The Empty Ones

A hard-to-translate Aramaic expression rings true in American public debate.
Executive Director Rick Barry continues this miniseries of reflections on the passages of the synoptic gospels that frighten him the most. This episode also includes a guided prayer, and information on how to support our work ahead of and following a divisive election. A full transcript is below.
In this episode…
  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

Rate, Review and Subscribe on…
Action Item

Take time this week to prayerfully consider one or two Christians in your life who you are most likely to dismiss, consider to be a fool, or disregard—especially when it comes to their politics. Pray for the opportunity to speak with them with humility and grace.

TRANSCRIPT

This is the third episode in a miniseries reflecting on what to me are some of the secretly scariest moments in Jesus’ life.

We’re going to jump right into it this week by reading Matthew 5:21–22. This is an excerpt from the sermon on the mount, which is a long passage about how people who follow Jesus should order our inner lives, and conduct our relationships with each other, and navigate the world together.

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder,’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be guilty before the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘you good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

These are the words of our Lord, and if they aren’t frightening to you, I hope that you’re not too surprised or too disappointed that they’re frightening to me.

The phrase, “Whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’” gets translated a TON of different ways in English Bibles. I just read the way it’s translated in the NASB, but the ESV and the CSB just say, “insults.” Richmond Lattimore’s translation, which I mostly love, says, “He who says to his brother, ‘fool.’” The NLT translates that as, “If you call someone an idiot.” But I think the KJV and the NIV maybe do the best we can hope for with that line. They both warn us to just not say, “raca.”

I like that translation because “raca” is, as far as I understand, a tough concept to translate. It’s probably a Greek presentation of an Aramaic word that means “empty one,” which we don’t really understand well enough to have a good, go-to analogue for in English.

But I think that direct translation, that “empty one” phrase, it’s weird enough and it’s evocative enough that it might help us get into a different headspace than a lot of the other translations, and it’s a headspace that fits in with a lot of the rest of the sermon on the mount.

We know that the first thing Jesus tells us in this passage is that if we’re angry at someone, it’s as good as murdering them. And the last thing he tells us is that if we call someone foolish, we deserve hell. That part’s pretty clear, according to scholars. So, that’s the context for Jesus saying, “Whoever calls his brother, ‘empty one,’ is going to be found guilty before the high court.” Given the context—that it’s parallel to being angry at someone and it’s parallel to dismissing someone as a fool, and that it’s part of the bigger sermon on the mount—it makes sense to me to let the phrase ‘empty one’ evoke the idea of not caring, of considering the person you’re talking to or talking about to be meaningless. To see a void there instead of someone you have to consider or someone you have to care about.

If you’re listening to this, you’re probably hoping for some kind of sanity, some kind of encouragement, and some kind of challenge when it comes to the intersection of Christian faith and American government. And this verse is really, really challenging to me, because over the last few years, our political debates have shifted. For most of my life, they were usually arguments about strategy. We all want good things for everybody—life, liberty, happiness. Equality, equity, equal treatment. Opportunity. Health, wealth and happiness. Safety. Our political divides were ostensibly disagreements about how to get there.
But over the past few years, there has been a big shift. It’s not new in the grand scheme of human history, or even new in the grand scheme of US history, but it is new in the past thirty-odd years or so.

Our partisan divides—the things that Republicans and Democrats argue about on TV, or in our government, or on our front porches—these things aren’t just arguments about how to secure the best life for as many people as possible. A lot of the times, they’re arguments more about core principles—who should we be looking out for?

Who do we need to honor, and who is it okay to be angry at? Who do we need to listen to, and who is it okay to disregard? Who can we shut out of this conversation because they’re hopeless fools? Who is worth working for, and who means nothing to us? Who is really here, and who is just…empty space?
I’ve been on both sides of this. I mentioned a few months ago that I was in a crowd of people who were standing still with their hands over their heads when a can of tear gas was launched into our midst unprovoked. And I’ve had to have conversations with people who kept trying to tell me that the tear gas had to have been in retaliation for something, who refused to believe that it was unprovoked. To them I was empty. I meant nothing.

That’s not a unique experience. People deal with that all the time. But it was one of the most heated and hurtful examples that I’ve had to deal with this year, so it’s pretty fresh in my mind.

But that doesn’t matter. This isn’t about what leaves me feeling sad or disappointed. This is a miniseries on what scares me in the synoptic gospels, and the thing that scares me about this passage isn’t that it reminds me of people who have called me “empty.” The thing that scares me about this verse is that it reminds me of every time I’ve called someone else a fool—to their face, behind their back or in my heart. Every time I’ve sat there, festering in my anger, maybe even enjoying feeling like I’m in the right for once, even if I’m only enjoying it a little. Every time I’ve been on the verge of writing someone off as having false faith.

I get angry. Even at my brothers and sisters in the church. Maybe especially at my brothers and sisters in the church. I think people are foolish. And I think a lot of people are making such obviously bad arguments, or are engaging in conversation in such obviously bad faith, or at least such unexamined faith, that I just shouldn’t have to deal with them. I should be allowed to write off Christians who aren’t where I am as heretics or idolaters for practicing Cultural Christianity. Every single day, I deal with the temptation to assume people are lying to themselves. To treat them like they’ve actually rejected Jesus even if they belong to a church, even if they use his name. To let their place in my heart, and in my mind…just…be empty. And to hope that they let their place in the church be empty, soon, so that I don’t have to figure out how to explain their place in my faith to myself, or to others.

And when I face this temptation, I fail at resisting it more than I succeed.

This passage is scary, at least to me, because it outlines, in great specificity, exactly why I need Jesus. Exactly why I need a kinsman-redeemer, an intercessor, a counsellor, a substitute, a rescuer, a teacher and a merciful judge. It doesn’t let me think about my need for a savior as something that only existed in the past, before I came to faith. I can’t read this and ignore the fact that I’m still broken.

And I can’t read this without being reminded how hard it is going to be to live in the US responsibly and Christianly at the same time.

Together, American citizens set the broad direction for domestic policy and we hire, evaluate, and fire or re-hire vast networks of appointed officials to translate that broad direction into specific policies. In most biblical governments, that was what the king did for domestic politics. So we can’t shirk that responsibility. God put us here on purpose, and I’m pretty convinced that if he put us in a time and in a place where we have that responsibility, he wants us to actually handle it. To handle it wisely, and to conduct ourselves in ways that embody his commandments when we do.

But we’re living in a time when every model we have for talking about things that really matter, and every model we have for thinking, speaking and acting in the public square are models of righteous indignation, models of scorched-earth politics, models of us-versus-them, in-groups and out-groups, on the bus or under the tires. Even those of us whose political goals are motivated by compassion for other people are still trained up to pursue those goals without mercy. If someone can’t see how right we are, or if someone doesn’t know how to listen to the people we listen to, or how to have empathy for the people we have empathy for, then that person doesn’t deserve to be cared for, either. They aren’t people we have to honor in any way, shape or form. They’re acceptable outlets for our anger, for our dismissal. It’s okay to look in their direction and just see empty space.

Even if the things driving us into the public square are good and true and beautiful and honorable, this passage reminds me that it’s going to be very hard, very dangerous to the shape of our spirits, and probably very lonely to walk through the public square in ways that actually embody what Jesus says we’re supposed to be. That if we are Christian and we live in the US or if we are Christian and we are US citizens living abroad, God has entrusted us with a responsibility that it is very, very easy to get wrong. A responsibility that, if we look to the world to learn how to wield it, we’re going to destroy our souls.
I’m not great at this, and the world isn’t going to train us up in this. We have to train up one another. Asking brothers and sisters to teach you how to fill in that empty space in your heart is not pleasant. It doesn’t leave us feeling affirmed. It’s not the kind of thing that’s very attractive a lot of the time. And it means that, a lot of times, we’re going to have to give up the affirmation of our political allies, give up being liked or cheered by people we like, give up having people repost our Facebook statuses and maybe even showing up to help out projects being spearheaded by people we didn’t vote for. We’re going to look like “bad” members of our tribes. And we’re going to have to learn to accept the love and company of people outside our tribe.

And we can’t do that if we think those people are fools. If we are constantly nurturing our own anger at them. Or if we look at them and just see them as empty shells of a human.

Prayer

Jesus,
You know what it’s like to be despised. You know what it’s like to be rejected. You know what it’s like to be lonely, to be a man who loves your place and who loves your people but lives without being able to gather them to you like a mother hen gathers her chicks.

We don’t love other people the way you say we should, even other people in the church. We get angry. We call one another fools. We dismiss the pain, the cries, the witness and the petition of our siblings as empty.

Teach us to hear the cries of the brothers and sisters we are most tempted to reject. Who we are least likely to trust. Whose genuine faith we have the hardest time understanding.

This is painful, and even shameful sometimes. It means we need eyes to see our own hubris, ears to hear the witness of others, and minds to understand our own sin. The log in our own eye, rather than the splinter in our brother’s. That doesn’t come naturally, and the world won’t teach us to do it. We need you to teach us, and we need your body to teach us.

When our political opponents come to us, especially our political opponents in the church, make us quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. Because as we harbor anger toward them, we kill them in our heart, kill their place in our lives, leave their seat empty in the counsel of the righteous or the parade of the redeemed. And what you’ve done to redeem them, we don’t want to denigrate. We want to celebrate it. We want to celebrate it now, in advance of how we’re really going to celebrate it when you come in your glory.

We pray these things in your name,

Amen.

Support Our Work

This miniseries is, in a lot of ways, just me sharing some of what I’m wrestling with as I go back through the synoptic gospels this autumn, and I hope that you all can benefit in some way from the things I’m wrestling with myself.

We try our best to help make these ideas practical, and if you want to share any suggestions on how we can do that better, or if you have topics you’d love to hear us cover on the podcast, please contact us using the form on the front page.

And, lastly, we’re almost ready to bring on a new staff member, but, like a lot of nonprofits, the pandemic has affected our fundraising and our finances. If you’re enjoying this podcast, and it’s helpful to you, and you want to help us get it produced and published more regularly, please consider becoming a monthly donor.

With the election a few weeks away, no matter who wins, we’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us cultivating a sense of responsibility for the health of our government, of democracy, and learning to live together without trying to lord our authority over one another. These are essential elements for American government to work well, and they are qualities the church is better equipped to introduce to our public life than most other people-groups in our country. We want to help the church give the best it can to the country God has carried us into, and doing that means getting to a point where I’m not our only full-time staff member. So, if you want more of this podcast, or if you want more non-partisan resources on how our faith can make us better stewards of democracy, head on over to christiancivics.org/support and become a monthly donor at a level that’s meaningful to you. Let’s say $20.21 per month, so that I know you listened to this episode?

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Light to the World

A Bible study guide on faith and politics for small groups, now revised and updated!

I'd like to know more about the Foundations of Christian Civic Engagement program!