“But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:22)
That sounds harsh. Surely all of us have been angry with our family members at some point. And we have all definitely called one another names, and probably much worse things than “raqa” (which means worthless, dumb, or empty-minded) or “fool”. Does Jesus mean to say that we will go to Hell simply for calling somebody a ‘fool’?
Sam called in to The Patrick Madrid Show to ask this very question. “I’m wondering in Matthew, where Jesus says you will go to Hell for calling someone a ‘fool,’ do we take that literally?”
Patrick says he’s pondered that very question and that very passage himself many times. He said that he has been tempted at times to call people fools, both to their faces and behind their backs. “And that passage sticks in my mind because I think to myself, ‘Hm, this is Matthew 5:22. If I say that and Jesus does mean that literally, then that’s a serious sin.’” However, there are other Biblical precedents that would seem to contradict the literal interpretation of this passage.
On several occasions, people are called fools, and it’s often by God. But even Sts. Peter and Paul use the word “fool” and all its derivatives liberally in their writings to the Romans, the Corinthians, Asia Minor, and the Galatians.
“You fool! What you sow is not brought to life unless it dies.” (1 Corinthians 15:36)
“To Greeks and non-Greeks alike, to the wise and the ignorant, I am under obligation.” (Romans 1:14)
“For it is the will of God that by doing good you may silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (1 Peter 2:15)
“O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” (Galatians 3:1)
Patrick continued, “So that to me suggests that maybe Our Lord did not mean that in a strictly literal sense and that there may be some instances where it would not be sinful to say, ‘You fool,’ or, ‘Don’t be foolish,’ or something. I don’t think that he meant that any time you would say that it would be a sin. Sometimes perhaps.”
Patrick likened it to the passage in Matthew 23 when Jesus says to call no one on earth “father” because our true Father is in heaven. He doesn’t mean that it would be wrong to call our parents by their correct titles. He simply means to emphasize that nobody possesses knowledge, fatherhood, or guidance above God, our Father in Heaven. This lesson can be applied to much of the Bible, Old or New Testament, and we should recognize that not everything is meant to be taken literally. Reading the Gospel time after time can often teach us to read with nuance and recognize the meaning in God’s words.
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