Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

54. Anger is Murder (Matthew 5:21-26)*

Jesus now proceeded to give six examples of what “fulfilling the law and the prophets” was to mean for his disciples.

Each of them is introduced in the same formal style: “Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time... but I say unto you... “ The translation here could read: “said to them of old time”. Which is correct? It seems possible that Jesus framed his words to suggest both. His first three re-enunciations of principle certainly start from the Ten Commandments (6, 10, 7). In that case, “said by” alludes to the way the Law was ministered through angels (the Greek word clearly implies a divine pronouncement; and the single word for “them of old time” echoes one of the New Testament words for angels).

On the other hand, “said to” seems right because of the Lord’s deliberate parallelism: “I say unto you”.

In each case which he cited Jesus made no change in the divine law, but the expanded scope of these precepts which he now laid on his disciples is positively frightening in its idealism.

The familiar and simple “Thou shalt not kill” had been traditionally interpreted as a condemnation of murder. Accordingly, the legal principle had been added that a murderer must be brought to trial: “Whosoever shall kill shall be liable to judgement” (Dt. 19:6).

Jesus insisted that this limitation of the commandment to literal killing was a purblind ignoring of a much wider field of human experience to which it was intended to apply: “I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”

Is all anger wrong?

It has been much questioned whether the phrase: “without a cause” has a rightful place here. The weight of manuscript evidence is decidedly stronger in favour of its retention. But in any case this is plainly the Lord’s intention. It cannot be that he meant to censure all anger as damnable. Already in his own public work there had been open expressions of wrath in his cleansing of the temple (Jn. 2:13-17) and on the occasion of his healing of the man’s withered hand in the synagogue, “he looked round on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts” (Mk. 3:5). And at the end of his ministry there was to come that violent explosion of denunciation of Pharisaic hypocrisy which by no stretch of imagination can be read as a sorrowful head-shaking over the mistakes of misguided men.

So anger is not wrong in itself. Yet in all honesty the fact has to be faced that nearly all anger is evil. Jesus says it is so evil as deserving to be bracketed with murder. Many would agree readily enough that the intention, held back maybe only by fear of consequences, is like the act itself. But Jesus goes a good deal further that that. He declares the attitude of mind of the angry man to be one of murder. His word for “angry” (v. 22) implies personal involvement and a deliberate hostility, not a detached judicial anger (if there be such a thing). Men may choose to make a distinction between anger and murder, but he-Jesus-will have none ot this whittling down or limitation of the Sixth Commandment.
The apostle John got the message, and repeated it in plain style: “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (1 Jn. 3:15). But that withering apodosis is made easier to the soul by the context’s implication that the Love Feast John writes about changes a man’s status from “murderer” to forgiven sinner.

Deeper Principle

In the Beatitudes the way had already been prepared for a drastic switch of emphasis from concern with that which is outward and visible to that which has to do with disposition, attitude of mind, motive and intention. These, Jesus was to insist over and over again, are the realities of a man’s life, and it is these (and not the other) which God takes account of.

Essentially by his very attitude of mind the angry man is either displaying a serious lack of perspective as to what is and what is not important in life, or else he is choosing to anticipate the Day of Judgment, censuring the deeds and words of his fellows according to his own measure, as though-forsooth!-his assessment represents the ultimate moral standard.

The Law of Moses itself taught recognition that circumstances alter cases. A man may slay and yet be innocent: “If he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him anything without laying of wait, or with any stone wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm: then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood” (Num. 35:22-25). Here judges were bidden ascertain (as far as was humanly possible) a man’s motive and intention and to judge accordingly.

Suppose, then, that the intention is there in a man’s heart, but is not expressed in violent action. Jesus assesses such a man as guilty before God. A man’s violent expression of contempt, his bitter censure of the act or motive of his brother-these bring him under condemnation of an infallible heavenly tribunal. “He who searches the hearts” recognizes these symptoms of a nature which is still unregenerate, no matter what the formal protestations of godly zeal or single-mindedness.

The difficulty (v. 22) of progression in the threefold penalties-judgement, Sanhedrin, Gehenna fire-without any perceptible progression in the three charges: “anger...Raca...fool”, has long been recognized.

It seems possible that Matthew expected his readers to recognize an A-B-A-B structure of this passage, thus:

“Ye have heard that it hath been said... Thou shalt not kill, and whosoever killeth shall be liable to judgement.

But I say unto you, Whosoever is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.

(And it hath been said - by the rabbis), Whosoever shall call his brother scoundrel, shall be liable to the Sanhedrin.

(But I say unto you), Whosoever calleth him a simpleton shall be liable to Gehenna fire.”

Whether or not this is the correct way of reading the words, there is no missing the intensely exacting standard of the Lord’s idealism here. Anger is not just a peccadillo; it is not a small, fairly respectable, fault; it is a serious evil.

In the example of opprobrium cited by Jesus, Raca means a bad character, recognized as such by all society. It means also a rebel against God (2 Chr. 13:7; Ps. 2:1). It was used by Michal, David’s wife, in biting sarcasm when she saw her husband wearing a priestly ephod and dancing blithely at the bringing of the ark to Zion (2 Sam. 6:20).

It is, of course, obvious that these are only examples of an attitude of mind which Jesus was holding up for reprobation. One is not at liberty to avoid these literal expressions, whilst at the same time indulging the same evil frame of mind by the choice of other epithets!

Anger against a Brother

It is to be observed, also, that what makes this censorious anger specially evil in the sight of God is that it should be expressed to a brother in Christ, one towards whom the bonds of the gospel should pre-dispose one’s sympathies and understanding, and not one’s animosity.

A simple logical consequence of this incisive and far-reaching dictum of Christ is this: the right and proper reaction to any manifestation of bad feeling from a brother in the Lord should not be an automatic response in kind such as is normal with human nature, but rather a sense of regret and pity that one knowing the mind and spirit of the Lord should choose to follow such unworthy standards and so store up judgment against himself in the Last Day.


It follows therefore that when such an unhappy situation exists, in which one brother cherishes resentment or a grudge against another whether in any way justified or not, then he who is the object of this bad feeling should act with the utmost urgency and promptitude to restore harmony: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (v. 23, 24; cp. Mk. 11:25; Ps. 26:6).

The vividness of this illustration of brotherly concern in action is very striking. The Israelite has brought his sacrificial animal, “without blemish and without spot”, to the sanctuary for sacrifice. At the altar, as the priest is about to slay it, there is recollection of a brother’s soreness of spirit because of some serious difference of opinion. “Stay your hand”, he cries, and forthwith rushes out of the temple court in search of his brother and reconciliation. The priest is left there, knife in hand, wondering what has come over the man. A while later the offerer returns with a relaxed satisfied look on his face. The ceremony of sacrifice can now proceed.

By a picture of this kind the Lord taught vividly that where there is no will to put away anger between brethren, reconciliation with God is impossible. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps. 66:18). But just as it takes two to make a quarrel, so also it takes two to mend one. Therefore if all attempts to come to agreement are frustrated by one of the parties involved, then he must bear the responsibility before God. In such a case he-and not the one whose attempts at reconciliation are frustrated -is the one to be pitied. His spiritual condition is serious indeed. A

Worldly Adversary

But suppose the adversary be not a brother but a selfish unprincipled worldling! The terse phrases of Jesus picture two men on the way to court. The issue between them is the recovery of a debt. You can expect no leniency from a court which follows a rigid legal principle, Jesus reminds his disciples. So whilst the opportunity is there, use every possible effort by private persuasion to get the best terms you can. Once the court decision is taken the full process of law must be insisted on-and once you are consigned to prison how are you ever to be rid of the debt? Its consequences will be with you forever.

There is a practical common sense about these words for any comparable situation in life. Yet it may be taken as certain that Jesus was not setting out to school his disciples in worldly wisdom. Here in the Sermon on the Mount he is concerned with fundamentals of the spirit, so there is need to look further into his meaning.

A Parable

The context of the parallel passage in Luke 12:58, 59 is enlightening. Multitudes followed Jesus with not too serious intent, hearing his teaching and seeing his miracles. The Lord warned-thgm that it was high time they looked to themselves and made a shrewd appraisal of their spiritual standing. If they could judge the sign* of the sky and know what weather was impending, why were they so inept in the much more important issues concerning their relationship with God? By their holding off from personal involvement in active discipleship they had turned God into an Adversary, and-if only they would realise it-were even now being taken to court for a final decision. An adverse verdict was inevitable. The judge-Jesus-would pronounce against them. The angels of his power would execute the sentence, and from the oblivion of the prison-house of death there could never be any release, because no man is ever in a position to pay off the sin debt which he owes to God.

Transferring this idea back to its context in Matthew 5, the parable is now seen as a similar solemn warning addressed to the one who refuses conciliation, rejecting all attempts to reach amicable agreement. By adopting such an unforgiving attitude he makes God into his Adversary and stores up judgment for himself.

Thus, in two mini-parables, Jesus teaches the top-priority urgency of good relations between brethren. Whatever the issue between them, no effort must be spared, no time lost in bringing about mutual understanding and reconcilia tion. The spirit of Christ’s teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount will have nothing less than this.

The sorry contrast among the Lord’s twentieth-century disciples cries to high heaven. How much have they learned of the spirit of their Lord when they are willing to tolerate estrangements on a massive scale and make only the feeblest of efforts towards correction of a bad situation?

Notes: Mt. 5:21-26

Ye have heard. Jesus is addressing himself to the common people who did not possess Bibles and who got their knowledge of the Torah by synagogue instruction and discussion. Contrast the Lord’s: “Have ye not read...?” when in dispute with scribes.
In danger of the judgment. But no human tribunal can accurately judge the emotions of the accused. So it is a heavenly judgment that is meant here.

Raca. Two comparable examples from the Talmud: He that calleth his neighbour a slave, let him be excommunicated; he that calleth his neighbour a bastard, let him be punished with forty stripes.
Gift... altar It is a fair inference that when this saying of Jesus was included in Matthew’s gospel, the temple was still in being. Matthew wrote before A.D. 70.

And there rememberest. The Talmud has a passage very much like this: “If a man is on the point of offering Passover, and remembers that there is any leaven left in his house, let him return to his home and remove it, and then come to finish his Passover.” Which of the two is more fundamental?
Go...come. These verbs imply that Jesus is speaking as though he were the altar! Nor does he say “return”, for that would imply that the first time was a true approach to the altar- which, in these circumstances, it wasn’t.

Be reconciled. The only occurrence of this Greek word. There are two more thorough words for reconciliation with God.
Agree... quickly. The thing is urgent; Heb. 4:7; Acts 22:16.

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