Speaking with Contempt

I have always found Jesus’ words in Matt 5:21-22 to be shattering. He begins by reminding his listeners that anyone who murders will be judged. But then he gives three case studies of actions that seem far less serious than murder. “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”  To be bitter and angry in your heart toward someone can lead to great evil, so that makes some sense. But the term "raca" means only something like "you air-head!" and the word translated "fool" is likewise not an outrageous or cutting insult.

Jesus’ listeners would likely have been smiling as they heard these terms and would have been shocked as he ended the sentence threatening them with hell-fire! What was Jesus’ point? “The deliberate paradox of Jesus’ pronouncement is that ordinary insults may betray an attitude of contempt which God takes extremely seriously.” (R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 201)

This passage helps me understand Numbers 20. As in Exodus 17, the children of Israel are in the desert wilderness facing parching thirst. They charge Moses with being, at worst, evil or, at best, an incompetent leader. Again, God tells Moses to go to “that rock.” This time however he tells him to speak to it, and the rock will pour out water sufficient for everyone (v.8). Moses gathers everyone at the rock, but instead of speaking to the rock, he angrily upbraids the people. “Listen, you rebels!” he cries. “Must we bring you water out of this rock [again]?” (v.10) Striking the rock with his staff in his fury, the water comes out. God, however, tells Moses that he now would not enter the Promised Land, because Moses “did not trust me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites.” (v.12)

What did Moses do wrong? Of course he failed to follow instructions. He struck the rock instead of speaking to it, and that is disobedience. Nevertheless, God’s rebuke goes deeper. In calling them “rebels” Moses set himself up as their judge. In saying, “Must we bring you water?” he set himself up as their deliverer. Everything Moses did pointed away from God toward himself.

It is not hard to understand why. Leadership brings a steady drumbeat of criticism and misunderstanding, even when things are going well. When things go poorly, people vent their frustration and anger on those in charge. A newly ordained pastor once said to me, “I didn’t know that, once you become a leader, there’s always someone mad at you!”

This makes sense of Moses’ reaction. “His response is not only the striking of the rock, it is the answer of a man who under pressure has become bitter and pretentious.” (D. Carson, For the Love of God, vol 1, May 11th reading.) God was ready to be gracious, but Moses was in no mood for that.

The relentless criticism from the people had made Moses self-righteous. He held them in contempt. He had wrath but no compassion, and that is the mark of a man who is becoming less like God, not more. (See Isaiah 15-16 where God grieves even as he speaks in judgment.) Moses is a man who has forgotten grace, and the sign of it is a sanctimonious spirit along with words of denunciation without humility and compassion.

Leadership always involves conflict. John Newton’s famous letter on “controversy” observes how easy it is for criticism to create Pharisees. “Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit.”

All leaders, and especially Christian leaders, must be on guard against this inevitable temptation and this terrible sin. It is natural, when under criticism, to shield your heart from pain by belittling the critics in your mind. “You stupid idiots.” Even if you don’t speak outwardly to people like Moses did, you do so inwardly.  

Contempt will lead to self-absorption, self-pity, maybe even delusions of grandeur, but the great sin is that the growth of inner disdain leads to pride and a loss of humble reliance on God’s grace. Moses treated God with contempt when he became contemptuous toward his people.

This is what leaders face. Is there any hope for us? Yes, because we are in a better position than Moses was for understanding the grace of God. Don Carson writes: “In light of 1 Corinthians 10:4, which shows Christ to be the antitype of the rock, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the reason God had insisted the rock be struck in Exodus 17:1–7, and forbids it here, is that he perceives a wonderful opportunity to make a symbol-laden point: the ultimate Rock, from whom life-giving streams flow, is struck once, and no more.”

www.gospelinlife.com. Used by permission.

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