Jesus' best insults

July 18th, 2016

“Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” So says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:22). He claims that words spoken in anger are the moral equivalent of murder.

But by chapter 23, he’s pretty angry at the religious leaders. “You blind fools!” he shouts during a chapter-long rant (Matthew 23:17). He calls them hypocrites, snakes and vipers, everything — as the saying goes — but a child of God. We all know that insulting people is incompatible with Christian teaching. But Jesus actually did it quite a bit. Here are some of Jesus’ best insults:

Fool: Our word moron actually comes form this Greek word, and probably conveys the intended level of contempt better than fool. Fools, in Hebrew wisdom literature, were not just ignorant. They were immoral. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” writes the Hebrew Psalmist, who goes on to say “They are corrupt; their deeds are vile” (Psalm 14:1).

The word could also be used as a verb, meaning “to dull,” as in to dull a blade. When we talk about “salt losing its saltiness” (Matthew 5:13), the whole phrase is captured by this one word. When salt “loses its edge,” it becomes dull and useless. So when Jesus admonishes his followers not to lose their flavor, he’s asking them not to become morons (who aren’t even fit for the manure pile (Luke 14:34)).

In spite of the fact that he tells his followers not to use this word, he lets it fly on occasion. Usually it’s part of a parable (the foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25:2, or the rich man in Luke 12:20). But in his angry tirade against religious leaders, he simply can’t help himself.

Fox: When some Pharisees come to warn Jesus that King Herod wants him dead, Jesus has the audacity (and the courage) to say, “Go and tell that fox for me…” (Luke 13:32). This insult hasn’t changed its meaning much. It still means sly, cunning and crafty, but we often use it as a compliment. In Jesus day, among more agrarian folks, calling someone a fox was more like calling them a weasel. Since kings preferred to be compared to lions and eagles, calling Herod a fox would likely have been enough to get killed. It’s unlikely that Jesus’ Pharisee friends would have taken that message back to Herod word-for-word.

Dog, pig: Immediately after he tells his followers not to be too judgmental of their neighbors (“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)), he walks his statement back a bit. Sure, don’t criticize your neighbor’s faults, BUT… there are some people you shouldn’t waste your time on. “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6).

I believe these sayings go hand-in-hand. Trying too hard to change the beliefs or behavior of others, whether you see that as “removing a speck,” or “offering something holy” is probably a bad idea. What may be surprising to those of us who grew up singing “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” or who have seen one too many memes that Jesus “always had time” for everybody is that Jesus seemed to believe that your time is too valuable to waste on those who won’t appreciate what you have to offer.

Another time Jesus used the dog insult was toward a woman who actually came to him for healing (Matthew 15:26). This story has always been troublesome for Christians whose image of Jesus is that he always showed perfect love to everyone, and it goes beyond the scope of this essay. It has been thoroughly discussed and debated elsewhere. But his use of it in the Sermon on the Mount shows that the insult was not as out of character for Jesus as we might think.

Snake, brood of vipers: More animal insults. These sound almost quaint to us modern (and increasingly urban) folks, but the danger of snakes to foot travelers in the ancient world was very real. Snakes were sometimes used symbolically to represent healing, but Jesus clarifies that he has in mind the poisonous, non-helpful kind of snakes when he refers to the religious leaders.

Hypocrite: This is THE insult that Jesus popularized. Because he used to to describe religious leaders, it has entered popular discourse and is often the first insult leveled against Christians.

I do not think we hear the word the same way that Jesus intended. We often use hypocrite to mean “someone who says one thing but does another.” But that would include everybody, right? If we manage to live up to our value system all of the time, it probably means we have set a low bar. If we are truly striving to be better people, we will always be sanctified hypocrites.

But the word hypocrite simply means actor. I believe Jesus meant something more like drama queens or religious divas, people who were more concerned with how religious they appeared to other people than someone who simply doesn’t practice what they preach. His chapter-long rant in Matthew 23 details some of the specific behaviors that he called hypocrisy, and they are more about missing the point than actively doing wrong.

Which is also why I don’t think Jesus is really a hypocrite when he calls religious leaders fools after telling us not to call people fools. Jesus is not pretending to be something he is not, and he’s not trying to impress anybody. He’s simply doing what prophets have always done: calling those in power to task. In modern language, he’s “punching up, not punching down.”

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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