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A Higher Court

by Tim O'Hearn

I have been called to jury service three times, in two different jurisdictions. At municipal court I was selected for a trial that ended up being dismissed because the plaintiff contradicted her own statements during cross-examination. The next time I was called for jury duty at municipal court I was never even selected for a jury. In federal court I was in the jury pool for a very high profile case that ended up taking several weeks to decide. I was not selected as a juror because of my military service. They said that there would be military officers testifying for one side, and asked if I could impartially weigh their testimony. When I said that over twenty years of obeying officers would prevent that, I was rejected as a juror. In the United States there are also appellate courts and the Supreme Court, which have no juries. The Jewish court system also consisted of several levels and jurisdictions.

Originally, Moses served as the only judicial court, which meant he had no time to do anything else but hear cases. His father-in-law had to point out that this was not a good situation. He made a suggestion.

Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulersAnger, in itself, is not a criminal matter. Anger without cause may be. of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee. (Ex 18:21-22)

Thus began the system of judges. Occasionally one judge would gain prominence and lead the people in their fight against invaders. Some of these are told about in the book that bears the name Judges. Generally, though, the judges of lower courts continued on their way without much notice.

Over time this system evolved into a system whereby several men would judge together over various levels. Today, since there is no Temple, the ultimate authority resides in a beit din, consisting of three judges (which may include women) on the community level. At least one of these must be well-versed in halakah, Jewish law. In earlier days the Sanhedrin, consisting of 71 men, served as the high court. There was a lower court of 23 men, the Sanhedrin ketana, in the larger cities, and under them courts of 23 (or seven according to some authorities) in each city over a certain size (120 or 230 in population). Each smaller town could have a court of three, which developed into the beit din of today. The courts of three could not pass any verdict binding beyond the specific case.

It is in this context that Jesus makes a statement in the Sermon on the Mount that has baffled some people. It may become more clear when they understand the levels of the court, and the manner of punishment.

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: 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, RacaRaca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. (Matt 5:21-26)

The basic premise is that the arbiters of the law claimed that anyone who murdered another was in danger of judgement. Because murder is a capital crime, this judgement would be administered by the Sanhedrin ketana. Only the Sanhedrin ketana or above could sentence a person to death. In response to this premise, Jesus says that the law goes far beyond this simple capital case.

Angry

Anger, in itself, is not a criminal matter. Everyone gets angry. Sometimes the anger is great; sometimes it is trivial. Sometimes the provoking cause is significant; sometimes it is minor. Paul acknowledged that anger was an emotion, and emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are. “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil.” (Eph 4:26-27) It is generally not the anger that is the sin, but what we do as a result of that anger.

The anger that Jesus addresses in this passage, however, may be a sin, or at least a crime. This is being angry “without a cause.” The Greek word for that phrase is generally translated “in vain.” Anger in response to a stimulus is natural and expected. Anger without provocation, however, is indicative of a deeper problem. As with the other things Jesus addresses in this section (lust, oaths, vengeance, and hatred), the anger of which he speaks manifests itself in action. A court can take no action on what a man is thinking; it can punish what a man does.

Anyone who is angry with a brother without cause, and therefore has harmed his neighbor unexpectedly, is subject to the same court as a murderer. This would be the Sanhedrin ketana that can enforce any penalty up to the death penalty. Murder, as opposed to manslaughter, is the ultimate expression of causeless anger. But the same motivation to murder may result in lesser offences, each of which may be tried at the same level of the courts.

Raca

Most versions of the Bible do not translate all of the next phrase. They retain the Hebrew word, Reykah or Raca. This word is generally understood to mean “empty-head.” Thus Young’s Literal Translation reads, “Whoever may say to his brother, empty fellow.” Some versions say “insults his brother.” The New American Standard Bible says “good-for-nothing.” Holman uses the word “fool” here, and “rebel” in the next phrase. Perhaps the modern equivalent is, “He’s so retarded.” (I personally object to that phrase as the parent of a truly mentally retarded person; as they say in the movie The Giver, “precision of language!”)

Perhaps Jesus is accusing a person of slander. That would mean the person would be calling another empty-headed falsely. Perhaps the veracity, or lack thereof, of the statement is irrelevant. Whether slander or merely publicly calling attention to another’s failings, this accused is subject to trial by the full Sanhedrin, the high court of 71 men in Jerusalem. It is a more serious crime than baseless anger, or even murder.

Why is the use of this word worse than murder or baseless anger? This may be speculation, but perhaps it is because casting doubt about one’s mental state may do more damage. Once a murder occurs, no more direct damage may be done to the victim. That is not to say that the damage done is excusable, or any less serious. It is merely more final. Furthermore, if someone acts on causeless anger, the victim is not abused by society; the perpetrator may be. In most cases, people understand that it was not the victim’s fault. It was the fault of the person who acted without provocation. But in the case of slander, or in the case of bringing undue attention to the failings of another, the victim continually has to live with people believing that what was said is true. Calling someone an idiot (to use the New Living Translation wording) plants a seed in the minds of other people that this just might be so. Especially if it is false, the one who makes such statements is liable to a court. One of the elements of the legal definition of slander is that the untruth will harm the reputation of the victim.

Because of the ongoing nature of the damage to the victim, this crime goes before a higher court. Rather than a small Sanhedrin, this crime is subject to judgement by the full supreme court.

Fool

This third part of the passage is perhaps the most debated. The one who calls another a fool (or a rebel, or, literally, a moron) is subject to the fires of gehenna. There are two things to consider here.

First, what is the crime? It is calling another a moron. Calling one simply empty-minded does not imply a permanent mental capacity. That which is presently empty may be at some future date filled. Calling one a moron, however, is saying that the person will never have the mental capacity of an adult. The raca has hope; the moros has none. This distinction is even made in the Proverbs. The writers make a differencePerhaps the modern equivalent of “Raca” is, “He’s so retarded.” between the “simple” man and the “fool.” The simple man is merely unlearned; the fool is incapable of learning. In that context, he may have the mental capacity but refuses to exercise it. In this context, the accusation may be that he is mentally “retarded.” The one using the word is making a snap judgement without evidence. He is therefore subject to an even higher standard.

The second question is the meaning of “hell fire” or the “fires of gehenna.” If it is what we generally refer to as hell, then the court this person is liable to is God himself. If it is literally being sentenced to burn in the Jerusalem city dump, the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, then it is saying this person is subject to being burned like the children who were sacrifices to “Molech,” the king of demons. Rather than receiving a normal burial, he is to be exposed to the animals and the elements. This was an extreme punishment. Many societies bury their dead. In almost every one of those, to be denied burial is the worst insult one can receive after death.

Either way, Jesus is saying that calling a person “a retard” in the modern slang, is serious business. There were three or four levels of court in Jewish society. This person is liable to an even higher court: God.

Different courts, indeed. But what Jesus is bringing home is that our words do more damage sometimes than murder. We must be careful what we say, because sometimes it may take us before what Oscar Hammerstein II called “the highest judge of all.”