“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire (Gehenna).”
I spent three years of formal education studying theology at the university level. If I learned anything during this time it was that the text of the Bible was more than subsumed into the tremendous deluge and breadth of theological understanding; the studied texts interpreted in light of the beliefs of the community. Simple chapters of Biblical text were expanded into volumes of dissertation, elucidated then by simple phrases or apocryphal connotations like dispensation, eschatology, soteriology, and pelagianism. Esoteric terminology more than causes a separation between initiated and nescient, it creates a chasm between the sacred and the profane or secular. The simplicity of a text was subject to a significant knowledge base necessary for full understanding.
Part of the danger of theological discourse is that the original meaning can become lost, leaving the system of belief and interpretation to possess a seeming absoluteness without the option to consider other possibilities. Once a term or belief is agreed upon it becomes part of the paradigm. Questions are not considered healthy or relevant.
For many years I wrestled with the above verse. The meaning baffled me. How could one deserve the fires of hell for simply calling someone a fool? What kind of a loving God would create such a simple excuse for damnation?
As I left the church and began to study the words and their meaning in the Greek language and context, I found the word “hell” was actually “Gehenna”. Not actually an analogy for Hell, as my former theology taught me, Gehenna was a valley outside of Jerusalem where the trash was burned and social outcasts were sent. If you were not a part of the community, if you broke the spoken and unspoken cultural rules you would be sent there to live your life alone and separate from the community of which you were once a part.
In this context Jesus is then referring not to sin against God punishable by death, but a place you simply deserved if you could not be forgiving, kind, and a part of the betterment of the community.
Even more so than today, in ancient times you relied on your community for survival. In fact, the bloody sacrifices in the Old Testament upon the alter of YHWH reflect this truth. Sacrifices were not made for the forgiveness of the individual, but for the nation or community as a whole. All may play a part in this redemption, but it was not the forgiveness of the individual that mattered, it was that of the community as a whole.
In this sense contextual interpretation takes on a simpler and more satisfying meaning than that of eternal salvation, damnation, and penance for sins committed. To be ostracized was to formally relinquish the most meaningful aspects of your life: your relationships and connections with others.
The very simple truth, and one that I wish our churches, corporations, and country would understand, is that the happiness and success of the individual can only be predicated upon the success and happiness of the community. Perhaps the simplest truth presented by Jesus is simply that we are all in this together.
To read further in to the words of Jesus is to discover this meaning permeating the text. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most meaningful text ever written, is Jesus’ great discourse and reflection on the acts of the individual impacting the group as a whole. How much of this text is ignored by much of Christianity? Topics such as forgiveness, private prayer, doing good deeds in secret, and judging amongst others demonstrate for us what is needed for a community to not only survive but also flourish. If salvation was truly the point of what Jesus was teaching, why is it that in this text Jesus does not repeat over and over that we should each believe in him in order to escape the flames of Hell? Instead Jesus words reflect deep human and cultural needs and lack extremely complex themes unknowable to only the theologically literate elites of society.
In essence, Jesus came, in his words, to give us or teach us life to the fullest . This abundant life, as we have seen, is only obtainable in a community of love, forgiveness, and amongst consciously aware individuals actively seeking a better version of their selves. In writing a new theology the emphasis should always be on the betterment of the community, not the salvation of the individual.