And I was holding court on, as usual, some random opinion of mine, and I remember describing somebody not in our presence as a fool.
And Wes, one of my good friends who, like me, speaks his mind, blurted out without hesitation, "You'd better be careful when you use that word. You know, there's a Biblical penalty that comes along with it."
Which stopped me right in my tracks. Something that doesn't happen often.
Seems as though my friend had heard a sermon on Matthew 5, where in verse 22, Christ warns that "whoever says, 'you fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire."
Wow. I'd never heard that before. And I've never forgotten Wes' interruption. It was even brought home to me this past Sunday, when the pastor at my church included this verse in his Communion meditation, although he didn't speak to the word "fool" directly. Still, as he preached on reconciliation in Christ's Sermon on the Mount, my attention kept being drawn back to that "F" word.
Now obviously, this word is used in a variety of settings with several connotations. In some contexts, it's a minimally derisive term used on the same level as "goofball," or "bothersome person," when you're talking about something silly a loved one has done. And obviously, Christ isn't castigating amusing colloquialisms.
At least, not directly.
The use of the term "fool" to which Christ is referring implies an intentional insult to the moral character and rational capabilities of a person of otherwise equal standing in God's eyes. Consider the two other warnings Christ gives immediately before discussing the use of the term "fool:"
"But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council..." (Matthew 5:22)
It's not difficult to see that using "fool" in a malicious or unloving manner is what angers God as much as, well, murder. Christ says so in verse 21 of Matthew 5.
Should This Word Come So Quickly To Our Lips?
So, what does all this have to do with anything?
Did I call somebody a fool lately, and now need to seek penance for my crime? Actually, thanks to my friend Wes, I've purposefully cut down on my use of the "F" word since that evening at Mary Helen's. I still let it slip occasionally, but I don't think it's ever been in a mean-spirited context.
I mean - let's face it. There are fools in this world. And sometimes, I'm one of them. But calling people out on their foolish behavior and calling them a fool are two different things.
For example, yesterday while on FaceBook, I was struck by the vitriol in rants people were posting about a Democratic politician and her stance on labor unions.
Granted, I doubt this politician is a born-again Christian, but she's neither a fool, moron, imbecile, idiot, or any of the unmentionable epithets some conservatives were hurling against her sexuality, personhood, and character.
She's a duplicitous politician, a left-wing lackey, and lots of other things conservatives don't like, but she's hardly a fool. She couldn't be, and have reached the level of power she's attained and maintained.
Hard to Remember, I Know; but Politicians are People, Too
I'm as guilty as anybody of assuming it's always open season for insulting politicians, and even with my critique of Herman Cain's train wreck of a campaign yesterday, I tried to take the high road in my assessments of what he's doing wrong. After all, God never told us not to evaluate reality based on the facts presented to us.
That doesn't mean that some of the more liberal politicians we have aren't also made in God's image. They might even be people for whom, if they're members of God's Elect, Christ died. It's a stretch, I'll agree - but let's just remember that God knows more about people's hearts than we do.
Like most other politicians we've had in the United States, this representative from California isn't a convicted murderer, certifiably insane, or even an atheist. She's representing the interests of certain groups in our country with whom most conservative evangelicals have major philosophical differences, yes. But at some point, she's going to die and go to one of two places for the rest of eternity.
And where she spends eternity won't have anything to do with her political affiliation here on Earth.
Besides, we're supposed to love our enemies. And do good to those who hate us. If you really think this politician hates conservatives, and evangelicals in particular, aren't people of faith the last ones who should be calling her a fool? Despite whether her stance really does make her one?
Meanwhile, might believers who act foolishly - by recklessly calling others fools - actually be ones themselves? Not that we're automatically doomed to Hell if we do. And not that we should think up other words - instead of the "F" word - to use derisively against people we don't like.
But perhaps when we find ourselves expressing such vehemence against somebody, maybe that should be our cue to pray for them instead.
And even our own attitudes, as well!