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What did Jesus mean when He said that people run the risk of ending up in hell if they call other people a fool:

“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, 'Raca,' is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:22; NIV, emphasis added)

The apostle Paul appears to ignore Jesus' warning because he calls the Galatians ‘fools’:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” (Galatians 3:1; NIV, emphasis added)

I don't believe for a minute that Paul ignored Jesus' warning. Instead, Jesus must have used the term ‘fool’ in a specific context, but what was it?

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The word Paul used in Galatians is different from that in Matthew:

O foolish (ἀνόητοι) Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? (Galatians 3:1 NKJV)

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!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool! (Μωρέ)’ shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22 NKJV)

Therefore in the original language Paul did not ignore what Jesus taught. Μωρέ is transliterated "moros" and is where the English "moron" comes from.1

Some translations include subtitles within passages indicating what the translators believe is the main point of the passage. These additions like chapter and verse designations aid in locating passages. In Matthew, the NIV adds “Murder” and the New King James adds “Murder Begins in the Heart."

The context is that the Law goes much deeper than a literal “Do not murder.” Jesus is explaining that hatred, even if it is not acted upon is potentially as serious as murder.

Jesus continued and gave instruction. Rather than say to your brother "You moron" do this:

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:23-26 NKJV)

The use of the word creates the potential to be judged and a person is in danger of judgment. The best way to avoid the potential of an adverse ruling is to stay out of court. Also note the shift in the issue: what begins with "a cause" for the person (v22) is now "something against you" (v23). In other words the best way to avoid saying the wrong thing "without cause" is to take the initiative whenever someone has "something against you." Jesus is addressing the reality that disputes are rarely one-sided. Even if you have a cause you should not call your brother "moron" because your brother may have something against you.

Actual judgment is not based on what is said:

Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34 NKJV)

It is the heart not the use of the word on which judgment is made. Someone who is evil can say good things or avoid saying the wrong things; that does not make them good.

Paul did not use the same word but he did say something to get the attention of the Galatians who he felt were in danger of doing something foolish. This should be balanced against what Paul did teach:

Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:29-32 NKJV)

Since the use of the word creates the potential for judgment, the prudent act is avoid calling names and take action to resolve all conflicts. Sometimes that is not possible as Jesus shows:

Fools (μωροὶ) and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? (Matthew 23:17 NKJV)

Jesus used a form of the same word when addressing the scribes and Pharisees who had been subjecting Him to tests in His House.


1 Some commentators note that the Greek Μωρέ is made up of the consonants which form the Hebrew מָרָה which is used to describe those rebelling against God (Numbers 20:10, Deuteronomy 1:26). If that reflects the meaning Jesus intended than it is more serious than the English “moron.”

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Is not calling a man "snake", or "brood of vipers", by far a worse offence than "fool"? But John the Baptist calls so those pharisees who come to him for being baptised (Matthew 23:33). Did John the Baptist sin? Not, of course, for the context in which something is said, is everything.

In Matthew 5:22 the context is that anger and hatred is to be eradicated from heart, otherwise it will ruin a person who bears this hatred. But hatred is of different degrees, thus, calling a person "raca" is one degree of it, whereas calling "fool" is still another, and if such an intense hatred and anger is in man's heart, then he is fit for hellish fire. In fact, he does not need to be put to the hellfire as a punishment, for this very intensity of anger in his heart, that forces him to call his neighbour, who bears divine image, "fool", is that very hellfire and no additional is needed.

But if the "anger" in this verse in not connected semantically to the name-callings in the same verse but the latter is another thing, still the idea is that if you say something with a love and respect of one's human dignity, then the same word ceases to be offensive. Like in Paul, who says lovingly to Galatians whom he desires to return to the pristine graceful freedom of the Gospel preached to them and not lapse to a form of Judaism, that would have enslaved their souls. Like a father telling a son whom he loves: "How foolish you are, that being such a talented chess player, a true prodigy, plunder your talent in playing chess for money on a street, and not aspiring for becoming a world-level champion!". Would such a caring father fall under Jesus' censure just for using the word "fool"? Foolish indeed to think so. Again, the context is everything.

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It is important to note that “You fool” is in the singular form. Contrast with the plural form found in these verses:

  • Paul’s rebuke: “You foolish Galatians!” (Gal 3:1).
  • Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes and pharisees: “You blind fools!” (Mt 23:16).

In the plural, "You fools" is a statement against a group of people or type. In the singular, “You fool” represents a personal insult directed at a single individual. This interpretation fits the context of what Jesus is teaching, which is that we should take care not to use words to hurt another person, a single “brother or sister,” and that this is the full understanding of the commandment, “You shall not murder.”

Jesus immediately goes on to say, ”When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister” (Mt 5:23-24). Thus we are to recollect and consider how our words are perceived by the other person, how he or she may hold those words against us. We cannot simply use the excuse that we did not intend to cause harm.

In this passage, Jesus addresses the real pain and lasting harm that words can inflict on the human psyche and how we will be held accountable for the things that we say. Reference: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:36-37).

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The word doesn’t really matter. What Christ was saying was this. If you use any words to tear someone down and make them feel worthless and ruin their lives, it’s the same as committing murder in a sense. Their lives may never be the same or turn out the way it could have. We have to be very careful with our words.

  • The word does matter. The question is about the word. And using words to reduce someone is sometimes necessary to prevent them causing harm or to advertise to others that they are causing harm. Sometimes the truth must be stated in an administrative way, in judgment. – Nigel J Oct 28 '20 at 7:43
  • Welcome to BH.SE. Please take the tour to better understand the nature of this site. Please also consider editing and removing the sentence, "The word doesn't matter." Perhaps the person who downvoted your answer may be encouraged to remove it. – enegue Oct 28 '20 at 11:41

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