(Mat 5:21-22 ESV) “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Now, it’s important to recall that Jesus had just said,
(Mat 5:20 ESV) 20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We do not know exactly what the scribes and Pharisees taught in Jesus’ day. The most comprehensive collection of their teachings that we have, the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, weren’t put in written form until centuries after Jesus. There had been two major rebellions by the Jews against Rome, the Temple had been destroyed, and the Jews had been forcibly removed from Jerusalem by the time the Talmuds were written down.
The Wikipedia explains,
The process of “Gemara” proceeded in what were then the two major centers of Jewish scholarship, Galilee and Babylonia. Correspondingly, two bodies of analysis developed, and two works of Talmud were created. The older compilation is called the Jerusalem Talmud or the Talmud Yerushalmi. It was compiled in the 4th century CE in Galilee. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled about the year 500, although it continued to be edited later. The word “Talmud”, when used without qualification, usually refers to the Babylonian Talmud.
Judaism had changed dramatically. The Sadducees had disappeared, likely because they were Levites involved in the Temple activities. Evidently, the Essenes had been killed by the Romans during the Bar Kochba rebellion — as the Dead Sea Scrolls and archaeological remains all pre-date Bar Kochba. The Zealots had died fighting Rome. And so the Pharisees were left to preserve Judaism against Roman persecution and Christian competition.
Hence, while the Talmud is a helpful source regarding the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, we cannot assume that it necessarily speaks correctly regarding the Judaism of the early First Century. We get much more direct information from the writings from Second Temple Judaism — Josephus, Philo, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and — most importantly — the New Testament.
We sometimes let a little 19th Century European skepticism creep into our reading of the Gospels and assume that Matthew didn’t really know what the Pharisees taught. We figure 19th Century Germans had a better idea based on their reading the Sixth Century Talmud or whatever. But I think we do better to let the best witnesses be the best witnesses — and so let Matthew speak for his own times.
As a result, when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said … ,” I take him to be very literally describing what was taught in the synagogues in Galilee by at least some of the Pharisees and scribes — the very people he compared his teachings with in the preceding verse. If that’s not so, Jesus would have quickly lost his audience. If Jesus was speaking hypothetically of teaching not actually taught, he would have come across as very foolish.
Of course, in Jesus’ first contrast between what others teach versus what he teaches, there is little doubt that what had been taught is true: “‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.'” “You shall not murder” is straight from the Ten Commandments, written by the very hand of God. “Liable to judgment” is likely a reference to the Torah’s provisions for punishment for murderers — death in many cases. Again, in this case, Jesus is not saying that this is wrong.
Rather, Jesus’ point is that the Pharisees and scribes read the text superficially. They were shallow exegetes who missed the deeper meaning of what God had revealed of his will.
(Mat 5:22 ESV) 22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Some take Jesus to be issuing new laws, but that misses the point of what Jesus had just said:
(Mat 5:18-19 ESV) 18 “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
It should be clear that Jesus is explaining what it means to truly teach God’s commands. To merely find a prohibition against murder in the Sixth Commandment misses the deeper truth present in the text.
You see, if it’s wrong to murder, then it’s wrong to do those things that lead to murder. And among those things are anger and insults. This is obvious. If we create a culture in which anger and insults are acceptable, murders will happen. And Jesus was addressing an honor culture.
If a Jew spends his life angry at Rome and finds himself venting by insulting Roman soldiers, well, something bad in going to happen — “bad” if you believe in shalom. Of course, if you’re a rebel, you just might incite a rebellion.
Consider the culture present in many of today’s Islamic countries — as classic examples of an honor culture. Anger against the West is not just acceptable but constantly preserved so that vengeance is sought for battles lost literally 500 years ago. It leads to murder, and the attitudes and culture that approve of anger and a culture of grievance is a violation of the Ten Commandments.
Of course, the same is true of other cultures. If we decide to be angry with all Muslims for the sins of a few, and if our Christian leaders approve of such an attitude, well, murder will follow — and all will answer to God for violating the Ten Commandments.
Hence, Paul teaches,
(Eph 4:31-32 ESV) 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Why? First, because Jesus, who had every right to be angry with us, chose instead to give his life for us. He preferred to forgive us — at the cost of his life and of unspeakable suffering. We are to do the same.
Second, because going back to the Ten Commandments, anger and insults have been wrong. If we really understood the heart of God, we’d know that. And yet many a Christian fills Facebook and the Internet and his conversations with invective and anger at Muslims, at Democrats, at Republicans, at the President, at whatever Fox News is mad about, at whatever the New York Times is mad about — because, I suppose, we like being manipulated by the media to become loyal viewers and readers.
But Jesus calls us to something better. In fact, the SOTM reminds us that in every war, we invent names for the enemy, to dehumanize them so that they’ll be easier to kill — Nips, Krauts, ragheads, and far worse. And so, when we find ourselves easily referring to our opponents by an insulting name, we’re violating not only the SOTM, but also the Ten Commandments — and we’re insulting the cross of Jesus.
Not all labels fit this description. A “Republican” really is a Republican and the use of a label to say so is necessary to talk about politics at all. But when we pick a label that can only be spoken with a sneer — “Anti,” “Digressive,” “liberal” — or when we insult our opponent by accusing him falsely just to win debating points, we’re ignoring the words of Jesus and forgetting the very heart of what is means to be a Christian, that is, someone who is “Christ-like.” Christ would rather die than falsely accuse someone.