Difficult Bible Passages – liable to judgment: Mt 5:20-22

This post is the first in a series: Roman Catholic commentary on difficult Bible passages, based on my translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate (the Catholic Public Domain Version or CPDV).

[Matthew]
{5:20} For I say to you, that unless your justice has surpassed that of the scribes and the Pharisees you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees of today are those who follow the rules of religion, but lack the love of God and neighbor in their hearts. The Pharisees of today are outwardly Catholic or Christian or believer. But inwardly they are full of unrepentant grave sins. The scribes of today are those Catholics and Christians and other believers who write many words about religion, but do not live according to true faith in God. There are many Catholics online who write copiously about religion, and yet they harm many souls. The more they write, the more they are liable to the judgment and punishment of God.

Jesus plainly states that those who are like the scribes and Pharisees of His day “shall not enter the kingdom of heaven”. It could not be clearer that not everyone goes to Heaven. It could not be clearer that not everyone who talks religions, writes religions, or follows the rules and exterior practices of religion will go to Heaven. And the only other final destination is Hell.

{5:21} You have heard that it was said to the ancients: ‘You shall not murder; whoever will have murdered shall be liable to judgment.’

The ancients understood faith and morals to a limited extent. They understood the commandment not to commit murder. They understood that whoever murders is judged by God. I might also have translated this verse with “kill” rather than “murder”. The commandment is “you shall not murder” because some types of killing are justified (e.g. in self-defense). Our Lord says “liable to judgment” meaning that there will be a determination, in the particular judgment after death, as to whether any act of killing was murder or not.

{5:22} But I say to you, that anyone who becomes angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. But whoever will have called his brother, ‘Idiot,’ shall be liable to the council. Then, whoever will have called him, ‘Worthless,’ shall be liable to the fires of Hell.

This next verse is often misunderstood. I have translated the word “Raca” (Aramaic) as “Idiot”. As I understand it, the term Raca is derived from a word meaning “empty”, and it has the meaning of “empty headed”. It is similar to the English terms “stupid” or “idiot”. It is a criticism of the person, in part, specifically the intellect. Then the next insult, “fatue” [fool] in the Latin, has more of the meaning “worthless” in the Greek (and in this context). So the first insult is against the person in part, and the second is against the person in whole. Thus, the second insult is worse than the first.

And this fits the context of the whole passage. There is a progression from lesser to greater faults. Being angry with your brother is more limited that openly insulting him in part. Then worse still is the rejection of the whole person, as if he were entirely worthless. The punishments increase in gravity with the offense: liable to judgment, then to “the council”, finally to the fires of Hell.

The first type of judgment is by one’s conscience and before God. The interior act of being angry with your brother is subject to the interior forum of conscience, enlightened by the grace of God. The “council” in Jesus’ day would mean the leaders of the Jewish religion. But the meaning for today is that the believer is subject to the judgment and authority of the Church. Then the fires of Hell refers to the judgment of God against those who die unrepentant from actual mortal sin.

Does this teaching of Jesus mean, then, that being angry with your brother is always a sin, or that openly criticizing your brother, to a lesser or greater degree, is always a sin? No, it does not. For Jesus became angry at the sinners in the Temple, both those who were buying and those who were selling. And openly criticizing people, to one degree or another, is also something that Jesus did.

What many interpreters of this passage fail to understand is that these choices (anger, criticism) make the individual “liable to judgment”. But the judgment may be that the anger was justified. The judgment may be that the criticism and its degree of harshness was a fitting expression of truth. Jesus is teaching us that anger and criticism of others is to be entered into with caution. But He is not rejecting just anger, nor apt criticism.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

The Catechism of Catholic Ethics
available in print (paperback, 752 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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