Matthew 5:21-22 (A.V.) “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not kill, and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgement; but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement; and whosoever shall say to his brother ‘Raca‘, shall be in danger of the council; but whosoever shall say ‘Thou fool’, shall be in danger of hell fire.”
Our immediate reaction to the Master’s words could well be, “Ugh! Let’s read something else, something more palatable and positive.” This attitude is borne of two things, first and foremost a lack of proper translation of the Greek, and secondly, a lack of understanding of the words used. If, after a little digging, the true sense is obtained, the spirit is enlightened, and one doesn’t need to recoil from our Lord’s spoken word, which contained the best of wisdom. For the sake of those who do not possess the necessary apparatus to unlock the passage, we shall try to offer some assistance.
First of all, the translation. The word “kill” should read “murder.”
The word Raca. Vine’s Dictionary says, “Raca is an Aramaic word . . . . . of utter contempt, intellectually rather than morally, empty-headed.” In modern idiom, one occasionally hears a person refer to another as a “Moron,” an “Idiot,” or a “Stupid ignoramus.” This is the sort of contempt implied by Raca.
“Thou fool”. The Greek here is MOROS. Whereas Raca was addressed to the (lack of) intellect, Moros, according to Vine, attacks the moral character of an individual as being worthless, reprobate. This is the reason why the Lord considered Moros to be more reprehensible than Raca. Of which, more later. [MOROS is the root of our word moron, but over the millennia the USE of that word has changed. A moron in today’s society is one who is mentally degenerate, according to the dictionary. In Jesus’ day, MOROS referred to character, rather than intellect.]
Hell fire. The Greek is Gehenna, which comes from two Hebrew words, Ge + Hinnom, meaning “The Valley of Hinnom.” This valley was situated to the south east of Jerusalem. In early days it was the scene of the most awful religious acts, whereby parents would “pass their children through the fire to Moloch.” (See 2 Chron.33:6) Later it was also called Tophet. In Jesus’ day it was the place where all the remains of animal sacrifices were burnt. It was the “Jerusalem Council Rubbish Tip”, to use modern parlance.
So much for the translation, now for the meaning of the passage. Suppose we start by supplying a more literal translation, employing what has just been learned, and adding a few expository notes.
“Whosoever is angry with his brother [defined by the Talmud as a fellow Israelite] without cause, shall be in danger of the Judgement, [the Council of Three in the local Synagogue]; whosoever shall say to his brother “You moron!” shall be in danger of the Council, [the supreme Council of the 71 members of the Sanhedrin]; but whosoever shall say “You worthless reprobate” shall be in danger of [being disposed of down there at] the Valley of Hinnom.”
The Lord frequently used hyperbolic language to refurbish the dying appreciation of His Father’s laws. Notice that He was classifying three wrongs, in ascending order of ugliness. 1. Unjustified anger; 2. Contempt for a man’s lack of intelligence; and 3. Utter scorn for a man’s moral depravity.
The Lord’s hearers were faced with the seriousness of these issues, because in each case they could lead to MURDER, which was the subject of the sixth commandment that He had just quoted. Whereas a man might say in his heart, listening to the Lord that day, “I would never be guilty of murdering anyone,” he could at the same time inwardly smoulder with unjustified anger at anyone who crossed him, curl up his lips with contempt at the idiots around him, or spit at someone he loathed, like a loose woman, and not appreciate that in his heart he was as bad as one who murdered literally. Hence the Lord’s lesson.
Unjustified anger, the Lord said, called for the Judgement of the Council of Three in the local Synagogue. These Elders had authority to pass judgement on a man equivalent to a fine or a brief prison sentence in terms of today’s Courts of Justice. Contempt, according to the Lord, would call for a man to be arraigned before the Supreme Council of the Sanhedrin, who had the authority to inflict the death sentence by stoning. But to pour loathsome scorn on a man’s moral character would put a man in danger, not just of the death penalty by the Sanhedrin, but also the unspeakable disgrace of being declined a proper burial. Instead, his dead body would be consigned to the Council Tip, there to be consumed by the ever-burning fires, amongst all the offal, the bones, and excrement from the Temple sacrifices. That would constitute the maximum penalty. His family would thereafter have to live with the shame he had brought on them.
It is considered by the expositors, and I think quite correctly, that the Lord never intended these words to be taken in an absolutely literal way. Indeed, it would seem to be impossible to apply such legislation literally. Rather did He want His hearers to understand the nature of His Father’s heart, and how the Godhead loathed the way in which men spoke of their fellow-men. It was as if Jesus was saying, “Each individual is created by God. Each individual is cared for by God. Each individual will eventually, no matter how dull, moronic, or morally reprobate, be called home by God as His child, and will ultimately realise the need for repentance.”
Then, and only then, will he be granted new life by virtue of Jesus’ sacrifice at Calvary. That is the crux of our Lord’s argument. Man must not speak ill of his fellow man, when God seeks the ultimate re-creation of every man. That is why contempt, in any form, is so hurtful to the heart of our Father God.
Did you notice that there has been no mention of “hell fire”? Not the traditional concept of hell fire. It doesn’t enter into this passage at all. Traditional hell fire conjures up, in the minds of many, the most awful thoughts of everlasting punishment, whereas the Lord was not even thinking that way at all. To be denied a proper burial in Israel was considered to be the most awful disgrace. That was the force of our Lord’s words, nothing more.
To conclude this brief sketch, our readers might be interested to know, if they have not already found it out for themselves, that the ancient rubbish-tip in the Valley of Hinnom has been converted by the Israeli authorities into a National Park for the relaxation and pleasure of the local people. It is resplendent with vineyards, olive and pomegranate trees, and possesses a centre for cultural activities. Without their realising it, perhaps the Israeli authorities have made a living parable for the future Kingdom of God, where men will come to a better mind, and the need for that most disgraceful punishment will no longer be necessary, because “when Thy judgements are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.” (Isa.26:9)