Today, the Fourth Sunday before Lent, we continued reading the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel in church. The chunk of gospel appointed for today was Matthew 5.21-37, a fairly hefty chunk of moral instruction covering murder, anger, name calling, adultery, divorce, oaths and promises. I didn’t preach a very good sermon, getting far too bogged down in a process-like interpretation of collective responsibility for ethics and the liberation of understanding that sin is a normal part of ‘fallen’ human existence, albeit non-essential (for Christ was without sin).
Apart from my missing the mark, I noticed that the original Greek text of Matthew 5.22 includes the non-Greek word raca (ρακα, raka, or ραχα, racha). This is one of the handful of Aramaic words and phrases that litter the New Testament, and the gospels in particular, where the Greek text merely transliterates the Aramaic in to Greek letters as best it can (fitting Aramaic into Greek letters is an awkward fit at the best of times). When we translate the Bible into English we then have a choice of leaving the translated Aramaic in, as we do for Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, or translating it into English too. Where there is a Greek gloss with the phrase, as there is for Eloi, Eloi, it doesn’t matter that we’ve left this foreign language there: it comes with a translation. However, for the word raca in Matthew 5.22, we are given no translation help. Some translators leave it in, some ‘translate’ it to English.
We read the text from the New Revised Standard Version, which renders the whole in English. For comparison, here is the Greek, the King James and the NRSV
ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει· ὃς δ’ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ· ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ· ὃς δ’ ἂν εἴπῃ· μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός.
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.
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
I understand that the sudden, unexplained occurrence of raca in the King James text is a little off-putting to anyone who doesn’t know what a raca is, so the NRSV replacement with the verb ‘insult’ actually makes for a better text for public reading.
But what does raca actually mean? Perhaps this could be chapter one of my hypothetically forthcoming How to Swear in Aramaic: and 101 Other Ways to Scare the Camels! The consensus seems to be that the Aramaic word is actually rēqā (ריקא or ܪܝܩܐ). The meaning is often given as ’empty headed’, ‘worthless’ or ‘vain’, but that doesn’t sound colourful enough to be a proper swearword that you wouldn’t want to translate into Greek (or English). The root of the word rēqā is rāq, which means ‘to spit’, and it’s fairly clear that calling someone raca or rēqā is to call them ‘a little piece of spit’. Now, that’s fighting talk!
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is taking serious offences under the Hebrew Law and their punishments, and then holding up things considered mild, normal, acceptable behaviour and saying that that punishment would be greater. Diagrammatically
- murder → judgment (human, implied)
- anger → judgment (divine, implied)
- calling someone a piece of spit → get them before the elders
- calling someone a moron, a fool → Gehenna, hell, fire
In the same way that those who make great show of fasting, praying and charity have their reward on earth (and not in heaven), those who make great show of their sinfulness, through murder or using a taboo four-letter word, get their comeuppance here and now, but those of us who get away with lives full of anger and putting down others — in ways that seem oh-so mild — will have to account for our sins eventually. In a nutshell, we obsess about big sins, but we should look to root out those little evils that lurk in our hearts: the frustrations that cripple our lives and the badmouthing that destroys our relationships with others. And one other thing: perhaps, given this perspective, we are more forgiving then of the struggle to be good in the lives of others.