Does God Permit a Person to Call Someone a Fool?
The inspired writers of the Bible have given many unwise sinners the title “fool.” David wrote: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (Psalm 14:1; cf. 53:1; 92:6). Ecclesiastes 5:13 reads: “[A] fool’s voice is known by many words.” Psalm 49:10 reveals that “[T]he fool and the senseless person perish, and leave their wealth to others.” Solomon wrote that a “prating fool” would fall (Proverbs 10:10). In Christ’s parable of the rich fool, God said: “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20). In apparent contrast with these passages is Christ’s warning concerning calling another a fool:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.” But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Raca!” [a Syriac word indicating great contempt, meaning “empty head” or “one who acts as a numskull” see Barnes, 1972, p. 52; Lenski, 1943, p. 219—CC] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, “You fool!” shall be in danger of hell fire (Matthew 5:21-22).
In the Old Testament, “fool” carried a more serious connotation than that of “raca” (see Deuteronomy 22:21; Joshua 7:15; Psalm 14:1)—it denoted someone who had committed a great crime or sin—more than just an empty-headed person. Bert Thompson commented:
In biblical usage, the term “fool” generally does not indicate a person of diminished intelligence.... Instead, the term carries both a moral and religious judgment.... This is why the psalmist (again, writing by inspiration) said that “the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” (14:1). If “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10), then, conversely, foolishness finds its origin in the rejection of God. Isaiah referred to a man as a fool whose “mind plots iniquity to practice ungodliness” and whose attitude of practical atheism causes him to “utter error concerning the Lord” (Isaiah 32:5, RSV) [2000, pp. 65-66, parenthetical items in orig.].
How, then, does Christ’s statement of Matthew 5:21-22 fit? First, consider that the word Jesus used, which is translated as “fool” in English, might not have been a variation of moros, the word that Christ used in description of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:16-17; cf. 23:18-19), the man who built his house on the sand (Matthew 7:26), and the five unwise virgins (Matthew 25:1-2). In all likelihood, Christ used a word that represents moreh, a Hebrew term denoting rebellion against God (Numbers 20:10; see Lyons, 2003). John helps us see what Jesus had in mind: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15; “brother,” in these passages, denotes not only a relative, but any other person—see Barnes, p. 52; cf. Hebrews 11:16). In other words, Jesus does not want anyone to purpose in his heart to murder, even if he is not able to carry out the act itself. God considers improper anger (“without a cause” [verse 22], as opposed to anger because of sin) a punishable sin, just as he considers murder a transgression of His will.
Christ seems to have used a form of satire to convey to His listeners how dangerous unbridled anger is; obviously, the Sanhedrin (the high Jewish “council”) would not hear cases concerning merely the usage of the word “raca.” The Pharisees had forgotten, in many cases, that the condition of one’s heart is important, as are one’s actions. We must read the warning against calling another a fool in the context with the other three warnings and their accompanying consequences. Here Christ prohibits unjust anger and all the sinful actions it might cause one to take (cf. Proverbs 19:11; 20:2; 22:8; 27:4, etc.). Christ emphasized that when one uses any criticisms of such a grave nature—whether or not the fit of anger, of which the injurious statements are a part, leads to murder—he puts his soul in jeopardy (see Coffman, 1984, p. 63). Whether or not sins are punished by human governments, God will one day give each one his just reward (Ecclesiastes 3:17; Romans 6:23; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Maintaining godly relationships between brethren is of such significance that if one has not been forgiven of sins against his brother, he does not have the right to worship God (Matthew 5:23).
Keep in mind that when God expressed His contempt for someone by calling him a fool, He did it with complete, accurate knowledge that the one to whom He attributed foolishness was, in reality, a fool. Accusations made by God (through the Bible writers) are not born of unrighteous anger, but of intellectual knowledge, divine consideration, and a desire for fools to turn from their prodigal ways (2 Peter 3:9). We, however, must restrain ourselves when, in frustration or anger, we consider calling someone a fool without a just cause. It is possible to be angry without sinning. Paul wrote: “Be angry and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26), and Jesus experienced righteous anger (Matthew 21:12; Mark 3:5; cf. Psalm 7:11). We must be sober when we are angry, never letting unjust and hurtful criticism or slander against others slip from our lips (Matthew 12:36).
Barnes, Albert (1972 reprint), Notes on the New Testament: Matthew and Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Coffman, Burton (1974), Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1943), The Inspiration of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
Lyons, Eric (2003), “Was Jesus a Hypocrite?,” [On-line], URL:http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/596.
Thompson, Bert (2000), Rock-Solid Faith: How to Build It (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).