Growing up in the 1970’s, I remember being taught that you could not call someone “fool” because you would be sent to hell. See Matthew 5:22. So this is something that I carefully avoided. Another cautionary tale was that you could not “judge or you will be judged”. The interpretation of this scripture (found in Matthew 7:1) was that I could not correct or advise other people because I would be judging them. The unfortunate fall out for me was that I thought making sound judgments, about what was right or wrong, was off limits. I became isolated and muted in group discussions where someone was trying to make a decision. I felt confident that I could choose for me, but that what you or others do “is none of my business”.
I believe that each individual is given the responsibility to choose their own thoughts, behaviors, words and actions. And I believe offering feedback to someone who is not asking for your opinion has the risk of being intrusive. However, when I have an opportunity to suggest a better course of action should I be quiet or speak up? When I am dealing with a person who is hurting me or a minor child should I just let him/ her do that without saying a word because how he is behaving is “none of my business”?
Enter one of my best teachers, Dr. Jim Wilder. Dr. Wilder is a retired, trained mental health therapist like me (his discipline is Psychology and mine is Social Work). Wilder has worked with people who have experienced severe trauma and I share that work with him. He also has a seminary degree from Fuller University. Here’s a link to biographical information about Dr. Wilder Wilder bio. His work now teaches people to live in a brain-healthy way.
Dr. Wilder’s teaching series on “Fools” has been so helpful to me. I’ve posted a link to the resource at the end of this article. The Bible compares and contrasts foolish people with wise people in many of its books: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the gospels and Ephesians to name a few. Fools are people who do things that tear down life in themselves and others. Their words and actions are destructive and not good for life, often wasting good resources that are given to them. However, fools think that the way they live is the “good life”. Wise people do things that are good for life for themselves and others. Wise people build up, encourage and speak truth to themselves and others. Wise people consider the impact of their actions on themselves, other people and the surroundings before acting.
The Matthew 5:22 instruction that calling someone a fool puts you in danger of hell was given by Jesus. In Matthew 23:17, Jesus calls the religious teachers of the law, “you blind fools”. So, why would Jesus prohibit calling someone a fool and then do it?
When you call someone a fool (“Raca” is the Greek word in Matthew 5:22), you are calling him a worthless person. Calling someone a worthless human being is insulting the dignity of a person made in God’s image. People are of great value to God, so calling them “worthless scum” is wrong. In the Matthew 23 example when Jesus called the leaders, “blind fools”, he was warning them that what they were doing was foolish and causing destruction to others. Check out what Jesus said to the teachers in Matthew 23. He lists many destructive behaviors that are deadly to emotional and spiritual health.
The difference between the two passages lies in whether you are calling someone a worthless human being or are warning the person that their actions are stealing, destroying or wasting life. The warning says, “Hey, what you are doing here is not good for life,” and calls the person to consider wise actions instead. Going back to the judgment verse: I am charged with considering options and making a wise decision. Judging another person to condemn her as beyond help and worthless goes against God’s redeeming work in the world.
Interestingly, when you venture to tell someone, “Hey, wait…what you are doing is not good for life,” the subject of, “Who is the fool in this scenario?” has been raised. So a point of judgment has arrived: who is wise and who is foolish? A wise person will stop and consider what you have to say and will correct their foolish behavior or at least stop the behavior while they consider what you said. A foolish person will tell you that you are the fool in a way to insult you and will not heed the warning. See Proverbs 9:7-10
Wise people can have some foolish moments (think King David). Foolish people can have a few wise moments (think King Saul). My challenge to you and to myself is to be on the look-out for foolish behavior in the self and in others. And for you and I to be willing to say what behaviors are destructive and which behaviors would be life-giving.
Here’s the link to the audio teaching: Munchies. Vol. 2 Fools