Matthew 5:21–22 (ESV) “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 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.
In the next few sections of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus interprets some well-known teaching from the Law. The first two are drawn from the Ten Commandments. In each case Jesus quotes the commandment and then extends the commandment to include the inner thoughts as well as the external actions. As McKnight points out, Jesus does not disagree with the original command, but he does object to the way the command has been interpreted by other Jewish teachers. For McKnight, Jesus’s interpretations reveal “a fuller expression of God’s will for God’s people” (Sermon, 76). Jesus focuses on the underlying motivation for murder, specifically anger. In each of the three parts of this saying, as the level of anger rises, so too does the penalty.
First, Jesus says a person who is angry with a brother is “under judgment.” The penalty for taking another person’s life varies in the Law. If a person accidentally kills another they may face a penalty but they would not be subject to capital punishment. But the penalty for premeditated murder was execution. Numbers 35:16-21 gives a series of examples of killing to properly define murder and in each case the murderer is to be put to death. The shocking element of this saying is equating anger and premeditated murder. Although anger is always considered foolish in the wisdom literature, it is never thought to be the moral equivalent of murder.
Second, if anyone calls his brother raca he is liable before the council. Raca is fairly common Aramaic word (רֵיקָא or רֵיקָה, or ῥακά in Greek) meaning “numskull” or “fool” (BDAG). Sometimes pastors will state the word is particularly foul; I have occasionally said raca is a four-letter F–word in order to tease out the shock value. But even with this there is some flexibility, some people would have to be extremely angry to drop an f-bomb on someone, others use the word so frequently it is no longer a shock.
However, at the time of Jesus the word may not have had quite that level of insult. It was “a colloquial term of rather gentle cheek and generally used in familiar surroundings” (BDAG). The ESV therefore translates the word as “insults” his brother to avoid the confusion of the use of an Aramaic word.
Appearing before the “council” is an allusion to the Sanhedrin, analogous to highest court for the Jews. This is to say something like “you will be taken before the Supreme Court if you insult your neighbor.”
Finally, Jesus warns his disciples that calling someone “you fool” result in the dangers of hellfire! We would expect that the third statement in the progression is the strongest expression of anger, especially since the judgement attached is the fires of Hell. The phrase “you fool” is not very strong in English, but in Jesus speech it may have been. The Greek word (μωρός) is where the English word “moron” comes from, but it would be a mistake to import the contemporary English sense of the word here. Jesus means something like a “foolish rebel.” Moses used this word in Numbers 20:10 when he was extremely angry with the people of Israel who continued to test God by complaining about water.
Jesus wants to shock his listeners, the word spoken in anger is so insulting it brings immediate apocalyptic judgment. The “fires of hell” is the usual translation for the word ghenna, the Valley of Hinnom. This valley associated with Molech worship before King Josiah destroyed the altars and turned the location into a garbage pit. Since the garbage was always on smoldering and stinking it became a metaphor for eternal judgment.
Jesus clearly says if you are angry enough to use insulting and hurtful language, then you are in danger of not entering into the kingdom of Heaven (the opposite of entering into Gehenna).
This does not mean “never get angry” since there are many things in this life which ought to anger us. Even Jesus was angry with the money changers at the temple. God is frequently angry with his people in the Hebrew Bible. It is the cause of our anger which is a problem, but also what we do with that anger once it rises. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says his disciples will deal with anger differently than the rest of the world. They will seek reconciliation rather than revenge. More importantly they will deal with the internal causes of anger before lashing out at people.
Is Jesus telling his disciples to never get angry? How does the true disciple of Jesus live in a world which is deeply troubling and avoid the kind of anger Jesus describes here? How can a true disciple of Jesus respond to the troubling evil we witness in daily life (via the national news, through popular media, etc.) Social media makes it so easy to respond in anger without penalty, should the true disciple of Jesus simply avoid contact with the world?