Thought police or health advisory? A re-examination of Matthew 5.21-30

by Steve Douglas

July 28th, 2012 | 0 Comments

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But 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.” [Matthew 5.21-22 NIV]

A lot of Christians have taken this to mean that calling people names like “fool” is a dramatically dangerous act. But I’m convinced that this is one of those cases where we have to look beyond the literalism to get Jesus’ full meaning.

This passage is from the Sermon on the Mount, preceding the verse that says that those who look on a woman with lust in their hearts have already committed adultery (v. 27). These two passages together have been interpreted as Jesus warning that “thought crimes” are real crimes. But I think his message is a little more nuanced than that.

In W. F. Albright’s Anchor Bible edition of Matthew he notes that the Aramaic word raka simply transliterated into Greek, the precise meaning of which is not clear, was a not-uncommon insult thrown around in rabbinic literature (p. 61). He also mentions that the word commonly translated “You fool!”, μωρέ, despite appearing to be the vocative singular of μωρὸς ’fool, idiot’, “may have been confused with the Heb. môrê, ‘rebel’…” It makes sense that the author of Matthew would transliterate two colloquial Semitic words in parallelism, “You raka!…You môrê!”

In the Old Testament this word môrê often appears to have the meaning of ‘apostate’, and hence could be thought of as indicating, “You godless sinner!” This has led some to speculate that Jesus’ warning of hell fire was focused on those who would pronounce judgment on people for their relationship with God. “Judge not lest ye be judged.” And that may be part of it, but I think there’s something else here, too.

This identification of μωρέ with the Hebrew word môrê has occurred to numerous scholars and even appears in the footnote to this verse in the American Standard Version. What I found interesting, though, was that Albright specifically referenced this Hebrew word’s usage in Numbers 20.10, but in passing, with no comment. This raised my curiosity, so I looked it up. Here’s Numbers 20.10-11:

[Moses] and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels [there's the word], must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

In this passage, the Israelites have been groaning, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” Moses erupts in supreme frustration and exasperation at the Israelites’ impatience and seeming lack of faith, calling out the rebellious people as rebellious. No problem, right? Sometimes you’ve just got to call it like it is.

Is anyone familiar with what happened as a result of this understandable outburst? Here’s the Lord’s response:

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

God’s instruction to Moses had been to speak to the rock, and the water was supposed to gush forth. The Lord responded to the Israelites’ complaints about having no water…by providing them water. In this case anyway, He didn’t see the need to open up the earth and swallow the complainers up; in fact, He was pretty miffed that Moses lost his temper and struck the rock twice rather than speaking to it, misrepresenting God’s more gracious attitude to the Israelites. Maybe “miffed” is an understatement: He punished Moses and (for some reason) Aaron by keeping them from ever entering Canaan. They would die outside the Promised Land.

Looking back at Matthew 5.22, I am convinced that this passage was in Jesus’ mind. What is someone who calls his brother a μωρέ in danger of? The NIV says “the fire of hell,” but in Greek, it’s γέεννα τοῦ πυρός (geenna tou pyros), the flames in the valley of Hinnom, a place outside the city of Jerusalem with a prophetic history (Jeremiah and possibly Isaiah) that is a favorite motif of Jesus when speaking of the coming judgment. So he who loses his temper like Moses is in danger of sharing a similar fate on the Day of Judgment: dying outside the city/land of promise.

Viewed like this, the whole verse takes on a more interesting meaning. Jesus is indeed warning against “thought crimes”, sketching the progressive dangers of unchecked anger. “You have heard what was said to those of old, ‘Do not murder,’ and if you do murder you are liable (ἔνοχος; cf. Liddell & Scott) for judgment. But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother is liable to end up before judgment; and anyone who says to his brother, “You idiot!” is liable to end up in front of the council [for slander]; but anyone who says, ‘You rebel!’ is liable to end up in the flames of Gehenna.”

An even looser paraphrase: “You know that anger leading to murder will get you in hot water, but even just flirting with anger by allowing yourself to seethe may get you there as well, whether it’s getting prosecuted for slander or getting disposed of outside the city for a violent outburst.” Or in the words of a fake Buddha quote, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”

In Jesus’ mind, nursing anger is dangerous because it so easily leads to blowing your lid and acting in violence and disobedience like Moses did. And let’s not forget that verbal abuse is violence, as well.

“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” [Luke 6.45]

“Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [Mark 7.15]

So maybe Jesus’ discussion about anger and lustful thoughts in the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t merely warning us that the divine thought police sees our hearts and will hold us accountable for what we allow ourselves to think: God doesn’t count our sins, even the private ones that we justify by saying that they won’t hurt anybody, as sin for just some arbitrary reason. He condemns sin because it’s dangerous; it’s either directly harmful or a symptom of a problem that will manifest itself sooner or later if gone unaddressed. What symptoms of the sickness called sin are we hiding from the Great Physician?

I think this interpretation of Jesus’ teaching makes keeping our thought life clean feel a little less like nervously disposing of incriminating evidence for fear of a surprise house search by God the Gestapo and more a matter of living up to our Doctor’s prescription for healthy living. Don’t you think?

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July 28th, 2012

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