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In Matthew’s gospel, we read,
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” (Matthew 5:22)
Context is always important, and with this week’s passage, it’s vital. Jesus is warning his followers about mislabelling those who call for social justice “fools” or foolish.
He is not prohibiting the term “fool.”
After all, Jesus himself calls others “fools” in Matthew’s gospel:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold?” (Matthew 23:16, emphasis added)
Luke’s Jesus has God referring to someone emphatically as a “fool”:
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’” (Luke 12:20, emphasis added)
So the passage in Matthew isn’t about using the term “fool,” but about mislabelling as fools those who call for justice, inclusion, and systemic change as Jesus and Jesus’ followers did within their own society.
Consider what Jesus warned his followers about: a “Gehenna of fire.”
Contrary to many modern translations, Gehenna is not what modern Christians understand as hell. It is rather a deeply Jewish concept with a rich history.
Here is every passage where Jesus speaks of Gehenna (except for the two that we will look at in just a moment). To avoid misleading us, I have taken the time to “untranslate” each reference to hell where the original word is simply Gehenna:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right-hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna. (Matthew 5:29-30)
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the Gehenna of fire. (Matthew 18:9)
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15)
You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehenna? (Matthew 23:33)
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna. (Mark 9:43-47)
In order to understand what Jesus is referring to in each of these passages, we must look at three things.
- The Jewish history around Gehenna
- The political climate of Jesus’ day
- How Jesus uses Gehenna in the context of both
Let’s dive in!