Insulting One’s Brother: A New Interpretation of What Jesus Meant

Scott S. Mitchell

In his Sermon on the Mount, wherein Jesus defined his own religious philosophy and distinguished it from the Law of Moses his audience was accustomed to, he spoke many religiously memorable and unprecedented words. Among them were the following, from Matthew 5 of the New Testament. I have highlighted those words in yellow which are different from the wording of the Book of Mormon version of the same sermon:

21 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

As recorded in the Book of Mormon, Jesus delivered essentially the same words, with some important differences, to the Nephites in the New World following his resurrection. The Book of Mormon counterpart of Matthew 5:21-24 is found in 3 Nephi 12. Below, I have highlighted words which differ from the New Testament version:

21 Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time –and it is also written before you — that thou shalt not kill. And whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment of God.
22 But I say unto you that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of his judgment. And whosoever shall say to this brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
23 Therefore, if ye shall come unto me or shall desire to come unto me and rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee,
24 go thy way unto thy brother and first be reconciled to thy brother and then come unto me with full purpose of heart and I will receive you.

Jesus’s Concern for Each Other’s Feelings

Before we compare the significant differences between these verses, we should perceive that either version may well subject a would-be Christian to painful introspection. The way we address people whose views we don’t like, especially in such arenas as politics where disparaging put-downs have become the norm, may require a jolting revision if we would re-adhere to Christ’s elevated behavioral standards. But that’s what Jesus desired of us — introspection and, if necessary, repentance; a broken heart and a contrite spirit. The philosophy quoted above in verses 21-24 signifies that to Jesus, “Christianity” is not a label we lightly adopt to distinguish us from other religious traditions. Instead, Christianity is meant to guide us as caring stewards over each others’ emotional wellbeing. Indeed, as Jesus delivered this famous sermon, he was revolutionizing the Jewish religion, replacing and transcending it with a higher law focused on mutual regard instead of the mere avoidance of harmful or offensive physical acts. To follow Jesus, an inner spirituality was required, not just abstention from such things as murder, adultery, stealing or perjured testimony. This spirituality would manifest itself in a genuine concern for the feelings of one’s “brother.”

What Jesus Meant by His Use of the Word “Brother”

Regarding that term “brother” found in both the biblical and Book of Mormon texts of these verses, for the purposes of this essay I will assume that what Jesus meant was the definition he gave sometime later in his ministry when he explained that “whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (See Matthew 12:46-50.). Some readers will undoubtedly prefer a broader definition of the brother that would embrace all of humankind, but I don’t believe Jesus intended his use of the term should be construed so broadly. He himself was sharply critical of many of the scribes and Pharisees, variously calling them such things as “blind guides,” “fools,” “whited sepulchers,” “serpents,” a “generation of vipers,” and, of course, “hypocrites.” (See generally Matthew 23 and Luke 11:44.) If the term “brother” as used in Matthew 5:22-44 were to mean any human being, no matter how ill-intentioned, Jesus would have been in danger of hellfire himself for calling the scribes and Pharisees who sought his destruction such derogatory names. By construing brother to mean any person who seeks to do the will of God, Jesus was effectively describing how his disciples should treat each other as brothers and sisters while still recognizing the need of strong disciples to denounce pernicious ideas or behavior when confronted with it.

To Jesus, ill treatment, or insulting words, though expected to be directed to his disciples by Christianity’s enemies, would not considered harmless when directed to fellow laborers in the Lord’s vineyard, or to church authorities attempting to promote love and kindness among the believers. Each follower of the Righteous One was to care as much about the emotional state of her fellows as she did about her own.  There was not to exist an ethos of “stick and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” among Christians. Rather, the wounded feelings of the righteous and innocent disciple were even more important than physical wounds. In fact, the worst pains Jesus himself would suffer on the cross wouldn’t come from physical pain.  That which caused the Son of God to cry out in anguish shortly before he gave up the ghost, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (“My god, My god, why hast thou forsaken me?”) was not from nails and tearing flesh, but from the emotional isolation he felt when his Father in Heaven withdrew his succor near the end of the crucifixion in order that His Beloved Son might be able to eventually say that he had “trodden the winepress alone.”

New Insights from the Book of Mormon on How Verse 22 Should be Understood

In reading the Book of Mormon, we discover a new insight into how the above-quoted Verse 22 should be understood that isn’t found in the New Testament’s wording of Jesus’s sermon.  The Book of Mormon’s Verse 22 states not that being angry with one’s brother will place the angry one in danger of the judgement, but his judgement.  It may be argued that the word his here refers to God’s judgement, but, for the reasons provided below, I believe the more likely interpretation is that the offender will be in danger of the brother’s judgement.  And this judgement isn’t nothing.  As explained above, he brother whose judgement we’re in danger of incurring is by Jesus’s definition a righteous man (and the sister whose judgment we’d be in danger of incurring would, by Jesus’s same definition in Matt. 12:46-50 be a righteous woman), someone Jesus says is doing he will of his Father who is in heaven.  To be judged guilty or in the wrong by such a person would, by definition, be righteous judgement.  Therefore, the remedy sought by such a person, even if it were mild as a mere private verbal scolding, would at least afflict the offender with a painful guilty conscience akin to what we’d feel if the Lord himself upbraided us.  And if our wrongful anger were especially opprobrious, a brother’s or sister’s judgement might require an even more painful restoration of goodwill, possibly involving other people who were negatively affected by the unjust treatment of a fellow disciple.

Jesus then addresses, in Verse 22 of both canons, what will rightfully occur should the offender call a brother Raca, a demeaning and insulting term understood, apparently, in he Jews’ spoken Aramaic language, as well as in Greek and the Nephite version of Hebrew.  Presumably, insults roughly equivalent to this particular word would also occasion the same response.  Such an epithet directed at one of God’s followers was serious enough to summon the offender to appear before a church council whose range of remedies or punishments could presumably include such possibilities as suspension of the offender’s right to partake of the sacramental bread and wine, or to act as a teacher, priest or elder.  He might be required to publicly apologize before the entire congregation, or if he refused, face suspension or termination of church membership.  In Jesus’s early church, such remedies were common.  In fact, Moroni described both the meetings and administration of Christ’s church in Moroni Chapter 6 of the Book of Mormon:

6 And they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus.
7 And they were strict to observe that there should be no iniquity among them; and whoso was found to commit iniquity, and three witnesses of he church did condemn them before the elders, and if they repented not, and confessed not, their names were blotted out, and they were not numbered among the people of Christ.
8 But as oft as they repented and sought forgiveness, with real intent, they were forgiven.

The Most Serious Level of Judgment Visited Upon the Insulter

The third and most serious level of judgment visited upon the offending insulter is that which implicates one’s standing with God.  We surmise from what Jesus says in the final words of verse 22 that to call someone a fool to their face constitutes a more serious and hurtful disparagement than the term Raca.  Because the insult inflicts the greater emotional wound, the offender, if she doesn’t repent, is in danger of a judgment more potentially eternal and painful than that which an individual or a local church council could administer.  This judgment, “hell fire,”  suggests the kind only God would  have the power to impose. 

I should clarify here that I don’t purport to know precisely what Jesus considers hell fire.  My perception is that it is a tormented state of mind wherein the offender realizes he has offended God and is, for the time being, unable to find relief from the searing emotional pain of a guilty conscience.  It is not necessarily permanent, but while it lasts, it may be described, as Alma the younger described his own three days of hellish remorse, as “eternal.”  Alma had been rebuked by an angel of God, for trying to destroy the faith of church members, and described the effect on him of that rebuke with some of the same words Jesus later used in his sermon:  “. . .I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.  Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell. . .” 

It should also be noted that Jesus doesn’t guarantee that such excruciating torment as Alma described will result from a mere one-word insult leveled at one of his disciples.  But such an offense, if ongoing and not repented of, will place the offender in danger of that result.    

Therefore, Jesus appears to outline a three-part hierarchy of judgments that can await a person who hurts the feelings of his righteous disciples with their undue anger or verbal assaults.  The first judgment comes from the victim of the wrongdoing, the second from a local council of religious leaders, and the third comes from the ultimate authority, God. Because Jesus employs what appear to be increasingly serious exposure to judgments or punishments as the seriousness of the offense increases, I infer that the word the word “his” in the Book of Mormon’s version of verse 22, refers to the victim of the misplaced anger, and not to God.  Otherwise, the pattern of progressively serious judgments in the verse would be lost.

Conclusion

As we communicate with each other in person or through internet platforms, the importance of adopting Jesus’ own high standards for discourse cannot be overemphasized. Whether we’re discussing politics or sports, or expressing undue anger over some disappointing outcome, we must remember that our actions or words can be as injurious as physical crimes, and indeed, more so.  Evil must be opposed, and sometimes done vociferously.  But emotionally harming a well intentioned person who is trying to follow the path of righteousness cannot be excused merely because the belligerent one considers his or her actions or words less serious than physical crimes.  That’s why Jesus juxtaposed his “Raca” teachings with the commandment the Jews and Nephites considered the most serious of all — the injunction to not kill — and enlarged upon it.  Simply put, we should think twice before we call someone a moron, idiot, racist, misogynist, deplorable, fool or insane person, not to mention the many more vulgar terms that have proliferated in our culture.  Paying tithes, attending church or the temple, holding down a church calling, being married in the temple and abstaining from unhealthful substances are not what our religion, at its core, is all about.  Those things don’t absolve us of meanness to those we disagree with.  Doing good to each other emotionally and spiritually is where Jesus placed the emphasis in his most famous and groundbreaking sermon, and we should do likewise.

 

 

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