Today’s reading: Proverbs 24-26.
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts. Bertrand Russell
How good are you at spotting and dealing with fools? The task may seem obvious, but it’s important enough that Proverbs keeps coming back to the topic. Let’s take a refresher course in the field identification of fools. It just might save you some grief.
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. Like cutting off one’s feet or drinking violence is the sending of a message by the hand of a fool. Like a lame man’s legs that hang limp is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. Like tying a stone in a sling is the giving of honor to a fool. Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool. Like an archer who wounds at random is he who hires a fool or any passer-by. As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly. Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. Proverbs 26:4-12
Their appearance. Proverbs doesn’t say anything about the physical appearance of fools. Apparently they look just like everyone else, including you and me (that’s a scary thought).
Their sound. Here’s where it becomes easiest to spot the fool. Only ridiculous words come out of their mouths, especially when they are trying to say something wise. Their words highlight their lack of understanding even while praising their own intellect. Proverbs also says that the fool never keeps quiet but gives “full vent” to his opinions. The fool says there is no God. The fool is always quarreling. The fool speaks slander.
Their behavior. Fools display some interesting behaviors, including the habit of repeating their foolish mistakes over and over as if their lives were stuck on “auto repeat.” They are undependable at any job they are given. They mangle any message that you entrust to them, causing confusion and hard feelings. Proverbs also says that the fool despises his parents, is full of anger, and acts recklessly. A fool tears down his or her own house. The fool doesn’t accumulate any wealth but consumes everything that comes into his hands.
Catching the fool. You can’t catch the fool with his own foolish words (Proverbs says they are only raging and laughing). You can’t try to answer a fool’s silly argument; that will get you nowhere. But you can’t ignore him or he’ll think he’s outwitted you. Proverbs is pointing out the dilemma of dealing with fools. Sometimes you have to walk away and ignore their foolishness. Sometimes you must point out the error of their suppositions and ask them the questions that really matter. Jesus gave us good examples of dealing with fools. When Herod questioned him before the crucifixion, Jesus remained silent knowing that nothing he said would sway Herod. When the Pharisees gave Jesus a question designed to trap him, Jesus answered them with another question which they refused to answer. Sometimes you have to hold your peace with a fool and sometimes you must answer them – but answer on your terms and not theirs.
For an excellent discussion of answering the fool, read this article by David Maas.