Anger is not a victimless crime. Anger is aggressive. To have someone’s anger turned on you—especially when it’s “without cause,” not your fault or out of proportion to your fault—is emotionally and physically traumatizing.
At first glance, Jesus’s moral teachings in Matthew 5 can look almost trite or arbitrary. Given a chance to address the greatest evils of his day, he starts with anger. But the more we look at it, the more serious anger is seen to be.
Watch a little child react when an adult in their space gets angry. Their reaction—the very evident fear, insecurity, confusion, and hurt, even if the anger is being aimed at someone else completely—is how we all, deep down, react to anger.
Anger makes us instantly unsafe. It assaults our well-being and demeans our personhood.
Anger left unchecked, and directed as it usually is at those who don’t deserve it, becomes sniper shootings and terrorists driving trucks into a crowd, firing at will. It becomes racial and xenophobic and without reason or empathy.
But is anger the real problem?
After all, sometimes anger is righteous. God is angry every day, and he should be. So it seems unlikely that anger itself is the root Jesus is after here.
Where does our problematic anger come from, anyway?
The Root of the Problem
Jesus begins by addressing anger—flying off the handle at “your brother,” at someone close to you. But then he takes it farther.
The Amplified Bible breaks it down well:
And whoever speaks [contemptuously and insultingly] to his brother, Raca (You empty-headed idiot)!’ shall be guilty before the supreme court (Sanhedrin); and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21b, AMP)
Raca is an Aramaic word, a serious insult. The Amplified’s “fiery hell” is the Greek Gehenna, a name for the Valley of Hinnom just south of Jerusalem (more about this later).
It’s this further development of anger that really makes the links between angry responses to another person and murder apparent.
The problem isn’t actually anger, the flare-up that comes against another. Murderers aren’t always angry when they kill. The problem is something more, something deeper at the root of both.
The Destructive Power of Words
It’s interesting that while anger in itself—apparently even unexpressed—is enough to bring a person “into judgment,” the spoken expression of anger brings things up to a more serious level.
God does not take words lightly. We see this everywhere in Scripture: words are real things with a real impact.
Angry or demeaning words can be more damaging than any physical blow, with their ability to get into our minds and hearts and deconstruct us from the inside, for days and years and decades.
Spoken words are in fact physical things: they create sound waves that physically impact the ear drum. They manifest the spirit of the one speaking, so that words spoken in anger or contempt affect us physically like blows and get into our own spirits like canker worms.
The specific words Jesus uses here are significant too. We mustn’t get legalistic about this: I have never in my life called anyone Raca and it’s unlikely that I ever will; Aramaic insults aren’t part of my daily vocabulary. But the spirit behind the word is familiar.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary gives helpful insight:
Rhaka is an Aramaic word akin to the Hebrew req, “empty” . . . It was a word of utter contempt, signifying “empty,” intellectually rather than morally, “empty-headed.”
“Stupid,” in other words, is what Raca means; “dummy”; “retard.” What an idiot.
Still, the Vine’s entry assures us that the next word and attitude Jesus condemns is worse: “[Raca] does not indicate such a loss of self-control as the word rendered ‘fool,’ a godless, moral reprobate.”
That word is moros, root of our “moron” though expressive of considerably more, and again Vine’s is very helpful. Of Matthew 5:22 it says:
Here the word means morally worthless, a scoundrel, a more serious reproach than “Raca”; the latter scorns a man’s mind and calls him stupid; moros scorns his heart and character; hence the Lord’s more serious condemnation.
We have plenty of modern equivalents for moros. I’ve heard even Christians use them. Loser. Faggot. A-hole. Waste of space.
I shudder at the things we say about people of other religions, other political parties, people who struggle with certain temptations to sin. People who are different than we are and therefore deserve our scorn.
The Real Root of Murder
Jesus begins by addressing anger, but he goes deeper, to the real problem, the real issue at hand.
In my first post on anger I wrote,
No matter what you may be feeling, it is not okay to demean another human being because of it. THAT is the issue Jesus is pinpointing . . . According to Jesus, anger and murder are equivalent. This is why. This thing inside of us that says our needs are actually more important than someone else’s in the moment, that what we feel is more pressing than watching out for our impact on other people, that our need for release justifies hurting others — that other people are actually in some way less than ourselves — is the impulse behind murder.
Anger, it turns out, is just a front.
The real issue is contempt.
In 1992, Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute conducted a much-discussed study in which he watched the interactions of couples who were having marital troubles. In that study he was able to predict with a 94 percent success rate which couples would divorce and which would stay together. The number one cause of divorce? Contempt, of course.
The real reason for racism, for domestic violence, for injustice against the poor, for classism, for fraud, for religious persecution, for ethnic warfare, for our world of broken and battered relationships?
Contempt for others lies at the base of them all.
The Moral Genius of Jesus
Jesus, the absolute master of morality, is not just picking an arbitrary list of petty sins and smacking our hands for them. Nor is he leveling outlandish consequences on minor infractions of a list of rules.
Jesus is a moral genius, and in Matthew 5 he goes directly for the roots of our problems, individual and societal.
Contempt is the first one he identifies.
Next week, we’ll go further in this discussion by looking at why contempt is such a giant missing-of-the-mark in God’s eyes. The answer may surprise you: it lies in the little-understood agape love of God for all people.
(This is Part 43 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)