The Sermon on the Mount: Anger
You Have Heard It Said
Jesus begins this and the subsequent five points with a quotation. He does not cite the source as he does when quoting the Old Testament. When he refers to the Old Testament scriptures he often says “it is written,” which is what “scriptures” mean, the written sacred writings. The Scriptures are authoritative and recorded for all to scrutinize (II Timothy 3:15-17). Oral traditions are not easily pinned down. They are passed from one person to the next, but mistakes can be introduced in the transmission. “You have heard that it was said to those of old” indicates that Jesus is referring to the traditions of the Jews and not the Scriptures.
The quote is “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.” Try as you might, you will not find this exact quote in the Old Testament. The first half, “you shall not murder” is from the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13), but the second half cannot be found in the Old Testament. The passage that comes nearest to saying the second half is Numbers 35:29-31: “And these things shall be a statute of judgment to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty. Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.” However, there are major difference between the Scriptures and the tradition. The tradition threatens that murderers might be brought to trial. The Scriptures do not threaten a possibility of judgment; they command that murderers must be tried. The passage from Numbers 35 deals with what evidence must be presented in a murder trial and that a convicted murderer could not be given parole.
Reread the quote Jesus gives again and you will notice that it places its emphasis on the physical act of killing. If you kill another person, you may be caught, and you run the risk of being brought to trial. The quote leads a person to believe that while you shouldn’t commit murder, there is a possibility that a murder might escape judgment. There is only a danger, not an assurance, of a trial, let alone a conviction. What is missing in quote is any indication as to why murder is wrong and the assurance that no murderer will escape trial whether in this life or the next.
But I Say to You
Jesus then refutes what the quotation is implying by use of the truth. The root cause of all intentional murders is anger (I John 3:15) (we are only focusing on intentional murders and not accidental slayings). God had stated, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:17-18).
A list of three facts concerning anger is given:
1. “whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment”
2. “whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council”
3. “whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire”
You will find some who make arguments that there is an “and” between point 1 and 2 and a “but between point 2 and 3; however, the Greek uses the same conjunctive phrase between each of the points. It can be translated as “and” or “but” depending on the context and the selection was done by the translator. It is unfortunate that many chose to use different words because it makes seeing the list of three points harder.
The reason for selecting “but” between points 2 and 3 is the assumption that Jesus is making a contrast between the Aramaic word raca and the Greek word moros. Raca means empty-headed. Moros means dull, sluggish, stupid, or foolish. In other words, if you were to translate moros into Aramaic, you would use the word raca. There are people who make detailed arguments between the subtle differences in the shades of meaning between the two words, but the difficulty is that they are comparing words between two different languages which essentially mean the same thing. It would be similar to making an argument based on the difference between the English word “love” and the French word “amour.”
A better answer to discovering Jesus’ point is look at the Talmud, a record of Jewish traditions. L. Harris in The Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible states that to a Jew, calling someone a fool in Greek (a foreign language to them) was not fitting, but to call someone a fool in Aramaic (their native language of that time) was a true insult that could be taken to court for a resolution.
I believe Jesus’ point is that being angry without cause, calling someone a fool in your native language where both understand the insult, or calling someone a fool in a foreign language where one might miss the significance are all equivalent in the eyes of God. To emphasize this he lists grievances from bad to mild in the view of the Jews, but assigns the consequences in the opposite expected order from mild to very bad. In a sense calling someone a fool in Greek was “worse” because not only was hatred for another being expressed, but that hatred was being disguised or hidden behind the words of another language.
Hatred is not a matter that can be ignored. A person cannot rightly worship God while holding a grudge against a brother. Instead of harboring anger, problems between two people need to be straightened out as quickly as possible. Unresolved problems can quickly grow out of proportion and become major issues that are difficult to bring to an end.
Old Testament Teachings on Anger
As noted earlier, the Old Testament forbade hatred between brethren. Even though hatred is difficult to see, it is the defining difference between intentional and unintentional murder. “Whoever kills his neighbor unintentionally, not having hated him in time past ...” (Deuteronomy 19:4).
Anger is to be restrained. “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; do not fret - it only causes harm” (Psalm 37:8, see also Proverbs 14:17). People are urged to be slow to anger (Proverbs 16:32; 19:11).
As Jesus stated, the Old Law condemned cursing and evil speaking. In speaking of the sins Israel was guilty of committing, David said, “For the sin of their mouth and the words of their lips, let them even be taken in their pride, and for the cursing and lying which they speak. Consume them in wrath, consume them, that they may not be; and let them know that God rules in Jacob to the ends of the earth” (Psalm 59:12-13; see also Psalm 10:7).
God also taught the Israelites to show mercy and be forgiving. “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6; see also Proverbs 3:3; 11:17; Hosea 12:6; Micah 6:8). It was important to obey God before approaching God in worship. “Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah: "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?" says the LORD. "I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has required this from your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies - I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:10-17).
As Jesus pointed out, delaying settlement of a problem just adds fuel to the fire of strife. “He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears. Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, "I was only joking!" Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, strife ceases. As charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife” (Proverbs 26:17-21; see also Proverbs 15:18; 17:14; 20:3; 25:8). “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, But the simple pass on and are punished” (Proverbs 22:3).
New Testament Teachings on Anger
We already noted that I John 3:15 plainly equates hatred to murder; thus, it is not surprising to find that Christians are to remove anger and malice from their lives (Colossians 3:8). Nor are Christians to speak evil of each other (Titus 3:2; James 4:11; I Peter 2:1).
As Christ taught, we are to forgive others as God has forgiven us (Matthew 6:14; Mark 11:24; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13). Problems are not to be left to fester (Ephesians 4:26). Paul also warned Christians not to take brethren to court and gave advice on how to avoid such a situation (I Corinthians 6:1-8).