Matthew 23:17—Why did Jesus call people fools and yet condemn others for doing the same thing?

Problem: Jesus said, “whoever says [to his brother], `You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:22). Yet He Himself said to the scribes and Pharisees, “Fools and blind!” (Matt. 23:17) The Apostle Paul, following suit, said, “O foolish Galatians” (Gal. 3:1; cf. 1 Cor. 15:36).

Solution: There are good reasons why there is a strong difference between the two uses of the term “fool.” First, this is another example of the principle that the same word can be used with different meanings in different contexts (see Introduction). For instance, the word “dog” can be used of a canine animal or a detested person.

Second, in Matthew 5, it is used in the context of someone who is “angry” with his brother, indicating a hatred. Neither Jesus nor Paul harbored hatred toward those to whom they applied the term. Thus, their use of the term “fool” does not violate Jesus’ prohibition against calling others a fool.

Third, technically speaking, Jesus only commanded that a “brother” (Matt. 5:22) not be called a “fool,” not an unbeliever. In fact the scriptural description of a fool is one who “has said in his heart, `There is no God’ ” (Ps. 14:1). In view of this, one can see the seriousness of calling a brother a fool; it is tantamount to calling him an unbeliever. Hence, when He who “knew what was in man” (cf. John 2:25) called unbelievers “fools,” it was a most appropriate description of what they really were.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.