I know it’s not a term we should bandy about too freely – Jesus warned us about applying it to our friends, given how it betrays such an attitude of scorn that we fall well short of loving our neighbour as ourselves.
However the Old Testament book of Proverbs has quite a bit to say about fools and folly. No doubt we do well to examine ourselves in the light of its teaching before we attempt to identify folly in the people around us. Nine of the first eleven verses of Proverbs 26 refers negatively to fools. What’s very striking is that verse 12 follows those nine references with this:
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.
It hits us between the eyes. Once we have nodded our heads at the first eleven verses and thanked God that we are not fools, we discover that there is more hope for a fool than for someone who is wise in his or her own eyes.
Among those first eleven verses is a pair of verses that talk about how to answer a fool, or, to borrow from the New Living Translation, what to do in an argument with a fool.
Here’s the first part of the first answer:
Answer not a fool according to his folly.
Or – “don’t answer their foolish arguments” (NLT).
And here is the start of the second answer (in the verse immediately following):
Answer a fool according to his folly.
So there you have it. Don’t get involved in silly arguments. Do get involved in silly arguments.
Which is it then?
The answer is in reading the complete verses, for each of them gives a reason for their counsel.
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
In other words, you have a judgment call to make. There are times when you refuse to be drawn, because involving yourself in foolish arguments will simply drag you down to the level of the person you are arguing with. But there are other times, when you cannot leave a foolish argument unchallenged for to do so gives the foolish person a false sense of credibility: some balloons are there to be burst!
We just need to have the wisdom to know which response is appropriate for the occasion.