Most Bible students are aware of a seeming contradiction in the Bible, one that is pretty easily resolved. The verses (ESV) are Proverbs 26:4-5,
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Since they are placed one after another, it is pretty obvious that they are to be examined together. This leads us to two conclusions: sometimes answering a fool is a no-win situation, it really doesn’t matter which approach you take. And, sometimes, one approach might serve you better than the other — but neither approach is really good (even if one might be the lesser of evils).
There is another apparent contradiction we must address that is a bit more formidable, however. It is about using the word “fool.”
The word “fool” is used frequently in the Book of Proverbs (71), 136 times in the Old Testament and 39 in the New (these statistics refer to the ESV translation). This creates no problem until we come across a passage that seems to condemn us for using the “fool” label.
Matthew 5:21-22 is that passage. The Holman Christian Standard translates this best:
You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, “Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Fool!” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, “You moron!” will be subject to hellfire.
The word “Raca” in the KJV is translated here as “fool,” and the Greek word moros is translated here very literally as “moron.” These two terms are synonyms, neither of which is a compliment!
So how can the rest of Scripture use the term “fool” so freely, without inhibition, in light of Jesus’ statement? Was it okay to call people fools in Old Testament times, and not in New Testament times? No, if that were the case, we would not see examples of New Testament godly people (even Jesus Himself in Matthew 23:17) calling others fools or foolish. The solution, I believe, is context.
First, we must remember that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (of which this is a portion) very likely lasted over two hours (based upon rabbinic practice at the time). We only have about eleven minutes. It is important to always remember, “we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Second, much of that sermon was an elaboration (midrash) on portions of the Torah. It is obvious that such is the case here.
Third, Jesus is teaching in a rabbinic style (only He taught with more authority, cf. Matt. 7:29). One common rabbinic approach included listing specific ways to apply a Torah command — not only in its literal demands, but also applying the principle behind the command. The Talmud (a collection of ancient rabbinic writings) is filled with such particulars.
Jesus, in this context, is taking the command against murder and showing how the hatred behind murder (the principle of the command) can manifest itself in other ways. Even though rabbinic courts could not pass verdicts upon these invisible, internal attitudes — God could and would. Thus to be in danger of “hell” means to be judged by the One who controls our destiny — not merely a human judge (which is preferable if we are in the wrong!).
But what does it mean to call your brother “a fool?”
First, the term “brother” may refer to a fellow Jew, a fellow Jew who identifies with Jesus, or any believer in Jesus. The last choice seems most likely to me.
What about using the derogatory name (“fool”) itself?
Don Carlington draws the follow conclusion about what it means to “call your brother a fool:”
Matt 5:22 is not a prohibition of generic name calling, using common terms of abuse. It is, rather, a pointed and specific warning that one Christian believer must not consign another believer to perdition by labeling him/her a “fool” (“unbeliever,” “apostate,” “heretic,” etc.), that is, one who is excluded from the eschatological kingdom of God. To do so is to expose oneself to divine wrath in the day of judgment. (Bulletin for Biblical Research)
Others hold a similar position. This view suggests that such attempts to label a brother as unsaved out of hatred or resentment — and then attacking him with your view that he is unsaved — is what Jesus is referring to.
I don’t agree with that perspective and think the simpler solution is the better solution.
Jesus is not saying we should never label someone a fool. And I don’t think He is necessarily limiting the meaning of the word “fool” to only “spiritually foolish.”
The context of the verse is about murder, the motivation of it being hatred and uncontrolled anger. So Jesus is talking about hatefully and angrily calling a fellow believer a fool — a moron.
This is very different from objectively considering a person to be a fool. Of course we all act foolishly at times; a fool is a person that acts foolishly as a habit and is neither teachable nor correctible.
The apostle John is perhaps referring this very part of the Sermon on the Mount when he writes in 1 John 3:15, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
It is the hatred behind using the word “fool” in anger that makes it so very wrong, perhaps indicating an unregenerate heart, perhaps suggesting a problem with the same kind of hatred known to provoke murder.
So should we call someone a fool or not? Here is my best advice.
We should avoid calling anyone any derogatory name in anger. It is especially bad to call a brother a fool in anger and hatred, but this does not imply that such behavior is appropriate for dealing with the lost.
We are free to label certain people as fools in our minds if the evidence is compelling and over the top, based upon the description of fools in the Book of Proverbs. If such were not the case, how could we avail ourselves of the many proverbs that help us understand fools?
We should err on the side of grace and genuine humility, remembering that wisdom and foolishness are part of a spectrum. None of us is always wise; none of us is always foolish. We all play the part of the fool on more than one occasion. Remember, making a foolish choice does not make one a fool. Not learning from the poor choices we make, however, does single out an individual as a fool (Proverbs 26:11).
I sometimes say, “That person does not have the gift of wisdom” — a gentler way to suggest that they have a track of record of foolish decisions.
We are to judge fairly (John 7:24, Matthew 7:1-5), not with a critical spirit, and we are not to use a double standard. But we are to make judgment calls (1 Corinthians 2:14). The ability to discern a wise person from a fool is one of them.
We may sometimes need to warn others who will be harmed by trusting a fool. In some instances, referring to someone as a “fool” (or the less judgmental sounding term, “foolish”) is not only appropriate, but the loving and right thing to do.
I believe Jesus permits us to use the word “fool,” but not in anger or hatred or with a bitter spirit. Nonetheless, we should be thrifty about verbally applying it to others.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.