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“YOU FOOL!” MERITS HELL? (Matthew 5:22)

THIS IS THE FIRST OF A SERIES OF STATEMENTS IN WHICH Jesus makes the requirements of the law more radical than the strict letter might indicate. Quoting the sixth commandment, Jesus says, "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 say to you . . ." and then comes the hard saying under discussion.

Murder was a capital offense under Israelite law; the death penalty could not be commuted to a monetary fine, such as was payable for the killing of someone's domestic animal. Where it could be proved that the killing was accidental--as when a man's axe-head flew off the handle and struck his fellow workman on the head--it did not count as murder, but even so the owner of the axe-head had to take prudent measures to escape the vengeance of the dead man's next of kin. Otherwise, the killer was brought before the village elders and on the testimony of two or three witnesses was sentenced to death. The death penalty was carried out by stoning: the witnesses threw the first stones, and then the community joined in, thus dissociating themselves from blood-guiltiness and expiating the pollution which it brought on the place.

Jesus points out that the murderous act springs from the angry thought. It is in the mind that the crime is first committed and judgment is incurred. The earthly court cannot take action against the angry thought, but the heavenly court can--and does. This in itself is a hard saying. According to the KJV, "whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment," but the phrase "without a cause" is a later addition to the Greek text, designed to make Jesus' words more tolerable. The other man's anger may be sheer bad temper, but mine is righteous indignation--anger with a cause. But Jesus' words, in the original form of the text, make no distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger: anyone who is angry with his brother exposes himself to judgment. There is no saying where unchecked anger may end. "Be angry but do not sin," we are told in Ephesians 4:26 (RSV); that is, "If you are angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin; let sunset put an end to your anger, for otherwise it will provide the devil with an opportunity which he will not be slow to seize."

There seems to be an ascending scale of seriousness as Jesus goes on: "subject to judgment . . . answerable to the Sanhedrin . . . in danger of the fire of hell." "The Sanhedrin" is apparently a reference to the supreme court of the nation in contrast to a local court. Evidently, then, to insult one's brother is more serious than to be angry with him. This is clearly so: the angry thought can be checked, but the insult once spoken cannot be recalled and may cause violent resentment. The person insulted may retaliate with a fatal blow, for which in fact if not in law the victim of the blow may be as much to blame as the one who strikes it. The actual insult mentioned by Jesus is the word "Raca" as it stands in the KJV. The precise meaning of "Raca" is disputed; it is probably an Aramaic word meaning something like "imbecile" but was plainly regarded as a deadly insult. (Words of abuse are above all others to be avoided by speakers of a foreign language; they can have an unimagined effect on a native speaker of the language.)

But "anyone who says, `You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." From this we might gather that "You fool!" is a deadlier insult than "Raca," whatever "Raca" may mean. For "the hell of fire" (RSV) or "hell fire" (KJV) is the most severe penalty of all. The "hell of fire" is the fiery Gehenna. Gehenna is the valley on the south side of Jerusalem which, after the return from the Babylonian exile, served as the city's rubbish dump and public incinerator. In earlier days it had been the site of the worship of Molech, and so it was thought fit that it should be degraded in this way. In due course it came to be used as a symbol of the destruction of the wicked after death, just as the Garden of Eden became a symbol of the blissful paradise to be enjoyed by the righteous.

But was "You fool!" actually regarded as being such a deadly insult? In this same Gospel of Matthew the cognate adjective is used of the man who built his house on the sand (Mt 7:26) and of the five girls who forgot to take a supply of oil to keep their torches alight (Mt 25:2-3), and Jesus himself is reported as calling certain religious teachers "blind fools" (Mt 23:17). It is more probable that, just as "Raca" is a non-Greek word, so is the word more that Jesus used here. If so, then it is a word which to a Jewish ear meant "rebel (against God)" or "apostate"; it was the word which Moses in exasperation used to the disaffected Israelites in the wilderness of Zin: "Listen, you rebels; must we bring you water out of this rock?" (Num 20:10). For these rash words, uttered under intense provocation, Moses was excluded from the Promised Land.

Whether this was the word Jesus had in mind or not, he certainly had in mind the kind of language that is bound to produce a murderous quarrel: chief responsibility for the ensuing bloodshed, he insisted, lies with the person who spoke the offending word. But behind the offending word lies the hostile thought. It is there that the guilty process starts; and if the hostile thought is not killed off as soon as the thinker becomes aware of it, then, although no earthly court may be in a position to take cognisance of it, that is what will be the first count in the indictment before the judgment-bar of God.

Taken from Hard Sayings of the Bible by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch. Copyright © 2002 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Permission kindly granted to Faith & Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.