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Sunday, 19 July 2009

Sunday Study: Christ on The Prohibition on Homicide Part II

This post is the second in my series on Christ’s exposition of the 6th Commandment, the prohibition on homicide, contained in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 21-26. In Sunday Study: Christ on The Prohibition on Homicide Part I, I looked at what The Torah taught about homicide, in this post I will look at Christ’s authoritative interpretation of this teaching.

But I say to you
After presenting the formalistic interpretation of “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,” Jesus responds with,

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca, ' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Jesus’ interpretation here goes well beyond merely making the claim that murder is wrong and should be condemned. He suggests that angrily lashing out at people and insulting them with the terms “raca” and “fool” is subject to the judgment of gehenna. To see what Jesus is getting at, it is necessary to unpack some of these terms.

The word raca, in Aramaic, means “empty head;” to call a person raca was to contend that they were intellectually deficient. The word translated fool moros has a different connotation, to an inhabitant of Palestine it would call to mind the Hebrew concept of a fool painted graphically Psalm 14,

The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one. Do all the workers of wickedness not know, Who eat up my people as they eat bread, And do not call upon the LORD?

A fool here is not someone who is imprudent but someone who is positively wicked. The text speaks of those who commit “abominable deeds;” the idea is that such a person is morally corrupt, someone who rejects doing good, someone who is committed to evil.

The word gehenna, is a Greek word that refers to “the Valley of Hinnom,” it is usually translated “hell” in modern English. The word “hell” has all sorts of connotations due to centuries of popular imagery and cultural myth; however in Jesus’ time, the imagery was drawn from a known geographical location, the Valley of Hinnom. This place is mentioned in 2 Chronicles as a site where Ahaz and later Manasseh, sacrificed their children to Molech by burning them. The prophet Jeremiah noted that the valley was, in his day, a tophet, a place of mass infant sacrifice where people killed and burnt their children in devotion to Molech, contrary to the commands of God. Jeremiah also predicted a kind of ironic prophetic judgment, after Israel’s military defeat, the valley would no longer be used for sacrifice but instead become a place where Israel would pile their dead until there was no more room.[1] The book of Kings tells us the valley was “desecrated” during the reign of Josiah “so no one could use it to sacrifice his son or daughter in the fire to Molech.”[2] The imagery then, is of a place of great unspeakable shame, desecration, a dumping ground for dead bodies and a place where human beings are destroyed.

When these things are put together, Christ’s words in this passage are fairly evident. The Torah does more than demand that murderers be brought to justice, it requires that people refrain from slandering the character and intellectual integrity of others out of anger and hatred. Just as The Torah required that murderers be executed and conventional legal practice allows legal suits to be brought against those who defame, so too those who treat others with contempt will ultimately be treated with similar contempt by God.

Finally we turn to Christ’s two applications of this interpretation; he states,

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. "Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, …”

While these are applications to a cultural situation different to our own, I do not think it is difficult to ascertain the point being made. Christ suggests that if the kind of verbal abuse that comes from seething hatred is condemned by God then merely refraining from killing those we have grudges against enemies is not enough. We need to try to settle our disputes with others and avoid the kinds of conflicts, grudges and animosity that goes with them. Paul repeats the point in his epistle to the Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:17-18)

In Christ’s reference to “leaving a gift at the altar,” the point is made vividly that settling grudges and living in peace with others should be a higher priority than worship. Here Christ picks up a theme articulated vividly by Isaiah,

"The multitude of your sacrifices-- what are they to me?" says the LORD. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations-- I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong,

God calls us to obey his commands. Without this obedience, worship, attending church, partaking in the music, and so on are hollow, meaningless and shallow things. These commands require, not just that we refrain from bloodshed but that we treat our fellow people with respect; that we avoid holding grudges and feuding and as far as is possible we should live in peace with each other. If we do that, the issue of murder should not come up.

[1] Jeremiah 7:30-34
[2] 2 Kings 23:10

Sunday Study: Christ on The Prohibition on Homicide Part I


  1. It has been said that Jesus changed the rules here though, as you suggest, one could argue that Jesus is explaining the meanig of the Law in more detail; ie. you apply the 6th commandment to murder but the point goes deeper, right to the heart. Hating people in your heart still breaks the commandment.

    I don't think that all sins are the same, or that calling someone a fool is as bad as murdering them. But I think both break the commandment and both put one in spiritual danger.

    I am not certain what I think of vv 25–26. Until recently I applied them to human disputes. But the context in Luke 12, and the position of it at the end of the discussion on hate (compare vv 29–30) makes me wonder if the accuser is Jesus/ God (ie against those who refuse to deal with their hatred of others).

  2. How does this fit in with your pro-death penalty stance.  Let the clever justification begin:

  3. At law, homicide is defined as the killing of one human being by another human being. The state is not a human being. Therefore there is no inconsistency with my stance.

    I find this question no more perplexing than being opposed to theft but supporting state sanctioned fines or opposing kidnapping but supporting legal incarceration. I find it odd that people can make these distinctions on all manner of topics but the death penalty.

    I'll leave the theological response to Matt.

  4. "The State" to my knowledge has never killed a single person.  I suspect that the one delivering the bullet into the brain or pulling the electric swirch or injecting poison into a living vien is a HUMAN!  Don't try and hide from reality by inventing a State sized Sabbath Goy to do your killing for you.

    I can't see how a follower of Jesus Christ can support killing.  Do you not believe in the possibility of redeption.  St Paul was a murderer - and yet look at the turn around in his life!  It is the "it is too late"/"there is no hope for this person" attitude which I find so perplexing.

    And THAT is how it differs from a fine or incarceration.  With execution there is no room left for redemption and healing - with a fine there is!  If you can't see this difference it makes me very sad.  People can justify all sorts of hatred with bad theology I guess.

  5. It is true that the state acts by using individuals, but the idea that the person who pulls the lever is morally culpable of murder is like saying that my tax-return is because of the generousity of the specific IRD worker who deposited it in my account.

    So if there is culpability for the death penalty, it is those in the position who make the rules and enforce the law.

    However the claim that execution doesn't allow for redemption is not self evident. It is possible that redemption is more likely when you are facing death in the next few months than facing a long life in prison.

  6. Bethyada:  Nuremburg defense.  Nuff said.

  7. Max, who was more culpable for Uriah's death? Joab or David?

    The issues are separate. The person who orders the death bears the bulk of the blame. Those that carry out the orders carry some blame if the order was clearly immoral and the executioner had reason to know that.

    You have yet to establish that capital punishment is always immoral.

  8. Knowing that capital punishment is wrong is not something I can demonstrate to you using logic and arguments.  Itis something which must be grassped in some other way.  Call it wisddom if you like.  I suggest you pray for an answer... I can't "proove" it to you.


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