In Matthew 5:22 Jesus says: “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.”
Call your neighbor a fool and you are in danger of the fire of hell. Thems strong words.
And yet, Jesus did not shrink back from using strong language against religious insiders that he believed to be living inconsistently with the love of God and neighbor. For example, in one fiery imprecatory speech recorded in Matthew 23, he repeatedly denounces them with the sharpest rhetorical indictments: they are hypocrites (23:13), children of hell (v. 15), blind fools (v. 17), blind guides (v. 24), whitewashed tombs (v. 27), full of hypocrisy and wickedness (v. 28), descendants of murderers (v. 31), and snakes and broods of vipers (v. 33).
Jesus was not one to hold back. Needless to say, the Jesus of Matthew 23 is quite a distance from the popular notion of gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
This string of invective also gives rise to an interesting question for those of the WWJD? school of ethical thinking: if Jesus would insult people he deems to be religious hypocrites with the sharpest language, should we do so as well? And what about that other teaching in Matthew 5:22? How could Jesus call others fools (and worse!) if that very act places one “in danger of the fire of hell”?
Let’s start with that second question. Is Jesus flatly contradicting himself? The short answer is: no. Think about the famous instruction of Proverbs 26:4-5:
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
It takes a reader truly lacking in nuance and charity to suppose that these two verses constitute a contradiction. Rather, the proper lesson to draw is that sometimes it is wise to answer a fool according to his folly and sometimes it is not. And the wise person will be able to discern the difference.
The same lesson surely applies when it comes to the use of invective. Sometimes the use of language like “fool” and the like is inappropriate and when it is used in that inappropriate manner, the net effect is harmful and imperils the spiritual condition of the user. Think, for example, of base insults spoken in anger with and loathing of another with no overarching moral justification: “That fool just cut me off!” “That bastard borrowed my garden shears and didn’t return them!”
But invective that frankly calls out dangerous and destructive attitudes and behaviors in the spiritual leaders in one’s community is, in principle, quite a different thing. And the pattern of Matthew 23 suggests that in circumstances like this, it may indeed be appropriate to use fiery invective.
That said, may indeed be appropriate is not at all the same thing as is appropriate. And as with Proverbs 26:4-5, the wise person, the person who has faithfully modelled their life on the life and teaching of Jesus, will be able to discern the difference.
To conclude, I would like to illustrate the principle by way of a well-known segment from early in The Simpsons. Believe it or not, “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish,” is over thirty years old! In this classic episode, Homer has eaten every item of the menu of a Japanese restaurant except for fugu. So he orders it, bellowing that he wants fugu!
However, fugu comes from the poisonous blowfish. When properly prepared it can be delicious and nourishing. But if prepared by a less skilled chef, the poison sacks surrounding the meat can be punctured leading to death in the person who eats the fish. The lesson is: don’t you dare serve fugu unless you have the skill to prepare it.
Similarly, one can argue that it is legitimate in principle for the Christian to employ sharp invective against others as Jesus does in Matthew 23. But only the most “skilled” Christian, that is, a person of great depth of spiritual maturity, should attempt do so: otherwise the results could be ‘poisonous’.