February 13, 2010
William G. Carter
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that 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. 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Walt Kowalski has a problem. He can’t live around anybody else. When we meet him in the movie “Gran Torino,” he is an angry man. His wife has just died. His Detroit neighborhood is not safe. The people next door come from a foreign land that he has never heard of.
Most of the time he copes by cracking open a cold one, sitting on the porch with his Labrador retriever, and cursing all the people who pass by. Walt has an R-rated slur for every one of them. If the neighbor kid knocks on his door, he calls him a nasty word from his days in the Korean War. He dismisses the local priest as a boy just out of the seminary. He retired from the line at the Ford factory and watches his son drive off in a Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s roundly dismissed as a “Rice Burner.”
We know this man. We have heard him speak. We’ve heard him call other people names both behind their backs and right to their faces. Walt Kowalski is bitter to the core. For him and his neighbors, life is a living hell.
Today we hear Jesus speak of relationships torn apart. It is a problem as old as Cain and Abel, the first two brothers. They were created to live in peace, children of Adam and Eve, but one struck down the other. Within the very first human family was committed the very first murder. This was not how God intended our life to be.
Long before God carved the commandment onto stone, the prohibition against murder was genetically imprinted upon our souls. “You shall not take another person’s life.” God gave life; “thou shall not take it.” That is the commandment.
In today’s text, Jesus pushes that commandment to a deeper righteousness. “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t murder,’ but I say to you, watch your words!” Watch what you say to other people. Beware of the names that you call them.
If you watch the movie “Gran Torino,” you may pick up a few nicknames for people who do not look like you. I was reminded of some ethnic slurs that my parents and teachers tried to bleach out of my soul. I learned a few new ones. Walt Kowalski is a Polish American; he hates Jews, Hispanics, Koreans, and African Americans. I sat in a dark theater, wondering how it is that people learn to hate one another. Do newcomers from another culture move in and take over the neighborhood? Do they take their jobs? Or more likely, do they start on a lower rung of the ladder, working for less pay, trying to improve their lives through hard work?
Not so many years ago, I remember when a handful of residents in this community openly resented the seasonal farm workers who picked tomatoes in local farms. Somebody actually asked in public, “Why are those people here? Can’t our own college students pick those tomatoes? They need jobs too.” You have to laugh: can you imagine a suburban college kid getting up at dawn in July, living on a cot in a cinder block house, picking vegetables for a buck or two a bushel? Not likely. The newcomers often do what the long-settled people will no longer do. And they are called names. Dirty, filthy names. Simply for showing up.
“Watch what you say,” says Jesus. “If you insult somebody, it is the same as killing them. If you call somebody a fool, an idiot, a no-account, a good-for-nothing, you are liable to burn in hell.” That’s the sure-fire way to burn, he says, by calling somebody names. Pay attention to your words.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks a lot about words, especially about their power to damage and destroy. In chapter 12, he says that our words are reflections of what lies in our hearts. “If the tree is bad, the fruit will be rotten; every tree is known by its fruit.” Whatever lurks in the heart is what the mouth speaks. If there is poison in what we say, it is due to the venom that remains in our gizzards.
Have to be careful of this, says Jesus. He is very clear. “On the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (12:36-37)
Do you know that sounds so harsh? Because it is. You have heard it said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But I say to you, “Words can kill.” If you call somebody a name, if you put them down, if you demean them in any way, it is the same as killing them.
You have your stories, I have my own. Each story is painful. When I was in ninth grade, I played the trumpet in the band. I wasn’t very good, mostly because I had recently discovered the piano. I was working hard to play the piano better, and there were only so many practice hours in the day. In the middle of band rehearsal one day, my teacher called me out of the back row, told me to play my trumpet part in front of the rest of the band, and then verbally humiliated me before my peers. He called me worthless. He said I would never amount to anything. Then he said, “Get off my stage. You are a waste of my time.”
It was the last day that I ever played the trumpet. He killed that desire in me. He killed my interest in music with his insults.
Watch out for your words. Deadly words reveal deadly impulses. Do you remember that collection of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, called “Spoon River Anthology”? Masters takes us to the imaginary town of Spoon River, Illinois and reads the cemetery epitaphs. Now that everybody is dead, they tell the truth about their lives. My sinister favorite is the epitaph by a woman named “Constance Hately.” Here’s what she says:
You praise my self-sacrifice, Spoon River,
In rearing Irene and Mary,
Orphans of my older sister!
And you censure Irene and Mary
For their contempt of me.
But praise not my self-sacrifice,
And censure not their contempt;
I reared them, I cared for them, true enough –
But I poisoned my benefactions
With constant reminders of their dependence.
Every night she looked at those orphans and said, “Don’t forget! I took you in. You depend on me. Without me, you are nothing.” Because of her words, they grew to hate her. Words have that kind of power. The words we speak can kill another soul. Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t murder.’ But I say to you: ‘Don’t curse another person.’ Don’t reduce another person. Don’t call another person a name.”
Now, I know that is hard to do. People do awful things. They are mean and demeaning. They prove the doctrine of sin over and over again. As I have heard someone say more than once, “Why be an idiot if you can’t prove it?” But if we can step over the anger that naturally comes with daily life, we can perceive the deeper truth that all of us are more alike than different. All of us have our share of disappointments. All of us live in an unfair world, and all of us contribute regularly to its unfairness.
Yet all of us are children of God. Every description of a human being begins there. She is a child of God. He is a child of God. That’s who we are. And to demean other people is really to insult their Maker. To put somebody else down falsely puffs us up.
The rabbis tell a tale of a certain Rabbi, Simon ben Eleazar. He was coming from his teacher’s house, and he was felling very smart. After a day of learning, he was feeling uplifted at the thought of his own smarts, his own erudition and goodness. On the road, a very ill-favored passer-by gave him a greeting. The Rabbi did not say anything.
The traveler repeated the greeting, to which the Rabbi said, “You Raca! You fool! How ugly you are! Are all the men of your town as ugly as you?”
“That,” said the passer-by, “I do not know. Go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature he has made.” And so the sin of contempt was rebuked.
It reminds me of a poster from a Sunday School room. It pictured all these children, all sizes and shapes, all ages and skin tones. The caption said, “God doesn’t make any junk.” What a beautiful, baptismal-affirming truth! God’s children are God’s treasures. If anyone trashes those treasures, they will find themselves on the trash heap.
That is actually Jesus’ favorite word for “hell” – it’s Gehenna, which is an actual place. It is the Valley of Hinnom, the garbage dump of Jerusalem. It was always on fire and it smelled so badly. If the wind shifted, you caught a whiff of destruction. It was nasty. Jesus said, “Beware! Don’t end up there. Do whatever it takes to build relationships, not destroy them. Even if your relationships come apart, treat one another with respect. Go that extra mile.
If you’re sitting in church, he says, and it’s time to put your big, whopping offering in the plate, and you remember that somebody has a grudge against you, don’t let the bitterness call the shots. Go to your opponent, even before you make your offering. Forgive them. Free them. Show them that God’s love absorbs all sins. Be reconciled to one another. Create a future with your estranged sister or brother, and never, ever, write them off. Because God hasn’t given up on the human race, so we should never give up on the possibility of God’s peace and justice among us.
I think of Walt Kowalski, that bigot in the movie “Gran Torino.” He can curse out his neighbors with a most impressive vocabulary. But as he gets involved in their lives, after he breaks up some neighborhood bullying, after he eats strange food with people vastly different from himself, after he defends a victimized girl, after befriends a lonely boy, he realizes these are people with the same dreams as himself. They want to live in peace. They don’t want to be destroyed by hatred.
So if you saw the movie, you remember there’s a final scene where Walt Kowalski makes things right. In one final Christ-like moment, he gives himself for the peace of the neighborhood. Arms extended like a crucifix, he takes all the bitterness and violence upon himself, and thus takes it all away. In the deepest sense, this is what Jesus does, of course. He gives himself for the possibility of our peace. He is not only our Teacher but our Savior.
I heard a true story abut two farmers in Canada. One day the dog of one farmer got loose and mauled to death the two-year-old child of his neighbor. The devastated father cut off all relationship with the dog-owner. The two men lived in cold, defiant hatred for years. Then one day a fire devastated the property of the dog-owning farmer, destroying his barn and all his equipment. He was unable to plow and plant, and so his future appeared doomed.
The next morning he woke up and found all his fields plowed and ready for seed. Upon investigation, he discovered his grieving neighbor had done this good deed. Humbly the rescued farmer approached his neighbor and asked him if he had plowed his fields -- and, if so, why. The answer was clear: "Aye," said the former enemy. "I plowed your fields so that God can live."
This is the shape of the love of Christ. Love is not irritable or arrogant or boastful or rude. Love does not insist on its own way, but bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved