These verses at first glance appear to be a contradiction in command. How, exactly, are you supposed to not answer a fool according to his folly and answer a fool according to his folly at the same time? For God to instruct us to such action seems like a cruel joke at best and an impossibility at worst.
So, when a Christian encounters someone using a solid biblical doctrine, such as God is love, to justify a well-known unbiblical behavior, such as drunkenness, homosexuality, or adultery, how is the Christian to respond? We run the risk of either becoming like the fool or validating his foolishness and making him appear wise in his own eyes. Either way, we lose.
Fortunately, Christ provided us with an example of how to follow these verses and avoid falling into either trap. In Matthew 21, the chief priests and elders of the people approach Jesus while he is teaching in the temple and ask:
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
Here we see Jesus not answering a fool according to his folly while simultaneously answering a fool according to his folly. How does He do it?
First, let’s look at how Jesus does NOT answer a fool according to his folly.
It is important to note that the Bible describes 9 characteristics of foolishness:
1) Atheism – Psalm 53:1
2) Slander – Proverbs 10:18
3) Mocking at Sin – Proverbs 14:9
4) Despising Instruction – Proverbs 15:5
5) Contentiousness – Proverbs 18:6
6) Meddlesomeness – Proverbs 20:3
7) Self-confidence – Proverbs 28:26; Ecclesiastes 7:9
8) Dishonesty – Jeremiah 17:11; Matthew 7:26
and 9) Hypocrisy – Luke 11:39-40
While it is probably safe to say that the chief priests and elders were not expressing folly through atheism, slander, mocking, or contentiousness, an argument could be made that they were engaging to some degree in all the other characteristics listed above. As humans it so easy to fall prey to the temptation to “fight fire with fire”; and although Jesus was fully human, He refrained from using this approach.
He could have despised them (as the ones who generally instruct the community), but instead, He welcomed their question.
He could have gotten angry at them (contentiousness), but instead, He remained calm.
He could have walked away, knowing that He was in the right and this argument was beneath Him (self-confidence), but instead He remained peaceful and engaged in the dialogue.
He could have appeared righteous while harboring resentment or bitterness towards them (hypocrisy), but instead He maintained His integrity.
He could have engaged them in a vigorous debate (meddlesomeness), but instead, He asked a simple question.
He could have pointed to the number of the crowds to validate His accomplishments (dishonesty), but instead, He relied on the Father to direct His words and actions.
In all these things, Jesus refused to allow the fools to set the tone of the argument by responding to them within the boundaries of their own foolishness. In this way, he avoided the trap of becoming like them Himself. Jesus did not answer the fools according to their own folly.
But He did answer them.
And how did Jesus answer them?
He answered them according to their own folly.
This is where it gets really interesting, for Jesus’ response provides a practical demonstration of how a wise person can reset a discussion with a fool and avoid making them look wise in their own eyes.
This shouldn’t be hard. After all, they are acting foolishly. But no one ever said that foolishness and stupidity were the same thing. One can find highly educated fools just as easily as he can find poorly educated wise people. The level of education or IQ is not the issue here. Nor is the level of authority, power, or position. The issue is the heart, of which the mouth is the representative. As Jesus once told His disciples, “The things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.” (Mt. 15:18)
Therefore, when being confronted by a foolish person, a wise person must listen to the mouth of the fool to determine the question of their heart and then frame their response in accordance with their attitudes, affections, and assumptions. In this situation, we see Jesus do precisely this. Instead of directly answering the question “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority,” Jesus recognized an attitude of pretentiousness, a feeling of being threatened, and an assumption that He had no right to be teaching in the temple. As is often the case, the idea or word that the fool repeats can give insight into these three areas of the heart (in this case “authority”). Jesus, being a wise person, focuses on this word and formulates a response that is in accordance with the fool’s folly but also points them towards the way of truth and wisdom.
Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
This response specifically targets the attitude, affection, and assumption of the fools addressing him, as he takes the idea of authority and helps them examine its origin. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Authority can come from only one of two places: from God or from man.” These men, who were most likely appointed to their positions as chief priests and elders, received their authority from men (thus the desire to lord their authority over Christ on a human level, the affection of feeling threatened, and the assumption that He had no authority to be doing what He was doing). But if Christ can get them to admit that John’s authority came from God, not man, then He can help them understand that there is an authority higher than themselves or those that appointed them. He can show them the folly of their hearts and point to the Father as the One who bestowed authority upon Christ Himself.
Christ is using what they treasure most (“authority”) as the basis for His response and within the boundaries of where authority comes from and who gives that authority, Christ is leading them through the irrefutable logic, which they, unfortunately, did not follow, that God is the supreme authority and if He bestows authority upon another as He did with Christ, then that person is not subject to the authority of man and is instead worthy to be listened to and learned from.
But when the chief priests and elders cannot answer His question, Christ proves them unwise in their own eyes (and most likely in the eyes of all who are observing this encounter). He has effectively exposed their heart, shown it to be foolish, has pointed the way to wisdom. At the end, his point is clear to “those who have ears to hear.” Jesus does not have to answer their question, not because they failed to answer His question, but because regardless of their answer, the conclusion will be that His authority usurps their own.
Thus, we see how to not answer a fool according to his folly and how to answer a fool according to his folly and remain unlike them while invalidating the “wisdom” of their heart.
A person may argue, though, “But that was Jesus! How can I be expected to answer as wisely and insightfully as Him?”
In your own humanness, you can’t. Isaiah 9:17 says, “for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly.”
But take heart, Christ has also said, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Mt. 10:19-20)
And, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33)
And finally, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you [answering them not according to their folly and according to their folly]. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:18-20, interpretation added)