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.)
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?