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Matthew 5:21-26

Murder, anger, insulting others – how are they related, and what can we do about them?

Tom Faletti

April 26, 2024

Matthew 5:21-26 Anger


Jesus here begins a series of six teachings, in Matthew 5:21-48, where he states a Jewish law and then provides his own teaching.  Each teaching begins with, “You have heard it said . . . but I say. . . .”  They are sometimes called the “six antitheses” because some scholars see them as presenting the opposite (anti-) of a principle taught in the Old Testament (thesis).  However, they usually go beyond rather than directly rejecting the Old Testament principle, so “antithesis” is not a good term for them.  Some scholars call them the six “hypertheses,” because the prefix “hyper” can signify going beyond the thesis or principle that has previously been stated.


In each case, Jesus re-interprets and expands on or transforms the Old Testament injunction.  Often, he prohibits not only the action but also the thought that underlies the action or leads to the action.


In verse 21, what is the Old Testament law Jesus cites?


In verse 22, Jesus takes the principle much further in three ways.  What does he say about anger?


Still in verse 22, what does he say about using abusive or insulting language?


In the third part of verse 22, some translations give us the Aramaic word Jesus uses – “Raqa” or “Raca” – which was a term of contempt used to call someone a fool or empty-headed or an idiot.  What does Jesus say about using this kind of especially contemptuous language toward another person?


Notice that each sin incurs a more serious consequence than the previous one, moving from being liable to judgment, which invokes an image of being brought before a local court of village elders; to being liable to the Council or Sanhedrin, which invokes an image of being brought before the highest court; to being liable to the fires of Gehenna, a word of Hebrew origin that is often translated as “hell’ but actually refers to the Valley of Hinnom southwest of Jerusalem, where there was a garbage dump that was thought of as always having a fire burning.


In what ways are these three steps progressively worse – from anger, to insult, to contempt?


How are these things related to murder?  In what ways do they all start from the same place?


When Jesus says that if we do these things we will be “liable” to these kinds of judgment, what do you think he means?  Is he speaking literally (about courts and Gehenna) or metaphorically?  And if metaphorically, what is he trying to tell us?



Why is anger such a serious matter?


Is anger always wrong?  Is there an appropriate time for anger – what people sometimes call “holy anger”?

Mark describes Jesus as being angry once, when Pharisees resisted the idea of a person being healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5), and Jesus certainly appears to be angry when he clears the Temple of the moneychangers (Matthew 21:12-13; John 2:13-17).  St. Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26), which indicates that anger is not necessarily sinful.  Anger often arises as a physiological response to situations; it’s what we do with it that determines whether it is a sin.


How can we stay open to the kind of “holy anger” that pushes back against injustice, yet avoid the kind of anger that Jesus is telling us to avoid?



Why is abusive language such a serious matter?


Abusive language has become such an embedded part of our culture – a standard part of television shows, comedy acts, etc. – that we might not even realize we are echoing or imitating it.  How can we control our own language, the things we personally say?


What are some examples of people in our time using the kind of contemptuous, dehumanizing language Jesus is talking about when he uses the word “Raqa”?


The principle of human dignity calls us to recognize that every person has an inalienable dignity given to them by God – even the people who may be seen as our enemies.  How is this kind of contemptuous language a violation of human dignity?


Why is this kind of dehumanizing language so dangerous?  What kinds of things can it lead to?

Oppression, murder, discrimination, and even genocide sometimes starts with this kind of language, from the dehumanization of Black people in the history of the American South, to the dehumanization of Dalits in Indian history, to the use of the word “cockroaches” that preceded the Rwandan genocide.  A brief look through history can bring forth many similar examples, and they continue in our time.  Politicians in many countries are using dehumanizing language to delegitimize people they do not like – often with deadly results.


Where is the part of this discussion that might make you uncomfortable?  Where might you need to adjust how you manage your anger or your language, in order to be more like Christ?



In verses 23-26, Jesus shifts the focus slightly.  In verses 23-24, what does he tell us to do?


Why would God say that reconciling with a brother or sister is more important than making an offering to God?


In verses 25-26, Jesus broadens the idea of reconciliation by moving from a religious context to a legal context.  What does he say?


How is an openness to reconciliation important for avoiding bad court judgments?


How might our society be a better place if there was more focus on reconciliation between offenders and those they have harmed?


Both of the examples in verses 23-26 presume that we are at fault.  We are often not very good at recognizing our own faults.  How can you become the kind of person who recognizes when you are at fault?


Looking at this whole passage, what is the most important point for you in what Jesus says about murder, anger, abusive language, contempt, and reconciliation?



Take a step back and consider this:


In the United States and many other countries, there has been a coarsening of social discourse and political discourse.  Many social media voices and political leaders treat those who disagree with them with disrespect and contempt and blatantly distort their views – and rack up millions of views, “likes,” and reposts in the process.  Christians might consider ways to push back against this ungodly trend.  For example, we might decide that we will never forward or “share” a post that uses disrespectful language about another human being.  We can find other articles that express the same views more respectfully.


Many of us remember being told by a parent, “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.”  While there is a place for criticizing the views of others, we should be able to accurately state the other side’s claims before showing why we think they are wrong, and our arguments for why they are wrong should be based on facts and evidence, not based on distortion and innuendo.  If we can’t do that, we aren’t treating them as people made in the image of God.  We might consider a 21st century version of our parents’ maxim: “If you can’t say something that respects the humanity of the other person, don’t say anything at all.”  Or perhaps: “If you can’t state your opponent’s position in a way that would allow them to say, ‘Yes, that’s what I’m saying,’ then you shouldn’t try to characterize their views at all.”


How can you contribute to a more civil public discourse in your country’s social and political life?


And what about anger?


Anger sometimes comes unbidden – a visceral reaction that arises from the physiology of our humanity.  But we can choose whether to nurture that anger and help it grow, or tame it and give it the perspective it needs to be harnessed for good.


What do you need to do to tame or harness your anger so that it is serves the good rather than becoming a trigger that leads to sin?



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Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

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