Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
…and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire.
Ok. I admit it. I have called more than a few people “Fool.” I laugh when talk show hosts go out on the street and ask people seemingly simple questions and get ridiculous answers. I laugh at the litigants on the daytime court shows who believe the charlatan and get themselves into difficult financial situations because they foolishly bought the car that did not work or lent money that will never be returned. And yes, I’ve called more than a few people who disagree with me “Fool.”
Does this mean I’m going to hell? After all, Jesus says, “…and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire.” This seems like a rather extreme punishment for calling someone a name, particularly when some of them really are fools. In their letters, both James and Paul call people fools. Jesus Himself says, “You blind fools!” and “You foolish people!” So, it is, perhaps, not the calling of someone a fool that makes us liable to the hell of fire. There are good, and kind, reasons to call someone a fool, to help them see the errors of their ways and to set them on a wise and faithful course.
There are, however, times when our own anger gets the best of us, and we speak the words “You fool” out of that anger. Matthew Henry writes, “Thou fool, is a spiteful word, and comes from hatred; looking upon him, not only as mean and not to be honored, but as vile and not to be loved; ‘Thou wicked man, thou reprobate.’ The former speaks a man without sense, this (in scripture language) speaks a man without grace; the more the reproach touches his spiritual condition, the worse it is; the former is a haughty taunting of our brother, this is a malicious censuring and condemning of him, as abandoned of God. Now this is a breach of the sixth commandment; malicious slanders and censures are poison under the tongue, that kills secretly and slowly; bitter words are as arrows that would suddenly, or as a sword in the bones. The good name of our neighbor, which is better than life, is thereby stabbed and murdered; and it is an evidence of such an ill-will to our neighbor as would strike at his life, if it were in our power.”
Jesus leads this statement with “…whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council…” Calling someone “an empty fellow,” could make someone end up in court. But when we call someone a fool out of anger, we are reaching into something deeper. Several times through the psalms, the psalmists tell us that “The fool says in heart, there is no God…” and in calling someone a fool in anger, we question the deepest thoughts of their hearts. We are making ourselves like God. We are suggesting that they are not only in error, but they are in grievous error that will send them to hell. And so, in judging them to hellfire by murdering their spirit, we damn ourselves.
In this section, Jesus is showing the difference between living under God’s Law and living in His grace. He talks about how someone who murders is liable to judgment, and then goes on to talk about how someone who is even angry with his brother is liable to judgment. One act is liable to the judgment of men, but the other is liable to a greater judgment: that of God. He does the same with adultery. A man is commanded against adultery, but Jesus says it is even worse to look upon a woman with lust. Men can provide justice for someone who has been wronged by the physical act of adultery, but only God sees the deepest lusts of our hearts.
God knows that our hearts can be false, and that they can lead us down a dark and dangerous path. See, it might seem harmless to be angry or lust in our hearts, but it doesn’t take very long before that lust is manifest. It creeps up on us; we are tempted until we see no harm in action. We even justify that action because we are ‘following our heart.’ How many times have we seen the family and friends of a murderer interviewed who have said, “He was such a kind and caring man”? They are so often surprised by what they didn’t see: the anger simmering in his heart that exploded into physical violence. How many people are surprised when a spouse is discovered having an affair?
When it comes to calling people names, it might seem quite harmless. After all, as children we learned the lesson, “Sticks and stone can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I doubt anyone would be taken to court today for calling someone “Raca.” And we surely don’t expect to go to hell for calling someone a fool. Jesus’ point here, though, is to remind us how easy it is to go from judging someone according to the laws of men, to condemning someone by our interpretation of the Law of God.
This is a matter of the heart.
What does it mean to be “in danger of the hell of fire”? The word used here is gehenna, which was in Jesus’ day the garbage heap of Jerusalem. It was an incineration pit, where the waste of the city was dumped and burned. The pit was constantly on fire. This particular valley was a place of death, too. It was where the ancient people sacrificed their children at the altars of Moloch and Ba’al, and it was where the Jewish courts executed criminals. It was located between the Temple Mount and the Hill of Calvary and it was a place where unwanted things were thrown.
Sadly, it was even a place of abandonment by Roman citizens at different periods of their history. See, the Romans followed a practice where a newborn was taken to the patriarch of the family, who judged whether or not the child would live or die. If the child had any blemish, any physical defect, even if the child was the wrong gender, the patriarch could order it abandoned and left to die by exposure. Gehenna was a convenient place for the Romans in Jerusalem to abandon those children.
The juxtaposition of the act and the punishment is striking in this text. Jesus is comparing our accusation of foolishness to the abandonment of the children in Gehenna. If we condemn someone by suggesting that they do not believe in God, we murder their spirit and leave them to die. Jesus says this is a great sin and in doing so, we are in danger of the same abandonment.
Last week Jesus said, “Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil.” In today’s passage He goes on to talk about some of the Laws, and He points out that truly faithful living comes from the heart, not the flesh. We don’t murder because the law says we should not murder, but Jesus says, “But I tell you, if you live in my grace, you will not even think of others in this way.” Remember, Jesus is talking to the disciples during the Sermon on the Mount. He is talking to people who are in a relationship with Him. He is talking to those who have been reconciled to God by Jesus. He is talking to us.
These laws, both the physical laws and the greater spiritual ones, are given so that we who are in a relationship with God will live faithful and righteous lives. That means sharing not only God’s grace with others, but being gracious, also. We can’t share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with people that we think are beyond salvation. We won’t tell our neighbors about God’s forgiveness if we think they should be dumped in the everlasting fire of the garbage heap.
Sadly, I’m not sure we are beyond this kind of name calling, even two thousand years later. We might not use the term “fool” as they did then, but how many times have we labeled people who are different and disagree with us with words that have equal condemnation? It is interesting that both the words conservative and liberal are used with disdain by opposite sides of every argument. Words like racist, sexist and bully have been so overused that they no longer mean what they once meant, and yet come from the hearts of the speakers as condemnation. When we speak these words out of anger, we cannot possibly believe that the one about whom we are speaking has value. We think they should be dumped in the everlasting fire of the garbage heap.
Paul writes, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ.” I can’t imagine what it was like to be in Corinth at this time. Well, perhaps I can, because we continue to do the same things. There were factions in the church of Corinth, each following a specific teacher. One followed Paul and another followed Apollos. They were missing the foundation of both their ministries, and they were condemning one another in the process. We do the same by lifting up our own doctrines and denominations while claiming others are following false gods and false gospels. Now, there may be good reason to call a Christian a fool if they are following a heresy, but all too often we do so with anger and hatred and condemnation.
Paul had a problem. He wanted to teach the Corinthians a deeper understanding of God. He wanted to them to live a fuller, richer faith. However, they were not yet ready for spiritual understanding. They were still caught up in the world. He continued to teach them the basics of Christianity, even though they should have been moving on to deeper things; instead of having the heart of Christ, they were living according to their flesh. And their flesh was sinful. Paul writes, “…for ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you jealousy and strife, are ye not carnal, and do ye not walk after the manner of men?”
It is said that the nineteenth century evangelist D. L. Moody had a temper which in Christian love and brotherhood he learned to control. There was an occasion, however, when he let a detractor get to him. When the man spoke a word of offense, Mr. Moody got angry and shoved the man down a short flight of stairs. He was not hurt, but Moody’s friends were concerned that the tone of the evening’s meeting would be dampened by this outburst. How could the congregation be influenced by Moody’s preaching after having witnessed such an obvious act of sin?
D.L. Moody called the meeting and began with an apology. He said, “Friends, before beginning tonight I want to confess that I yielded just now to my temper, out in the hall, and have done wrong. Just as I was coming in here tonight, I lost my temper with a man, and I want to confess my wrong before you all, and if that man is present here whom I thrust away in anger, I want to ask his forgiveness and God’s. Moody acted in flesh, but then sought immediate forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jesus makes it so hard for us. He commands not only that we obey the Law, but that we live in grace. He desires more than a life of obedience; He calls us to reconciliation. He knows our hearts and our temptations. It is so easy for us to respond to our anger by voicing our hostility. After all, we learn from a very early age that words can’t hurt us. And yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they are in danger of the hell of fire for calling someone a fool. The problem is not the words; the problem is the broken relationship. Murder is final, but even harsh words can destroy a relationship. We are called to live better; we are called to a life of peace. We can only do that when we are reconciled with our brother, despite the foolish things we all do when we fall to the temptations of our flesh.
The most important relationship that is affected by our sin is our relationship with God. Sin separates us from our Father in heaven, but thankfully God has breached the gap by sending His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Now God sees our sin through Jesus-colored glasses, forgiving us each time we fail. It is only in forgiveness that we can be reconciled to God, because without Him it is impossible for us to live according to His Word. The same is true of our relationships with people. We can only be reconciled through forgiveness. We need to forgive one another and ourselves of the sins that destroy our relationships.
The Old Testament lesson comes at the end of the Exodus. The Israelites had been wandering in circles throughout the wilderness for forty years because they had broken their relationship with God. A whole generation passed and the new generation had finally reached the Promised Land. They were standing on the far side of the river preparing to finally see the promise made to their forefathers fulfilled. Moses gave them one final message before they crossed. They made the choice once, when offered the opportunity to be saved from Egypt. The choice was easy then: stay in slavery or go to the Promised Land? They overwhelmingly chose to go forward into God’s promises. Yet, that first generation did not stay faithful. They turned from God along the way. That’s why they wandered for forty years. They made their choice to not trust God and they suffered the consequences.
But now a new generation stood on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over. The next part of their journey would take even more trust. Joshua would have to lead the people in a parade around Jericho instead of into a battle. They would have to destroy everything according to God’s command. They would have to fight with ridiculously small armies. They would have to follow directions that made no sense at all. Sometimes they obeyed, and when they did, they succeeded. But sometimes they made another choice. They went another way. They did their own thing, and in doing so chose destruction.
We aren’t any different. We go our own way too often; we choose to follow our flesh rather than God’s grace. Our lives may appear good because we haven’t murdered anyone, slept with our neighbor’s spouse or gone to court over defamatory statements about our neighbors. But who among us can say we haven’t been unrighteously angry with our neighbor, or lusted over the sexy celebrity or thought someone was not saved because they didn’t believe what we believe?
Jesus challenges us to be what God intends us to be because He knows the consequences of our failure. Anger can get us into deeper trouble. Adultery can destroy lives. Harsh words can lead to dismay. We come to this realization with the foundation of the Gospel in our lives. Moses invites us to love God, walk in His ways and keep His commands, decrees and laws. We will fail, but Christ has already finished the work of forgiveness.
Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “Works indeed are good, and God strictly requires them of us, but they do not make us holy.” We humbly approach these texts with the reality of our sinfulness. We will fail. We will break the commandments. We will destroy relationships, with God and with our neighbors. But we come to these texts with a promise: even when we fail, Christ has forgiven. He has reconciled us to God so that we can reconcile with our neighbors.
This is an urgent calling! We tend to wait until the right time. We wait until we feel better. We wait for our wounds to heal. We wait until we are not so angry. Unfortunately, things do not get better while we wait. There is never a right time. We don’t feel better. Our wounds fester and our anger simmers in our heart. Healing comes with forgiveness. Peace comes with reconciliation.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed are they that are perfect in the way, who walk in the law of Jehovah.” We aren’t perfect, and I can’t imagine any of us will be perfect in this life. We might get beyond the milk to the solid food to which Paul refers, but we will still do things that will satisfy our flesh and follow human understanding. But we can try to live as God has called us to live, to follow His commandments and be obedient to His Word. We do this not of our own volition, but by the grace of God. He makes us perfect. He leads the way. He loves us with a gracious and forgiving love and calls us to do the same with our neighbors. The more we dwell in this grace, the less we will fail. The deeper we love God, the more we will love our neighbors. When we truly love our neighbors, we will never abandon them to the hell of fire, but will invite them into the heart of grace.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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