Anger, insult and humour

p2 Woman taken in adultery by Wassilij Dimitriewitsch Polenow

From ‘A depiction of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery’ by Wassilij Dimitriewitsch Polenow, 1888

by Guy Brandon

Jesus warns his listeners that anger is as spiritually significant as murder. Although humour is not the immediate subject of his teaching, this has implications for what we find funny – not a comfortable idea for a culture that has raised sarcasm to the highest form of wit.

‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.’ (Matthew 5:21-22)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus builds on a number of laws that would be familiar to all of the Jews, extending them to give them new meaning and relevance to his listeners – fulfilling the law, rather than abolishing it (Matthew 5:17). Thus adultery was, according to Jewish law, punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10). As Jesus introduces this in verse 27, you can imagine some of his audience quietly congratulating themselves for avoiding that particular sin. But Jesus then extends the prohibition on adultery to lust, firmly placing almost everyone on the wrong side of the law.

A fence around the law

Jesus argues that it is not just our behaviour that we need to pay attention to, but the attitude of the heart that leads to it. This was similar to the Jewish practice of ‘building a fence around the law’ – putting in safeguards that would make sure the law was not accidentally breached. When Paul writes that he ‘received from the Jews forty lashes minus one’, this is an example of exactly that practice. Jewish law states that it was not permissible to give anyone more than forty lashes: ‘If he is flogged more than that, your brother will be degraded in your eyes’ (Deuteronomy 25:3). Flogging someone thirty-nine times ensured that even if the number was somehow miscounted, it should still not exceed forty. For Jesus, the fence was not in the application of the law, but in the heart.


Jesus takes the same approach to murder in Matthew 5:21-22. Anger, the attitude that leads to violence, is also subject to judgment (v21). Then we have the odd phrase that seems to parallel the murder/anger pairing: ‘Anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.’

Raca is only found once in the Bible, in this verse. It is an Aramaic word (one of several in the New Testament that are not translated into Greek, indicating that Jesus spoke Aramaic to his listeners). Raca is hard to translate but is probably derived from a Semitic root meaning ‘empty’: the meaning is likely ‘worthless’, ‘empty head’, ‘nothing’, ‘nobody’. Commentators suggest that the sound as much as the etymology of the word conveyed its meaning: a guttural spit of dismissal. It appears a few times as an insult in the Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the Law. Essentially it is, as the NIV footnotes it, an Aramaic term of bitter contempt.

What of the following insult, ‘you fool’? This one is the Greek word moros, from which we get the word ‘moron’. Raca apparently gains you an audience at the Sanhedrin for formal punishment at the hands of the elders. What is so much worse about moros that the punishment is hell? (The ‘fire of hell’ here is Gehenna, the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem that was always burning. Previously a venue for human sacrifice, it became a byword for everything cursed and filthy and a figurative destination for the wicked.)

On the surface of it, it’s not entirely clear how the insults differ. One suggestion is that raca is a dismissal or insult to the intelligence, whereas moros is a slur on the recipient’s reputation. It means not simply stupid but morally weak: evil, rather than worthless. To call someone moros was to cast aspersions on their character, implying that they were godless and wicked.


If so, that indicates a slightly different attitude on the part of the insulter. There is a moral superiority assumed – much like the episode in John 8, where the teachers of the law bring him a woman caught in adultery. Instead of pronouncing judgment, he writes in the ground with his finger. (It is not recorded what he writes, but it may have been the Ten Commandments or the Pharisees’ personal sins.) ‘“If any one of you is without sin, let him cast the first stone at her.” … At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

In Matthew 7, Jesus warns, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ Judgment here means something like ‘harsh-spirited condemnation’. Judging in the sense of discerning is encouraged; judging in the sense of looking down on someone and considering ourselves better than they are raises the prospect of – like the woman’s persecutors in John 8 – being judged by the same standard.

The art of the putdown

Thou art like a toad; ugly and venomous.’ – Shakespeare

Jesus’ own actions make it clear that not all anger is bad. In many passages he is angrily critical of injustice, and on one occasion clears out the Temple courtyard with a whip. But these are a far cry from the kind of insult mentioned in Matthew 5.

For Christians, this raises questions about the kind of humour we use and enjoy. There are many forms of humour, from the humble pun and slapstick to irony, sarcasm, satire and parody. Much humour is divisive in one way or another (an Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman walk into a bar…), placing the listener on one or another side of a line. (Incidentally, this is one theory as to why Christmas cracker jokes are so universally appalling: their purpose is to unite listeners in mutual anguish at them.)

p3 Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes (source Wikipedia)

(Credit: Fat Les, CC BY 2.0, cropped)

Unfortunately, some of the more effective (and enjoyable) forms of humour probably fall into a category that carry a spiritual warning. Sarcasm is a prime example. The term comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer’. The anger is disguised but it is humour at another’s expense: it is meant to hurt. Oscar Wilde called it the lowest form of wit, but its near-universal popularity in our culture suggests we don’t agree with him. Putdowns are fashionable. Take the newspaper headlines that seek to belittle, often through the medium of a pun. Or what about the drama we watch on TV and in film? Consider the withering sarcasm of Gregory House or Sherlock Holmes, or the quick-witted and often caustic dialogue characteristic of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom). Take, for that matter, Shakespeare – whose exquisitely-crafted quips and insults have become legendary for generations of theatre-goers.

What’s so funny?

The problem for Christians is that pride and disdain are involved in many forms of humour. The same property that makes them funny to one person makes then painful to another (and, to be clear, Jesus wasn’t advocating the use of raca over moros – neither is endorsed).

In recent weeks Charlie Hebdo’s brand of vicious satire has come into the spotlight. But we should also bear in mind that the Bible itself contains a very wide range of humour, including puns, slapstick, hyperbole and irony – as well as some that, on the surface of it, might seem close to the bone. In 1 Kings 18 Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal with his skit on why their god failed to make an appearance: ‘Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’ Paul, too, displays merciless satire in his suggestion that the Galatian agitators might like to emasculate themselves (Galatians 5:12). The inclusion of these, as well as sexual and scatological humour in the Bible, suggests that ranking different forms of humour in spiritual terms is no straightforward task. What counts is the attitude of the heart.

Where does that leave us? Not in an easy place. Pride is number one on the list of Seven Deadly Sins for a reason. For Augustine, it was the archetypal sin, from which all others derive. Lucifer and Adam both had pride to blame for their fall.

For Christians, it means passing our humour through a filter. ‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:11). It might mean foregoing favourite TV programmes, and it certainly means putting down the putdown.

Anger is relatively easy to spot in its raw form. Disguised in our humour, it’s tough to recognise and root out. A casual dismissal or rolling-of-the-eyes might seem trivial – but in fact, that’s the problem. These things trivialise something that Jesus identifies as a serious problem: an attitude of pride and harsh-spirited judgment. It might not be as obvious as murder, but it has a spiritual dimension we shouldn’t ignore.

This is part of our ‘thinking aloud…’ series. What are your thoughts?


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Category: Reports and Articles

March, 2015

Comments (2)

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  1. I am concerned about the inability of some from other cultures to understand English cartoon humour which, at it most genuine, does not proclaim “You are like this!” but “This is how you ‘come over’.” Hence it is perfectly OK to present Mohammed as having a hat like a grenade as it is ‘saying’ that, because of the actions of SOME Muslims, they all ‘come over’ as terrorists. A good cartoon is a warning shot to a friend to avoid giving certain impressions or taking certain stances.(My O level History text book, back in the 1950s was full of cartoons from ‘Punch’ and it really helped the student to understand the reaction to what a certain politician was doing. One of the problems of international relations is not sharing the same sense of humour!

  2. David Hillary says:

    Well you do have the right mix of items in the title – anger, insult and humour. I submit that this is what is required to understand the teaching, and that diligent application and research will yield a much more amusing and enlightening interpretation of the teaching of Jesus on ‘anger’ in Mat 5:21-22.

    Firstly it must be noted that the passage from verse 21 to verse 26 is a separate unit, and relates to exactly the same issue: coercive legal procedures to judge and punish wrongdoing and to determine and collect debts.

    Second it should be noted that Jesus is referring to coercive debt collection procedures not merely as a recount of established legal procedure. For him it is the actual matter of concern: for him it is something we should recongise as a sign of the times, and something objectionable (Luke 12:54-59).

    Third, it must be noted that Jesus is comparing and contrasting two types of cases: the capital case of murder, and the money-damages case of insult. By understanding the legal and political and social context and analysing the passage the nature, point and humour of the passage can be seen.

    The contrast is between a) the law of Moses and b) the actual practice and application of the law of Moses by the courts of his time, c) the practices of the Romans and d) Jesus’s new covenant and law that he has from his Father and is teaching us.

    Consider the law on murder and its penalty. The law of Moses required the life of the murderer to be taken, after due process of law, with no opportunity for redemption of the murderer by payment of money. At the time Jesus was teaching the Jewish courts had de facto abolished the death penalty through impossible evidence requirements: they would rather have mercy on murderers than have the law do the evil of taking a man’s life, even a guilty one. The Romans, however, used the death penalty, and crucifixion as a means of maintaining ultimate imperial power and terror, and so of course those who took part in revolts, tax protests etc. would suffer the death penalty, but not for murder, except incidentally as part of revolt or tax resistance. However, Jesus has not a word against Jewish reluctance to impose the death penalty, for what the Jewish courts were doing de facto, Jesus, for the same reason, does de jure as a new law from his Father. Casting stones to kill *is* sin, Jesus extends unconditional love and protection to the innocent and guilty alike.

    Now contrast the law on insult and the recovery of money damages for the harm it does. The law of Moses provides that the following harms are recoverable: time off work, medical costs, pain, and injury (Ex 21). Insult is not a recoverable harm under the law of Moses. However, at the time of Jesus, although it was contentious, insult was considered to be a real harm and the law provided a money-damages remedy accordingly. This is exactly what Jesus is discussing: insulting your brother results in being dragged to court, being detained in debtor’s prison and staying there until the judgement debt is fully paid. This is where the humour enters the passage: Jesus is mocking the civil litigation and debt enforcement system, by way of parody, he is seeking to awaken realisation that there is something wrong with using coercion to collect money. If they can have mercy on the murderers, why not those who insult their brothers?

    To re-connect the two cases Jesus brings in the Romans. Although insult normally would be in danger of producing civil litigation and judgement and debt enforcement procedures, if you insulted the wrong person, e.g. the Roman governor or his appointed High Priest, you may well be in danger of the death penalty that the Jews abolished but the Romans still carried out to control trouble-makers. After crucifixion by the Romans, without the benefit of the impossible standard of evidence of the Jewish law, without even the serious evidence standards of the law of Moses, trouble makers would normally be disposed of in Gehenna, the rubbish dump outside the city of Jerusalem. Gehenna and its fire was primarily referring to what the Romans did to condemned troublemakers after crucifixion rather than as a symbol of divine punishment in the afterlife. And this is where the irony is also apparent: Jesus did insult the Jewish teachers of the law and both major parties, and the Jews who did not believe in the death penalty for murder used the power of the Romans to kill Jesus while pleading for the life of Barabbas. Jesus did not practice the prudential advice he gave in the Sermon on the Mount, suggesting this particular part was not supposed to be taken principally as prudential. Or as a teaching against anger — it is not he who is angry with his brother who is a murderer, but him who hates his brother (1 John 3:15) — there is a difference!

    Of course there is nothing wrong with the teaching as prudential advice about controlling anger to avoid strife (including strife that may lead to murder), and about trying to pro-actively settle pending civil litigation. Would not any wise teacher and any legal counsel provide practically the same advice today?

    The real point of the teaching is in Mat 7:1 ‘Do not judge.’ The law of Moses teaches no such thing, it teaches to judge fairly and impartially. But Jesus is changing the law: he prohibits judging absolutely. He abolishes the death penalty de jure, he abolishes court subpoena powers (compare James 2:6), he abolishes judicial judging, and he abolishes debtor’s prison, debt-bondage and attachment of the debtor’s assets to meet his debts to his creditor (Luke 20:47). He also prohibits filing lawsuits to courts who carry out such coercive procedures: the word ‘judge’ includes ‘sue’ also. The procedure Jesus instituted in the place of coercive institutions is found in Mat 18:15-17 with no subpoena power, no sworn testimony, no debtor’s prison, no debt-bondage, no death penalty, no flogging, no attachment of debtor property. Paul also prohibited suing those outside the Christian church (1 Cor 5:12, 6:7).

    This interpretation also makes sense of Jesus prohibition on swearing oaths: Jesus requires us to do business without advance appeal to coercive legal procedures, and to settle disputes without coercive procedures and the sworn testimony they require. The prohibition does not cover events and concerns where litigation and coercive legal procedures are not in view: for example, oaths for rhetorical effect (as Paul used in his letters) and oaths to God concerning spiritual commitments (as lifting hands indicates in 1 Tim 2:8).

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