April 15 – Slander Equals Murder

Whoever says to his brother, “You good-for-nothing,” shall be guilty before the supreme court.—Matt. 5:22b

The word (raca) translated by the New American Standard Bible “good-for-nothing” has been variously rendered elsewhere as “brainless idiot,” “worthless fellow,” “blockhead,” and the like. It was a term of malicious abuse and slander that really has no precise modern translation. David graphically described persons who used such slander as those who “sharpen their tongues as a serpent; poison of a viper is under their lips” (Ps. 140:3). The Roman soldiers who tortured and crucified Jesus could well have used the term to mock and disrespect Him (cf. Matt. 27:29–31).

According to Jewish legend, a young rabbi had just come from a session with his famous teacher. He felt especially proud of how he had handled himself before the teacher. As he basked in those feelings of superiority, he passed an especially unattractive man who greeted him. The young rabbi responded, “You Raca! How ugly you are. Are all men of your town as ugly as you?”

“That I do not know,” the man replied, “but go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature He has made.”

To slander someone made in God’s image is to slander God Himself and is the same as murdering that person. Jesus called such harsh contempt murder of the heart. The contemptuous person was as much as “guilty before the supreme court” (the Jewish Sanhedrin, which tried the most serious cases and pronounced the ultimate penalty—death). We dare not trifle with any kind of contemptuous language toward others.

ASK YOURSELF
Remember, this is not just an injunction against speaking unkind, judgmental words, but also of thinking them in our minds. When God has led you to seasons of victory in your thought life, how has He accomplished it? What stopped evil thoughts from ever coming up?[1]

The Evil and Danger of Slander

and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca,”shall be guilty before the supreme court. (5:22b)

Raca was an epithet commonly used in Jesus’ day that has no exact modern equivalent. Therefore in most Bible versions, as here, it is simply transliterated. A term of malicious abuse, derision, and slander, it has been variously rendered as brainless idiot, worthless fellow, silly fool, empty head, blockhead, and the like. It was a word of arrogant contempt. David spoke of persons who use such slander as those who “sharpen their tongues as a serpent; poison of a viper is under their lips” (Ps. 140:3). It was the type of word that would have been used by the soldiers who mocked Jesus as they placed the crown of thorns on His head and led Him out to be crucified (Matt. 27:29–31).

A Jewish legend tells of a young rabbi named Simon Ben Eleazar who had just come from a session with his famous teacher. The young man felt especially proud about how he handled himself before the teacher. As he basked in his feelings of erudition, wisdom, and holiness, he passed a man who was especially unattractive. When the man greeted Simon, the rabbi responded, “You Raca! How ugly you are. Are all men of your town as ugly as you?” “That I do not know,” the man answered, “but go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature He has made.”

To slander a creature made in God’s image is to slander God Himself and is equivalent to murdering that person. Contempt, says Jesus, is murder of the heart. The contemptuous person shall be guilty before the supreme court, the Sanhedrin, the council of the seventy who tried the most serious offenses and pronounced the severest penalties, including death by stoning (see Acts 6:12—7:60).[2]


5:22 The first is the case of a person who is angry with his brother without a cause. One accused of this crime would be in danger of the judgment—that is, he could be taken to court. Most people can find what they think is a valid cause for their anger, but anger is justified only when God’s honor is at stake or when someone else is being wronged. It is never right when expressed in retaliation for personal wrongs.

Even more serious is the sin of insulting a brother. In Jesus’ day, people used the word Raca (an Aramaic term meaning “empty one”) as a word of contempt and abuse. Those who used this epithet were in danger of the council—that is, they were subject to trial before the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the land.

Finally, to call someone a fool is the third form of unrighteous anger that Jesus condemns. Here the word fool means more than just a dunce. It signifies a moral fool who ought to be dead and it expresses the wish that he were. Today it is common to hear a person cursing another with the words, “God damn you!” He is calling on God to consign the victim to hell. Jesus says that the one who utters such a curse is in danger of hell fire. The bodies of executed criminals were often thrown into a burning dump outside Jerusalem known as the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. This was a figure of the fires of hell which shall never be quenched.

There is no mistaking the severity of the Savior’s words. He teaches that anger contains the seeds of murder, that abusive language contains the spirit of murder, and that cursing language implies the very desire to murder. The progressive heightening of the crimes demand three degrees of punishment: the judgment, the council, and hell fire. In the kingdom, Jesus will deal with sins according to severity.[3]


Murder: The Sixth Commandment

The way Jesus handles this material is by contrasts (“You have heard that it was said … but I tell you …”), and the point at which these contrasts begin is the sixth commandment. Ever since Sinai, the Jews had known “you shall not murder”; it was part of God’s law. But the leaders of the people had joined that commandment (found in Exod. 20:13) to Numbers 35:30, which demanded death for murderers, implying that the sixth commandment referred only to the specific act of killing.

Is that all murder is? asked Jesus. Is it nothing but killing? Suppose a man wants to kill his enemy but is stopped by some unexpected circumstance. Is he innocent just because he didn’t get a chance to follow through on his desire? Suppose he is too cowardly to kill but would like to do it. Or suppose he is just afraid of getting caught. What if he only hates his enemy? Or insults him? Is he still innocent of breaking this commandment?

No, says Jesus. In a human court the only acts that can be judged and punished are external acts, because human beings can look only on outward things. They cannot see the heart. But in God’s court “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment,” and anyone who merely says, “ ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (v. 22).

This is not earth-shatteringly new, of course. The Pharisees and other teachers of the law should have discovered this deeper meaning of the sixth commandment by themselves. William Hendriksen observed rightly,

There was no excuse for the fact that in their interpretation of the sixth commandment the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, in agreement with the men of long ago, were omitting the main lesson. Moses had emphasized love for God (Deut. 6:5) and for man (Lev. 19:18). Not only that but the very first domestic quarrel narrative, the story of Cain and Abel, had in a very impressive manner pointed up the evil of jealous anger, as being the root of murder (Gen. 4:1–16). … Accordingly Jesus, in interpreting the sixth commandment as he does, far from annulling it, is showing what it had meant from the very beginning.

There is something else in these verses. It is true that they interpret the sixth commandment definitively. We now know exactly what the words “you shall not murder” mean. But in addition to that, Jesus also tells us what to do when we do become angry or when we know we have done something wrong to someone else. (1) We must make the wrong right, being reconciled to our brother (vv. 24–25); and (2) we must make things right immediately, even before we worship God (vv. 23–24).

The reason God comes into the picture is because the sin of anger, like all sins, is ultimately against God and must be made right before him. This is why Jesus talks about being “thrown into prison” until “you have paid the last penny” (vv. 25–26). It is not just a human prison he is thinking of. It is hell, which brings the end of the section (v. 26) back to what Jesus warned his hearers of at the beginning (v. 22).[4]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 114). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 294–295). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1220). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 88–89). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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