Question: Why does Jesus say that calling someone a fool puts the name-caller in danger of hell, even though Jesus does so Himself, as does the book of Proverbs?
Jesus’ actual words are: “anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt. 5:22c). Later, Jesus refers to a fictitious man who built his house upon sand as “foolish” (Matt. 7:26). Proverbs also gives numerous examples of fools:
Prov. 10:18 Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool.
So why this stern admonition from Jesus?
First, it is a warning, not a command. Jesus is saying, ‘If you are going to call someone a fool, make sure you use the term appropriately—otherwise, you “will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
“Hell” (Gk. gehenna) is the “lake of fire” reserved for those not found in the “book of life” at the Final Judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). That should be sufficient warning by itself to give anyone pause before calling someone a fool. To do so is literally playing with fire—only this “fire never goes out” (Mk. 9:33)!
Second, the context makes it clear that Jesus is addressing the attitude of the person using the term, not the term itself. There is no power associated with the word “fool,” as if it were some kind of incantation. This is a heart issue, not a vocabulary issue.
Jesus had just finished explaining that entering the kingdom of heaven hinges on a right heart towards God, not on external behavior:
Matt. 5:20 “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
To make His point clear, Jesus gives three examples (vv. 21-22), including the matter of calling someone a fool. All three examples contrast the courtrooms of human justice with the courtroom of God’s justice. Human courts can only condemn a person to punishment based upon behavior, whereas God judges the attitude of the heart. At God’s judgment seat, anger that could lead to murder is enough to make that person “subject to judgment” (Matt. 5:22a). The same is true with an attitude of contempt towards another human being (Matt. 5:22b-c). It’s not just the insulting words, such as “raca” (Aramaic: “empty-headed”) or “mora” (Gk.: “fool,” “stupid,” or “imbecile”); it’s the condescending attitude behind the words.
Jesus’ point is that a contemptuous, judgmental attitude has no place in the kingdom of heaven. God knows the heart.
We are all quite capable of doing and saying foolish things. It is possible to name a person “a fool” as a matter of description without a condescending attitude. A fool is as a fool does. Even so, we are seldom the best judges of our own true motives and attitudes. When tempted to call someone a fool it is far better to say instead only that which builds a person up.
Eph. 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.