Listen up, fool…

When was the last time you were mad at someone? Maybe it was the person who cut you off on the freeway. Maybe it was your spouse, who disappointed or annoyed you for the umpteenth time today. Maybe it was an unreasonable boss, a thoughtless neighbor, a rude cashier. When it happened, were you tempted to call that person by an insulting name — even if you didn’t say it out loud? What an idiot, you might mutter to yourself, even while trying to keep your face neutral.

Or even pasting on a plastic smile, if you’re at church.

As someone who teaches communication skills, I train people to avoid such language, for a simple reason: if you want others to really listen to what you’re saying, that’s not the way to do it. Insult them, make them feel defensive, and they’ll close their minds to you. They may even retaliate, verbally or otherwise, now or later. That angry outburst will cost you and the relationship.

But is that all there is to it?

Biblically, we might say that such language also fails at neighbor-love. There’s nothing in the Ten Commandments, of course, that says, Thou shalt not get mad and call thy neighbor a fool. But Jesus went further. He had a surprise for those who thought they were doing well by the Big Sins, who might be tempted to think, I’ve never killed anyone, and I’ve never cheated on my spouse — two down, eight to go! With respect to the commandment against murder, for example, he gave this hard teaching:

You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. (Matt 5:21-22, CEB)

Jesus seemed to be countering a Pharisaic understanding of righteousness that focused on the legalistic observance of the minutiae of religious ritual, but ignored the cultivation of love, humility, justice, and mercy. By Jesus’ standard, everyone was guilty; everyone was in need of grace.

But why, then, did Jesus sometimes call people fools himself (Matt 23:17; Luke 12:20, 24:25)? For that matter, one wonders how the apostle James — who speaks eloquently about the importance of controlling our tongues! — could get away with statements like the following:

Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? (James 2:20, NRSV)

The New American Standard and New International translations have “foolish”; the Common English Bible has James asking, “Are you so slow?” The word literally means “empty” or “hollow,” as if James were calling his readers empty-headed. If he had been in one of my communication seminars, I might have taken him aside for a chat.

What’s going on here? First, neither Jesus nor James was promoting legalistic righteousness, but a quality of character and behavior consistent with faith in a God of love and mercy. In other words, it’s not about the word “fool,” but what stands behind it, like selfish anger or arrogance. Second, James’ readers would probably have recognized that he was adopting a particular style of writing — think debate club rather than a friendly chat — to which his language would have seemed appropriate.

But third, we also don’t want to miss a possible bit of humor that doesn’t come across in the English. The word “barren” above is from the same root as “works.” Thus, in essence, what James seems to be saying is, “Do I really have to show you, fool, that faith without works doesn’t work?”

If you like, you can take out the word “fool” in the middle.

But you’ll have to add “Well, duh!” at the end.

That said, I still wouldn’t recommend using words like fool or idiot with others — or for that matter, even “Well, duh” — if it’s meant at all in a demeaning way. I simply don’t trust that I could say such things with as clear a conscience as Jesus had.

To assume that I could would be… well, foolish.