How do you explain that Jesus himself called people 'fools'? Wouldn't he be subject to hellfire according to his own words (Matthew 5:22 versus 23:17, 19)? What does this mean to us? Who can we call fools? Who not? -- Andreas Weber (Berlin)

To start with, the safest course is not to call anybody "fool." And yet holding to a strictly literalistic approach does not answer the big question of why Jesus seems to contradict his own teaching. How can this be resolved?

Throughout the collection of teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus focuses on the inner life, on the attitudes of the heart. This is evident as one reads through Matthew 5-7. And yet I do not believe much of this "sermon" is to be taken literally. Seriously, yes--but literally, not necessarily. Let me explain.

Consider a few examples from these chapters:
* Cut off your hand (5:29). Was this meant to be taken literally? Or just "dead seriously"?
* Making your wife an adulteress (5:32). Are there never circumstances under which divorce is justified? (Really? Think about it...) Isn't the Lord stating a stark general truth to challenge the soft commitment of his day and the law-evading tendencies of the flesh?
* No oaths (5:34). Is his point really that we must never swear in court, or sign legal documents? Isn't God's intention rather than we be men (and women) of our word?
* Give to the one who asks (5:42). If a stranger asks me for my house, should I turn over the deed to him? Is this really God's purpose for us -- that we all quickly become poor? The answer can only be yes if we only understand Jesus' words literally. Again, ponder the implications...
* Pray in an inner room (6:6). But did Jesus ever pray indoors, as far as we know? Is he not rather pointing us to correct attitudes and motives for prayer?
* Anger towards a brother (5:22) -- your specific question topic. Does this mean that if we ever lose our tempers or become angry we will burn in hell? Or is the Lord not rather warning us of the soul-destroying perils of hatred, bitterness, and lack of forgiveness?

Here is the short answer to your question: God is examining our hearts. He is much more concerned with our inner attitudes than with our outward behavior. And we should be, too. Finally, since the Lord knows us intimately, he is uniquely qualified to make character judgments.

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