you have already committed murder." When asked to comment on this patently absurd teaching Chief Priest and well-known art critic and man-about-town Caiaphas had this to say. . .

Many of the things Jesus has to say to us are hard sayings. In this country we have, through the grace of God, been granted the freedom of speech. Our wise constitutional interpreters have expanded speech to include nearly every form of "expression" possible, from lap-dancing to flag burning. The gift of free speech is a gift indeed; however, the liberty to speak freely must be separated from the license to speak one's mind. License is always an abuse of liberty and the beginning of its downfall, or at very least of the downfall of the person exercising license.

Jesus is very clear in what he says regarding how we speak and feel about those around us. But, it behooves us to listen well, so I repeat the words of Jesus in the exceedingly annoying and prolix Amplified Bible version:

21You have heard that it was said to the men of old, You shall not kill, and whoever kills shall be liable to and unable to escape the punishment imposed by the court.

22But I say to you that everyone who continues to be angry with his brother or harbors malice (enmity of heart) against him shall be liable to and unable to escape the punishment imposed by the court; and whoever speaks contemptuously and insultingly to his brother shall be liable to and unable to escape the punishment imposed by the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, You cursed fool! [You empty-headed idiot!] shall be liable to and unable to escape the hell (Gehenna) of fire.

I think it is fairly clear here that Jesus doesn't want us speaking ill of our brethren. Now, there may be some who would say it is perfectly permissible to say these things if it is done without rancor; however, I question the ability of any human being (other than Jesus himself) to say these things without rancor, The reason I do so lies in one of the mysteries of iniquity that resulted from the fall.

Human beings by their nature seek to feel good about themselves. In many cases they seek this good by comparison with others. To feel good about myself, I must somehow be better than those around me. It is this chain of reasoning that ends in gas chambers, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and in the concentration camps of North Korea. When we begin to speak ill of those around us, it gives us license to treat them as we speak of them. If they are fools, then we treat them like fools. If they are reckless idiots, then we are better off without them. If they are "filthy" or speak a different language, or adhere to a different set of standards so far as etiquette is concerned, then it is within our rights to dismiss them, and if they are loud or obnoxious enough, to do away with them.

When we open our mouths to accuse the brethren, we become the accuser of brethren. When we speak ill of a person because of race, nationality, intelligence, sex, sexual preference, ideology, or for any reason, we put ourselves in danger. It is clear. Our Lord taught us that the first step on the road to murder is murder itself. When we say, "You idiot," (or, as I do so that Samuel won't understand me in traffic, espece d'idiot--when someone does dome amazingly outrageous tourist maneuver they wouldn't consider for a moment driving about their own home town) we make ourselves fuel for the fire. (But Samuel sees through even the language barrier (tone conveys a lot) and we get our usual theological lecture from the back seat, "Jesus wouldn't like what you're saying." Oh and it's so hard to hear that because it is so true. Everyone who would speak against their brother should have my child dogging their heels--amazing how many ways he is a gift to me.)

It is simply impermissible to think of one's brother this way, to harbor anger, resentment, or even lingering feelings of superiority or of the inferiority of the other. Admittedly, we are provoked, we are made angry and sometimes say these things. The important point is to let go of them immediately. It isn't so much the saying that is damnable, but it is the lingering impression they leave on the mind as we rethink them. Admittedly, we shouldn't be provoked into saying them to start with. Most often we are provoked by those who have somehow injured our pride or otherwise aggravated ourselves. (More often than not the aggravation is a direct result of the similarity of their action to our own in like situation.) We must grow beyond the need to feel better at another's expense. When we set ourselves up in this way, we will only be knocked down.

What we say has real consequences. It affects our moods of the day, it affects the way we think about things, it affects the way we react to people and events. When we say "I can't" then very often, we cannot. When we call the cherished children of God by names not worthy of them, we shape our thoughts to conform to our words. We have murdered the real person with our image of that person.

So, we are never better off in saying some of those things that cross our mind, and often far worse off. Better then to not let the word issue from the mouth and become "concrete." Better to let the thought pass and replace it with a moment of divine mercy prayer, for ourselves and for those against whom we would trespass.

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Steven, I was impressed with the Jewish laws against lashon hara the first time I read them, and wondered why Christians did not have the same restrictions against evil talk. Ooops! We do!! This particular passage in the Gospel had never made an impression on me before today. Thank you!

I think the origin of the negative speech rules is Leviticus 19:16, "You shall not go about as a tale bearer among your people". What I really appreciated about the Jewish sages' approach is that they find the core of our human weakness - they've had time to see all the gossip's excuses, my personal favourite stumbling-block being, "But it's TRUE!!"

That gets nipped right in the bud:

Jewish law opposes this view. The fact that something is true doesn’t mean it is anybody else’s business. The Hebrew term for forbidden speech about others, lashon hara (literally, “bad tongue”), refers to any statement that is true but that lowers the status of the person about whom it is said. Thus, sharing with your friends the news that so-and-so eats like a pig, is sexually promiscuous, or is regarded by her co-workers as lazy, is forbidden, even if true.

Perhaps even harder than not saying the negative things we think about others is not listening to someone else's negative speech (or reading it!)-- a major challenge in blogging, some days!


Dear Talmida,

Thanks so much for this comment. I always learn a great deal. I thought the restriction came out of "thou shalt not bear false witness," but the distinction you make here is important. Even if it is true, it should not be said as it detracts from the intrinsic worth of both the person commenting and the person doing the commenting (the latter more substantively). As always, very interesting.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 26, 2005 7:49 AM.

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