Matthew 5:21-22


Matt. 5:21-22

You have heard that it was said by the people of the old days: You shall not kill; and whoever kills is liable to the judgment court. But I say unto you that everyone who is angry with his brother is liable to the judgment court; and he who says to his brother, “You brainless one!” is liable to judgment in the supreme court; and he who says to his brother, “You fool!” is liable to be cast into the Gehenna of fire.

Here is the first example of the new standard which Jesus takes. The ancient law had laid it down: “You shall not kill” (Exo.20:13); but Jesus lays it down that even anger against a brother is forbidden. In the King James Version the man who is condemned is the man who is angry with his brother without a cause. But the words without a cause are not found in any of the great manuscripts, and this is nothing less than a total prohibition of anger. It is not enough not to strike a man; the only thing that is enough is not even to wish to strike him; not even to have a hard feeling against him within the heart.

In this passage Jesus is arguing as a Rabbi might argue. He is showing that he was skilful in using the debating methods which the wise men of his time were in the habit of using. There is in this passage a neat gradation of anger, and an answering neat gradation of punishment.

(i) There is first the man who is angry with his brother. The verb here used is orgizesthai (GSN3710). In Greek there are two words for anger. There is thumos (GSN2372), which was described as being like the flame which comes from dried straw. It is the anger which quickly blazes up and which just as quickly dies down. It is an anger which rises speedily and which just as speedily passes. There is orge (GSN3709), which was described as anger become inveterate. It is the long-lived anger; it is the anger of the man who nurses his wrath to keep it warm; it is the anger over which a person broods, and which he will not allow to die.

That anger is liable to the judgment court. The judgment court is the local village council which dispensed justice. That court was composed of the local village elders, and varied in number from three in villages of fewer than one hundred and fifty inhabitants, to seven in larger towns and twenty-three in still bigger cities.

So, then, Jesus condemns all selfish anger. The Bible is clear that anger is forbidden. “The anger of man,” said James, “does not work the righteousness of God” (Jas.1:20). Paul orders his people to put off all “anger, wrath, malice, slander” (Col.3:8). Even the highest pagan thought saw the folly of anger. Cicero said that when anger entered into the scene “nothing could be done rightly and nothing sensibly.” In a vivid phrase Seneca called anger “a brief insanity.”

So Jesus forbids for ever the anger which broods, the anger which will not forget, the anger which refuses to be pacified, the anger which seeks revenge. If we are to obey Jesus, all anger must be banished from life, and especially that anger which lingers too long. It is a warning thing to remember that no man can call himself a Christian and lose his temper because of any personal wrong which he has suffered.

(ii) Then Jesus goes on to speak of two cases where anger turns into insulting words. The Jewish teachers forbade such anger and such words. They spoke of “oppression in words,” and of “the sin of insult.” They had a saying, “Three classes go down to Gehenna (GSN1067) and return not–the adulterer, he who puts his neighbour openly to shame, and he who gives his neighbour an insulting name.” Anger in a man’s heart, and anger in a man’s speech are equally forbidden.


Matt. 5:21-22 (continued)

First of all, the man who calls his brother Raca is condemned. Raca (see rhaka, GSN4469 and compare HSN7386) is an almost untranslatable word, because it describes a tone of voice more than anything else. Its whole accent is the accent of contempt. To call a man Raca (see rhaka, GSN4469; HSN7386) was to call him a brainless idiot, a silly fool, an empty-headed blunderer. It is the word of one who despises another with an arrogant contempt.

There is a Rabbinic tale of a certain Rabbi, Simon ben Eleazar. He was coming from his teacher’s house, and he was feeling uplifted at the thought of his own scholarship and erudition and goodness. A very ill-favoured passer-by gave him a greeting. The Rabbi did not return the greeting, but said, “You Raca! 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.” So there the sin of contempt was rebuked.

The sin of contempt is liable to an even severer judgment. It is liable to the judgment of the Sanhedrin (sunedrion, GSN4892), the supreme court of the Jews. This of course is not to be taken literally. It is as if Jesus said: “The sin of inveterate anger is bad; the sin of contempt is worse.”

There is no sin quite so unchristian as the sin of contempt. There is a contempt which comes from pride of birth, and snobbery is in truth an ugly thing. There is a contempt which comes from position and from money, and pride in material things is also an ugly thing. There is a contempt which comes from knowledge, and of all snobberies intellectual snobbery is the hardest to understand, for no wise man was ever impressed with anything else than his own ignorance. We should never look with contempt on any man for whom Christ died.

(iii) Then Jesus goes on to speak of the man who calls his brother moros (GSN3474). Moros also means fool, but the man who is moros (GSN3474) is the man who is a moral fool. He is the man who is playing the fool. The Psalmist spoke of the fool who has said in his heart that there is no God (Ps.14:1). Such a man was a moral fool, a man who lived an immoral life, and who in wishful thinking said that there was no God. To call a man moros (GSN3474) was not to criticise his mental ability; it was to cast aspersions on his moral character; it was to take his name and reputation from him, and to brand him as a loose-living and immoral person.

So Jesus says that he who destroys his brother’s name and reputation is liable to the severest judgment of all, the judgment of the fire of Gehenna (GSN1067).

Gehenna (GSN1067) is a word with a history; often the Revised Standard Version translates it “hell.” The word was very commonly used by the Jews (Matt. 5:22,29,30; Matt. 10:28; Matt. 18:9; Matt. 23:15; Matt. 23:33; Mk.9:43,45,47; Lk.12:5; Jas.3:6). It really means the Valley of Hinnom. The Valley of Hinnom is a valley to the south-west of Jerusalem. It was notorious as the place where Ahaz had introduced into Israel the fire worship of the heathen God Molech, to whom little children were burned in the fire. “He burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burned his sons as an offering” (2Chr.28:3). Josiah, the reforming king, had stamped out that worship, and had ordered that the valley should be for ever after an accursed place. “He defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech” (2Kgs.23:10). In consequence of this the Valley of Hinnom became the place where the refuse of Jerusalem was cast out and destroyed. It was a kind of public incinerator. Always the fire smouldered in it, and a pall of thick smoke lay over it, and it bred a loathsome kind of worm which was hard to kill (Mk.9:44-48). So Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, became identified in people’s minds with all that was accursed and filthy, the place where useless and evil things were destroyed. That is why it became a synonym for the place of God’s destroying power, for hell.

So, then, Jesus insists that the gravest thing of all is to destroy a man’s reputation and to take his good name away. No punishment is too severe for the malicious tale-bearer, or the gossip over the teacups which murders people’s reputations. Such conduct, in the most literal sense, is a hell-deserving sin.

As we have said, all these gradations of punishment are not to be taken literally. What Jesus is saying here is this: “In the old days men condemned murder; and truly murder is for ever wrong. But I tell you that not only are a man’s outward actions under judgment; his inmost thoughts are also under the scrutiny and the judgment of God. Long-lasting anger is bad; contemptuous speaking is worse, and the careless or the malicious talk which destroys a man’s good name is worst of all.” The man who is the slave of anger, the man who speaks in the accent of contempt, the man who destroys another’s good name, may never have committed a murder in action, but he is a murderer at heart.


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