Matthew 5:21-22,  the perils of anger

5:21 “You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment.’
5:22 But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.”

(Matt 5:21-22 WEB)

In danger of judgement

Jesus quotes the sixth of the Ten Commandments, then reminds his audience that those who committed murder stood in danger of judgement. That was because God instructed his representatives, the priests, to judge such cases. However, murder was not the only way in which one became subject to judgement, God also judges our anger toward others, and even our opinions of them. 

Under some circumstances expressing anger or calling someone a fool is appropriate, for God instructed prophets to do such things and did them himself (see panel). So Jesus is not prohibiting all anger and insult, but only their misdirected use. God will ultimately judge when such behaviour is called for, but, before he does so, there will be a judgement by his servants and an escalation to the council.

Matthew uses a word for anger that is rare in the  Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. It first occurs in the account of Joseph, a leader chosen by God but rejected by his brothers, rather as both John the Baptist and Jesus had so recently been. When God gave Joseph power over his brothers, he particularly favoured Benjamin, the youngest of them. An angry response to this was a real possibility, as it was how they had treated Joseph himself many years before. So, urging his brothers to lay aside any sense of grievance, he instructed them not to become angry with one another on the way.  Thus Joseph's words, by serving to identify anger as innapropriate on the way, link these verses to the way of righteousness theme that runs throughout the Sermon on the Mount.

The three penalties (local judgement, being called to account by the council, and being judged by God) were the escalation procedure proscribed by Mosaic law for the trial of a capital crime. If the judgement of God’s local representatives was disregarded, then the matter was presented to the council. If the Council’s decree was also ignored then the judgement of God was sought. 

Application of the escalation procedure,in the context of murder, and with a final outcome of fire, immediately calls to mind an infamous incident in the Hebrew Bible, the murder of a Levite’s concubine in the Benjamite city of Gibeah. The men of Gibeah had failed to respond to the authority of the Levite, instead murdering his concubine, so he escalated the matter to the council of Israel. They convened, heard the evidence, and rebuked the tribe of Benjamin. When Benjamin failed to respond the council took the matter to God. God then provided Benjamin with two military warnings, both of which they ignored, before ensuring that Benjamin’s cities burned. Had a handful of the men not sought refuge at the Rock of Rimmon, the tribe itself would have been completely destroyed.

The Aramaic “Raca!” was an insult implying that one was empty headed and used in first-century Syria for summoning unresponsive servants. Behind “You fool!” lay a Hebrew word that had the alternate meaning of combustible or fit to burn, thus providing a play on the penalty of the fire of Gehenna. Gehenna was where anything that was of no practical use ended up, so the person who resolutely maintained that Jesus’ agenda was foolish would ultimately be deemed worthless by God, just as the worthless men of Gibeah were. To many today, Jesus’ gospel still seems foolishness, but the outcome he envisaged for those who remain resolute in that opinion is terrifying.

These verses may contain an implicit rebuke to the Jerusalem authorities of Jesus’ day, but they also contain some sound and generally applicable moral advice. Those who are quick to announce that others thinking or behaviour is worthless, had better be sure that God concurs with them, and that there is no jealousy or malice behind the statements. Best to pause and consider, before saying that someone “is thick as two short planks” *, that it may be you, not they, that ends up on the bonfire.

Matt 5:21-22 in detail.

* This is a derogatory expression, used in the United Kingdom to imply that someone is stupid.