When reading Matthew 5:21–26, the first of six illustrations from Jesus on how to read and apply the Law of Moses, there are a number of interpretive factors to consider. In fact, we need to consider the meaning of the “anger,” the relationship of the Law-covenant to the Jesus’s fulfillment, and the way Jesus employs imagery from the first recorded murder.
In these three quotations from Charles Quarles, Jonathan Pennington, and Dale Allison we get a grasp on how the lexical, epochal, and canonical contexts should contribute to our understanding Jesus’s teaching.
The Lexical Context
In his Sermon on the Mount, Charles Quarles shows the difference between the words Orge and Thumos.
Ancient writers distinguished the term “wrath” (orgē, the noun form related to the verb orgizō) from another similar term for anger (thumos). Origen said, “Thumos differs from orgē in that thumos is anger rising in vapor and burning up, while orgē is a yearning for revenge.” Jerome said, “Thumos is incipient anger and displeasure fermenting in the mind; orgē however, when thumos has subsided, is that which longs for revenge and desires to injure the one thought to have caused harm.” The Stoic Diogenes Laertius defined orgē as “a desire for revenge on the person who seems to have caused injury wrongfully.” Gregory Nazianzus wrote that “thumos is the sudden boiling of the mind, orgē is enduring thumos.” Theodoret argued that when thumos and orgē occur together, “Through thumos is revealed suddeness, and through orgē continuation.” Dio Cassius described the explosive temper of Emperor Tiberius by saying, “He became violent (orgizetō) at what barely aroused his anger (ethumoutō).”
Several of the writers quoted above suggested that the term used by Christ implies enduring anger as well as destructive rage. Even if this were not insinuated by the definition of the verb, it is certainly implied by the grammatical form. The present participle is progressive in nature. It describes an abiding, continuing, or habitual anger that characterizes a person. This is confirmed in verse 25 in which Jesus said that His disciples are to agree with adversaries quickly, without delay, not harboring their anger but seeking to resolve it at first opportunity. (109)
The Covenantal Context
In his The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, Jonathan Pennington rightly corrects asserts the continuity and escalation of Jesus application of Moses’ Law.
A common misinterpretation of Matthew 5:21–48 is that Jesus is somehow deepening or expanding the commandments here. These verses are often treated as if there is discontinuity here, as if Jesus is upping the ante on God’s righteous standards. In a Rehoboam-like way [see 1 Kings 12:14] Jesus is saying, “You think murdering was bad, now God is getting even more hardcore! You better not even hate something else!”
Just a bit of reflection reveals that this is not what Jesus is arguing. Never in the Mosaic covenant (or at any other time) did God ignore or disregard the ethical state or inner disposition of the person. The point of the Ten Commandments was never “just do these things outwardly and don’t worry about your hearts.” Quite the opposite. The message of the prophets is largely one of calling God’s people to pursue righteousness and to do it from pure, whole hearts.*? Sometimes God’s people are called to repentance and turning away from outward physical acts—sins of omission and commission—but the issue of the heart or inner person is always present even there. Any repentance that happens must be more than merely external behavioral change, or else it is not true repentance. And many times the prophets do not reprove the people for external acts but for going through the motions with a heart that is not aligned with God.” In short, God has always seen and cared about the posture of the heart. Repentance can include nothing less. (184)
The Canonical Context
In his Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination, Dale Allison highlights the way Jesus makes an intrabiblical allusion to Genesis 4 and Cain’s brotherly hatred.
Our passage in all likelihood alludes to the story of Cain (which is also alluded to in Matt. 18:22 and mentioned in 23:35). To readers steeped in Jewish tradition, the mention of murder in conjunction with hating one’s brother could readily have called to mind Genesis 4, particularly as the enmity between Cain and Abel grew out of God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrificial gift, and the offering of a gift is the situation described in 5:23-24. Certainly it was traditional to use the story of Genesis 4 to illustrate how anger can lead to murder. Wisd. 10:3 tells the story of Cain this way: “But when an unrighteous man departed trom her [Wisdom] in anger, he perished because in rage he slew his brother.” 1 John 3:15, after referring to Cain, “who was from the evil one and murdered his brother,” goes on to say that “all who hate a brother or sister are murderers.” Cyprian offered these comments on our passage: “One who comes to the Sacrifice with a quarrel he [Jesus] calls back from the altar and commands him first to be reconciled with his brother and then, when he is at peace, to return and offer his gift to God. For neither had God respect for Cain’s offering, for he could not have God at peace with him, who through envy and discord was not at peace with his brother” (The Unity of the Church 13). (62–63)
Soli Deo Gloria, ds