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Gospel of Matthew 5: 21-24 (NIV)
(Jesus continued,) 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 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.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Having just taught his disciples that he had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfil them, Jesus critiqued the behaviours of the religious authorities: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 20).
He then expanded on several matters from the Mosaic Law. His purpose (employing the introductory clauses, “You have heard that it was said …” or similar words) was to reveal the intentions behind each of those commands from the Law. Here we consider the injunction, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20: 13).
While we may accept that we are not to murder, we might ask, “what is so offensive about anger?” After all, Mark’s Gospel does record that Jesus “looked round at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand’” (Mark 3: 5, emphasis added).
In Matthew 5: 21-22, Jesus was not only emphasising the validity of the sixth commandment but was also demonstrating that murder “has its birth in anger fostered by an uncontrolled spirit of revenge and, as such, anger is itself an infringement of the sixth commandment*”.
How are we to understand the next sentence which implies the Sanhedrin would punish one who says to a brother, “Raca” (“dimwit”, perhaps)? Whether one speaks scathingly of a brother’s intellectual capacity (“Raca”) or of perceived character flaws (“You fool!”), one is in effect passing a judgement on a brother. Later in this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus strongly condemned a spirit of judgementalism: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7: 1-2). The logic is evident. We are not to set ourselves up as judge of a brother or sister. Critically judging one another leads to our considering ourselves in some way superior to others. This leads to our use of harsh words against others, perhaps to our treating of them with disdain. Worse, this can lead to such impatience with others that we can become angry, even viciously so. I think of examples of “road-rage” which lead to violence against property and even against people. It is evident in our own community that murder can be a sad consequence of such anger.
The necessary alternative to judgementalism, Jesus taught, is to be reconciled to your brother or sister. It is imperative that followers of Jesus take the initiative in seeking such reconciliation.
*RVG Tasker, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, IVP, Leicester, England, 1983, p. 65.