Let’s be honest, have you never called anyone, “you fool” or as my son would say, “you moron” and do you think that deserved eternal damnation? Hardly, I should think. So, what do you make of Jesus warning that “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Mt 5.22)? It sounds like the nuclear option for some swear word. There are instances throughout Scripture where people are called fools. For example, Paul told the Galatians they were foolish (Gal 3.1). Jesus even said the Pharisees and scribes were fools (Mt 23.17). There are no two ways about this. This is a hard circle to square. We can discount the explanation of a Pentecostal pastor who told my brother-in-law when he went to consult him. “Jesus was the son of God and could call anyone anything he wanted.” No, Jesus was talking about a mere swear word but the mother of all anger that usurps God’s place as judge. It is the kind of anger that is not incidental but has building up and has no breaks. The kind that is murderous all but in name. The best way to understand this challenging verse is to interpret it in the context of the micro context of Mt 5.21‒26.
Let’s Meet the Micro Context
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you. You will never get out until you have paid the last penny (Mt 5.21‒26 NRSV).
The hermeneutical key here is the comparison between “ancient times” and “I say to you,” namely during these messianic times — between the ancient ethics associated with “the law or the prophets” which Jesus says, he had “come not to abolish but to fulfil” (Mt 5.17). The problem with “the law and the prophets” was that it was premised on obeying the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. As longing as you followed or failed to follow the letter of the law, that was it. The point Jesus was making was that the infraction of the law does not lie in the act per se but the intention behind it. It is this intention that needs to be examined and if it is arrested, then there is no infraction. This interpretation is in the same league as looking at a woman with a lustful eye.
It is not just the content of the dirty thoughts but the intention behind them. The fact that there was no occasion to realise your dirty thoughts does not mean you are off the hooks.
Let’s Meet the Challenging Verse
Here is the text of the verse in English. I am using the New Revised Standard Version. My version has been cleaned up for the gender insensitive language. I suggest you read a slightly longer literary unit of Mt 5.21‒26 given above a few times for a fuller contextual reading.
22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire (Mt 5.22).
For those with the facility to read this verse in Greek, here it is.
ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει: ὃς δ’ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ, Ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ: ὃς δ' ἂν εἴπῃ, Μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός.
Before I attempt to interpret the text, let me give as literal a translation as possible. The problematic words will be left in their original language at this point.
But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother [or sister] will be liable to judgement; should you say to your brother [or sister], Raka, you will be liable under the Sanhedrin; and should you say, Mōros, you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.
Interpreting the Text
Here is what I think is going down. Jesus is comparing the old ethics with the new as I have pointed above. In the old ethics what mattered was the letter of the law. You did it or you did not do it. It mattered not what your intentions were. In the new ethics it is the intention that matters. You might not even get to do the deed but you are liable all the same. It is much like the looking at another man’s wife with a lustful eye I just mentioned above. Sorry, the fact that you had no occasion to realise your dirty thoughts does not let you off the hook in the guilty stakes. You probably already undressed her and did it. Only the occasion was missing. It is the same in the “you fool” stakes. The key ingredient is anger. The fact that you don’t manage to wring someone’s neck, I do not think that you are off the hook. But anger has levels. The kind we are talking about here is not simply the losing your cool kind just incidentally. It is the losing it completely ilk because you have been harbouring it for a long time. It has been festering and swelling until it is ready to burst. It is the “if looks could kill” kind. The kind I know for one I cannot easily disguise. We are talking about the kind of anger that writes off another person. The word used is the Greek participle ὀργιζόμενος [ orgizomenos ]. It is related to the Greek noun ὀργή [ orgē ], meaning anger, wrath, passion, punishment or vengeance. The noun is related to a verb meaning, to teem or to swell and thus implies that it is not a sudden outburst, but rather based on extended personal exposure and solidifying what the beholder considers wrong. And should my anger reach that level of intensity, I am liable to all the tribunals spelt out by Jesus. We have to presume that the instances of righteous anger by either Paul or Jesus do not rise up to the scale of viciousness envisaged in Mt 5.22. In this text, two words are used interchangeably, Ῥακά [ Raka ], which means foolish in the sense of vain, empty, worthless, and is only found in Mt 5.22. The Jews used it as a word of contempt. It is derived from a root meaning “to spit.”
Just in case you were about to say that you never use that kind of vocabulary, Jesus says the lighter or more common term, μωρός [ Mōros ] is equally to be avoided in order to avoid scaling up your anger. This word, which gives us the English word moron also meant foolish but I suggest of a lower foolishness pecking order. It also meant impious or godless. What constituted its liability is the anger inflection you gave it. You fool can easily be said with a smile without attracting the liability that is anger-laden to merit hell fire. Greek, like our African languages, where in Bemba for instance, a fool is icipuba, icipumbu, iciposwa or iciwelewele etc., had many inflections of foolishness. As a kid my mother called me all four Bemba words and I probably deserved them but there was no vicious anger associated with them because the next minute I was being invited to the evening meal. When St Paul tells the Galatians, “You foolish Galatians” he uses the Greek word ἀνόητοι [ anoētoi ]. Although it means foolish, it is best translated unwise or lacking understanding and the Galatians deserved it. Back to the offending word, Raka. It was a loan-word from Hebrew or Aramaic and the fact that we do not find it elsewhere in the New Testament, we have to conclude that when you used it, you were really seething and had been nursing it for a long time and now you were ready to blow up. The most common view is that it is a reference to the Aramaic word Reka, which literally means “empty one.”
Scholars seem divided on how grievous an insult Reka was. The ordinary term for a fool in Greek seems to have been μωρός [ Mōros ], which has a similar meaning to the Aramaic Reka but perhaps less intensive. Jesus uses the term μωρός [ Mōros ] in Mt 23.17 when he is deriding the Pharisees. We can hardly accuse Jesus of senseless anger bordering on madness when he is trying to correct the Pharisees. I think the bottom line is that when you are not sure how you are inflecting “fool” or how well you have been nursing it, it is safer to avoid it altogether lest you inadvertently hit the nuclear button of the mother of all anger. John L McKenzie believes that Ῥακά [ Raka ] was a lower grade of insult than μωρός [ Mōros ].
Raca (Greek raka, Aramaic rêḳā’), a term of abuse frequent in the Talmud; it means an “empty” one, a dolt who cannot understand the teaching of the Rabbis. It is less opprobrious than “fool.” Jesus forbids the use of such opprobrious terms under severe penalties (Mt 5.22); they destroy good relations and are a sign of the superciliousness of the man who uses them (McKenzie 1965: 718).
I beg to differ with John L McKenzie and suggest that in fact it is the other way round. I also suggest that the reason they are opprobrious is more than just upsetting human relationships in the manner of someone being politically incorrect. They are an expression of unrighteous anger that usurps God’s prerogative as judge. John L McKenzie projects back into the time of Jesus a putative usage from rabbinical times. I think the fact that raka appears only once in the New Testament must lead us to the conclusion that we are dealing with a once unfamiliar insult before it became widespread or before it underwent a semantic shift.
- Quote paper
- Dr Tarcisius Mukuka (Author), 2020, On calling anyone "You Fool". If Jesus did it, why can’t we?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/952295