If You Can't Say Something Nice...

God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” I remember that being pounded into me when I was a college student being taught to take the words of scripture both literally and seriously. The Bible and the Bible alone was the rule of faith and practice for Christians. To be faithful to God, one had to “read and study and then obey the B-I-B-L-E.” as the old children’s song declares. And, by the way, I still believe that.

The problem is that we tend to be pretty selective of the part of the Bible where “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Jesus said a lot of things that makes us pretty nervous, and we tend to come up with explanations as to why what He said really wasn't what He said. Surely he doesn't expect us to sell all that we have and give it to the poor… like he said to the Rich Young Ruler. Surely he doesn't want us to give away our jacket when someone tries to take away our shirt… like Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. And when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, surely He doesn't expect us to take that literally.

So maybe when God says it, that doesn't always settle it? I was reading an article by Catholic priest James Martin who suggests that Christians today really need to take Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:22 much more seriously. To refresh your memory, this verse reads--

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

When I was a kid calling a playmate “Dummy!” was OK; I got into only slight trouble if I called them an “Idiot!” But if I called them a “Fool,” then all the vengeance of heaven would come down upon me (in the person of my parents) because “Fool” was the very thing that Jesus said not to say. Personally, I was never tempted to say “Raca” to someone, but sometimes “Fool” seemed particularly like a relevant commentary on someone’s comments or behavior.  What is Jesus saying here?

The word “Raca” is generally explained in the footnotes of our Bibles as “an Aramiac expression of contempt.” The word literally meant “empty headed” or “fool.” Well of “Raca” meant “fool” when why did Jesus use the Greek word for "fool" in his very next line? Maybe it's not the particular words we choose that Jesus is trying to get us to change; maybe Jesus just doesn't want us using words of contempt in our speech at all. In fact that is EXACTLY what Jesus is saying. The question is, “Do we believe it and does that settle it?

Communication in what is supposedly the “communication age” has gotten progressively less and less polite and more and more disrespectful. I don’t listen to cable news or talk radio anymore because I've grown so tired of supposed “pundits” shouting at each other and calling each other names. (OK, I also don’t watch cable news anymore because we don’t have cable, but that is beside the point). Is it possible to disagree with someone and be respectful at the same time? What is more, isn’t that exactly what Jesus tells us to do? Let me just end my tirade against tirades by quoting a section from Martin’s piece--

It's especially important to hear Jesus's words in our digital age, when snarky blogs, terrible texting, snotty Facebook posts and mean-spirited Tweets zip around the Web and cause serious harm. And it's essential to hear in our 24/7-radio-shockjock-TV-talkshow-endless-gabfest age, when the easiest way to get people to tune into your show is to call someone else a jerk, or worse. "Fool," raca, is probably the mildest of imprecations that you've heard lately.

That goes for Christians speaking about other Christians, believers speaking about other believers, and anyone else with whom we disagree on religious matters. Take a look at any opinionated religious blog, on the right and the left, and you'll see all manner of terrible name-calling -- again, much worse than raca.

We ignore the invitation to practice personal charity, to treat one another with respect, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to avoid name-calling, to curb our tongues and to simply be kind, at our peril. And this is not simply feel-good religion. It's not simply wishy-washy niceness. It's not an excuse to avoid tough conversations. It is at the heart of the Christian life.

Speaking charitably about others is a simple thing, but hard to do. Trust me, I've engaged in this kind of trash talk myself from time to time. I gossip. I may even call people names, like "fool," behind their backs. It's a terrible thing to do.

How do we know this? Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms. So don't overlook this overlooked passage, which contains a word that we can be certain comes to us directly from the lips of Jesus. Listen to his words and allow them to change yours.