Posted by: Ken Brown | May 20, 2009

Did Jesus Sin?

According to Matthew 5:22 “anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” I’ve probably read that verse a hundred times, but it never occured to me before that Jesus himself does precisely that, according to Matthew 23:17. Here Jesus calls the Pharisees “foolish and blind” using the exact same term as 5:22 (mōros).

Neither of the commentaries I have on hand even mention this, and a quick google search turns up little more than forced apologetics and debates about the King James Version.

Anyone ever noticed this before? It seems like a pretty simple matter, but it leads to all sorts of interesting and difficult questions about the nature of scripture and how we interpret it. Hmmm…


  1. I’ve noticed this before, and have always regarded it as yet another example of rabbinic hedging – hence not an issue.

  2. Not sure I see how rabbinic hedging helps here. It doesn’t appear that these two texts were meant to be read against each other.

  3. I think it’s example of how exaggeration is used in order protect Jesus’ audience from problems. If Jesus thought arrogance, or insult, brought to the nth degree, could be damaging, then he speaks the words he says in 5:22 to stop the possibility. A hedge. Hence, he isn’t contradicting himself, or sinning, in 23:17 (at least in the eyes of Jews, who were familiar with the practice of hedging).

  4. I think that is a key point. If you take the Sermon on the Mount “literally” it leads to all sorts of nonsense, and certainly Jesus is being hyperbolic. But I don’t think that really eliminates the problem that (according to Matthew) Jesus commands his disciples not to do the very thing he himself does. Isn’t that suspiciously like the very “hypocricy” he condemns the Pharisees for in Matt 23 itself?

    To be sure, in Matt 23 it is not hedging itself that Jesus condemns so much as the tendency to treat the hedge as more important that the principle it was meant to protect (you tithe dill and cumin but neglect the weightier matters of the law), but the problem remains that Jesus solomnly erects a “hedge” in 5:22 that he himself ignores in 23:17, according to Matthew anyway.

  5. I think that in the eyes of the writer, and of Jesus, and of the audience, it wasn’t hypocritical because it was clear that it was hyperbole. Analogous, perhaps, to me saying ‘That was the best burger in the world’, but no one blinking an eyelid when I proclaim another burger the same the next day. It comes down to a cross-culture issue, I suspect.

  6. I think you are probably right, though I’m not convinced it entirely removes the difficulty. Still, my main purpose in bringing this up was to highlight the importance of just this kind of cultural and interpretive awareness, so thanks for the stimulating discussion!

    Heh, but now I can’t help but think of my daughter, who says everything she likes is her “favorite” (and everything she doesn’t like is “not my favorite”).

  7. Might this not relate to the “dilemma” of Proverbs 26:4-5?

    I’m reminded of my OT/Hebrew professor, Alden Thomspon, who used to say “narrow the letter, expand the spirit.” What he meant with regards to laws is that the absolute application of a command is to a very specific set of circumstances. The principle or spirit behind that law may apply in other ways elsewhere.

    I would note, however, that I would be comfortable simply saying that at one point Jesus, perhaps vexed with discourtesy, said “Never call someone a fool.” Then on another occasion, vexed by fools, called them that.

    The explanation? “They were SO foolish, I just had to tell it like it is!”

    … or something like that.

  8. Could it have to do with Jesus’ command not to judge? We can’t call someone a fool, since we don’t see inside a person’s heart. But Jesus can.

  9. To call someone a fool is to call what God created in his image a fool. Same as saying God created a FOOL. Which can never happen.
    By calling someoone foolish, you are saying that they have the behaviour of a fool.
    The behavor can change to that of humbleness, wisdom, etc. Since we have choice, we can act righteous or foolish. The action may not be of God, but the creation(man) is never a FOOL.
    To call someone a FOOL is to say that they can never be anything but a fool. To call someone foolish, is to say your action is foolish but if you care enough to change, you can be what God created you to be a wise, humble creation of GOD.

    • Thanks for the comment Carmen.

      That is an interesting solution, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work in the Greek. Unlike the English translation quoted above (I can’t remember why I picked that one), in the original the term is used in the exact same way in both verses (to get technical: both are vocative uses of the adjective, that is the adjective “foolish” is used as a form of address).

      The only difference between the two verses is that in 5:22 it is in the singular (“Fool!”) whereas in 23:17 it is in the plural and paired with “blind” (also using the vocative: “Fools and blind [people]!”).

      In this case, the NIV is actually more accurate than the version I quoted above, as it reads 23:17 as “You blind fools!”

  10. I hope this might help a lil bit. To call someone a fool is judging them in a mindset of being stupid. But to be foolish is a action not a specific person in general. A very smart person can be foolish and someone deemed by a collective as being a fool can actually surprise you in genius. So in certain terms being a fool or judging someone as a fool is not the same as saying their actions are foolish or blind.

    • Sorry but not just in the mindset of being stupid but being stupid in body. If that makes any sense. You wouldn’t call a mentally handicapped person with autism DUMB or a FOOL but you may say that their actions can be foolish compared to others. Works the same way with everyone else. I’m no fool but I have done foolish things. 😉

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