How To Tame a Fool
Apr 29, 2018
Spotting a Fool
The first year I was a high school principal, my nemesis – or one of them at least – was this kid named Billy. Billy had a few things going for him, but he didn’t like sitting in class all day and was beyond ready to be done with high school. He was bored, which I wanted to do something about. I wanted high school to be more interesting for kids like Billy. Problem was, though, Billy was also a fool.
Now I use that word with caution, which I’ll talk more about later. It’s probably not a good thing to go around calling people fools. I hope that’s not the outcome of this sermon.
But in Billy’s case, in that time of life, in that place of high school, it would be hard to use a nicer word. Because the way Billy managed his boredom was to be as disruptive as possible. He did annoying, difficult stuff all the time, stuff that caused grief to other people, like taking these Sunoco gas station stickers and plastering them everywhere. Hard to reach places, hard to clean places.
Now the playbook I’d inherited for dealing with kids like Billy was simple. Catch, confront, and punish. Prove they had done something wrong, tell them and their parents you knew, give them some kind of consequences, and it will stop.
But with Billy, that didn’t work. He was hard to catch – kind of clever with his trouble-making and charming enough with some of his peers that people didn’t want to turn him in. And when you confronted him, he just got more defensive, angrier, more defiant. And at this point in his life, there weren’t many consequences we had that meant too much to Billy.
It was maddening. Even though I was the principal, I felt frustrated and powerless and angry.
Fools do this to us. When people we have dealings with behave badly and they seem unwilling to listen, unwilling to learn, and unwilling to restrain their impulses and anger, they enrage us. They make life difficult. This is true whether they’re our boss or our president or our family member or even if they’re just some anonymous, angry driver we encounter in traffic.
People acting like fools are found everywhere, even – if we’re honest – in the mirror sometimes.
And so today, we’re going to think about how to tame a fool, whether that fool is someone else, or whether it’s you.
The Wrong Kind of Passion
I bring this up in our series on passion and courage, because fools have the wrong kind of passion. They are confident in their own bad ideas and they can run hot with defensiveness and rage. And because dealing with the fools in our lives without becoming fools ourselves actually takes a fair amount of faith and courage.
So today we’ll talk about what folly is, where we find it, how to deal with it in protective and constructive ways, and how faith can help us access the courage and wisdom we need to deal with fools and to manage our own foolishness.
We’ll have this conversation with the help of an old story of misguided passion and tremendous wisdom and courage from the Bible’s long narrative of one of its stars from about 3,000 years ago, the great King David.
The hero of this story, though, isn’t David, but someone else entirely.
It’s a longish story, but I think it’s entertaining. I’ll stop now and then for some comments too. Here we go:
2 There was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. 3 Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean; he was a Calebite. 4 David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep. 5 So David sent ten young men; and David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name. 6 Thus you shall salute him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. 7 I hear that you have shearers; now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. 8 Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.’”
9 When David’s young men came, they said all this to Nabal in the name of David; and then they waited. 10 But Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. 11 Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” 12 So David’s young men turned away, and came back and told him all this. 13 David said to his men, “Every man strap on his sword!” And every one of them strapped on his sword; David also strapped on his sword; and about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.
Woo – this has escalated rather quickly. Swords are strapped and the battle is on! But let’s put the swords aside just for a second and ask what is happening.
There’s an interesting set-up for this story. It’s got a kind of mythic quality about it. There’s this super-duper rich guy named Nabal, who’s got a wool business in an area controlled by David.
I say controlled by David because this is a moment in David’s rise to power when Saul is still the lawful king of Israel, but he’s lost the backing of the most important spiritual leader in the nation, who says Saul has lost God’s backing as well. And David, it’s become clear, is destined to be the next king.
So David is destined for greatness, and he’s built for it too. He’s passionate about leading his nation. But he’s also been careful to show restraint, to do the right thing and not grab power by force or push Saul aside. David has had the courage to wait for his time and to ascend without selling out his honor or integrity.
But that’s meant hiding out and living on the run. Living a little bit like a mafia boss in his home area of Judah, it seems, collecting protection money from local farmers and shepherds. But whatever we think of that, it’s been working. And it’s the normal way of things in David’s culture and economy. David’s tribe has been looking out for him, as they expect he will look out for them as he amasses more wealth and influence.
Not Nabal, though. Nabal, despite living in David’s territory of Judah, is clearly a loyalist to the morally bankrupt but still reigning King Saul.
Worse for David, though, Nabal is a fool. Nabal doesn’t just disagree with David politically, he insults him. He denies David what at least David seems to think is rightfully his, and threatens David’s rise to power. Nabal’s foolishness stands in David’s way.
Punishing a Fool
So what’s David’s plan? Catch, confront, punish. Take this guy on by force.
This reminds me a little bit of me and Billy.
Back in that first year of mine as a principal, Billy had engaged in one of his latest stunts, and we’d confronted him, and his punishment was suspension for the boys’ basketball tournament games. Which in Watertown was a big deal. Girls field hockey and boys basketball were the pride of the community.
And to deny Billy access to these state tournament games was a punishment that hit him where it hurt. Which was why he ignored it. At the big state quarterfinal game, he showed up anyway to cheer from the stands.
And I – who wasn’t there yet – was called to drive an hour to the game and escort him out. Part of me was annoyed. Why couldn’t anyone else from the school who was so fired up to punish Billy walk him out of there?
But part of me was like, alright. Public showdown. I escort Billy out of the game with hundreds of kids watching, and everybody will know who’s boss. The fool will be defeated.
Well, not so fast. I walked him out, but the very next day at school, I saw these “Free Billy” shirts popping up all over the school.
Well done amateur jobs, by the way. Black Ts, simple white, block lettering across the front: Free Billy.
And whoever made the shirts made a LOT of them. Each day, there were more. At the next basketball game, whole rows of them.
And I though, my God, what have I done? This is not going away…(And if I really do want my battle with Billy to go away, do I just have to go over the top in my own use of power? Will that really go well either?) Facing down a fool doesn’t always work.
But in the David story, and a lot of the time, in our stories, it’s all we can find it in our hearts to do – to somehow overpower or silence or humiliate the fool in our path, no matter how carried away we get with our own wounded pride and rage.
Thankfully, in the story of David, a person of real courage steps in. We pick up in vs. 14.
14 But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. 15 Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; 16 they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. 17 Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”
18 Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys 19 and said to her young men, “Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. 20 As she rode on the donkey and came down under cover of the mountain, David and his men came down toward her; and she met them. 21 Now David had said, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him; but he has returned me evil for good. 22 God do so to David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”
So who’s the fool now?
According to the people in Nabal and Abigail’s household, David is justified in his outrage. But he is so over the top about it. He’s coming for Nabal, and everybody else. He makes this holy vow of violence. Which, maybe you’ve never strapped on swords and led a small army, but you’ll notice all the familiar elements of the angry fool in David’s response.
Someone does him wrong – legitimately, even if it’s borderline in David’s case. But he simplifies the situation so he can only see himself as a victim. (“He has returned me evil for good.”) And then he stews on his victimization as it turns into regret (“Surely it was in vain”) until he weaponizes his resentment. And there is nothing that screams I’m turning into a fool myself more than weaponized resentment.
And yet, when we deal with fools, it’s so easy to sink to that level.
This might be part of why Jesus said in strong terms that we shouldn’t call other people fools.
There’s an interesting creative tension on this in the scriptures. The book of Proverbs talks endlessly about what fools are like – their impulsivity, their lack of accountability and humility with outside advice, the difficulty in confronting them, and more. Proverbs says that to grow in wisdom, you need to be able to recognize and know how to deal with a fool.
And yet Jesus, even while he has strong criticisms for the behavior of his opponents – as part of his no-judgment ethic – he says don’t call people fools. Don’t just slap that label on another person. Maybe because he understands that doing so is a sign we’re becoming fools ourselves. Which stinks for us, but isn’t any good for anyone around us either.
Look at what Abigail has to think about. How is she going to protect her household, and protect her own person too? Fools make people’s lives miserable, and when we’re just reactive to them, we often become fools too and we do the same thing.
Abigail, though, is the free actor in this story. She has less security, less privilege than David, but she has greater courage, and greater wisdom, which is the opposite of foolishness. Let’s look at her fool-taming wisdom in action.
We pick up in verse 23.
23 When Abigail saw David, she hurried and alighted from the donkey, and fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground. 24 She fell at his feet and said, “Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt; please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. 25 My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him; but I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent.
26 “Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, since the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal. 27 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. 28 Please forgive the trespass of your servant; for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. 29 If anyone should rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living under the care of the Lord your God; but the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. 30 When the Lord has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel, 31 my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself. And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.”
32 David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! 33 Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand! 34 For as surely as the Lord the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one male.” 35 Then David received from her hand what she had brought him; he said to her, “Go up to your house in peace; see, I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition.”
Exposing the Fool
Well, look at what Abigail has done – she has tamed the fool, both of them. She does it delicately, with lots of flattery for David because, well, patriarchy, and because David is armed to the teeth.
But beneath the delicacy, do you hear the strength and savvy of her words? We talk about fight or flight responses to conflict and tension as if those are our only choices – run away, or confront aggressively. And there’s a time and a place for both of those. Proverbs says we’re best to avoid fools entirely if we can – don’t work for them, don’t vote for them, don’t marry them – they’re trouble. And there’s a time and a place for direct confrontation as well. But it doesn’t work well if we don’t have all the power in our hands or a person who’s going to be receptive to our confrontation.
My principal, when I was a teacher, a mentor to me in so many things, was an older gentleman, a very kind and wise person, also a smaller man, not physically imposing, so he surprised me once when I asked him why didn’t confront people more often, and he said, I don’t fight, I kill. What he meant was that you only choose aggressive confrontation when you know you’ll win, which isn’t most of the time. But there are other ways to confront people.
And in the case of fools, they’re not responsive to advice or truth-telling, or to getting angry or blustery like them. But they are sometimes responsive to exposure. To being seen publicly as the fool that they have become. That can be a mercy to them.
Abigail’s gotten to this point with her husband, sadly, where everyone in her household knows what she thinks of him. And the household, and the employees, trust her now, not Nabal. They respect her insight and leadership And now she does the same with David. In an indirect, flattering way that this situation requires, she exposes the folly of his plans. Forces him to confront the consequences of his rash and violent vow, should he carry it out.
My wife Grace is really resourceful. Period. And she’s really resourceful about resources for our kids to empower them to navigate the world. And she found these videos about bullying and showed them to us once. And the idea in them is that bullies want power, and they get that power from the hurt they cause when they tease and insult.
And so the videos were training kids how to shock and disarm bullies with kindness. And to empower a kid with choices other than being crushed or try to fight back with someone who’s more skilled at that kind of fighting. They were really great, and the showed me again that there’s more than one kind of confrontation.
When I was a principal, my team was trying to develop more responses to misbehavior — a broader portfolio than catch, confront, and punish. Eventually in Billy’s case, I pulled him aside and was like Billy, I can’t catch you – you’re too good. But I know it’s you putting up all those stickers around the school. And I think I asked him, I was like, Billy, can you cut it out? It’s really pissing off the custodians, and if we catch you, it’s not going to go well for you. Can we just end this?
And I think he said, Mr. Watson, it’s not me. But he smiled. And wouldn’t you know it, the stickers stopped.
You know what I wish I’d done when those T-shirts came out? I wish I had been secure enough to wear one myself. How great would that be, the principal who’d made the suspension wearing the shirt that said, Free Billy. Because that’s all I wanted. I wanted to protect a school, but I wanted freedom for this young man too. Freedom from being a fool, and all the ways that jacks up our own life and the lives of other people when we do that.
Not everyone responds well to exposure. Some don’t – Nabal can’t handle it, we’ll see – but some do. David sure does. But it’s a lesson that we have tools for confrontation that are holier and healthier and more effective than resentment, anger, and revenge.
Let’s check back in with Abigail and how things wrap up.
36 Abigail came to Nabal; he was holding a feast in his house, like the feast of a king. Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk; so she told him nothing at all until the morning light. 37 In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him; he became like a stone. 38 About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal, and he died.
39 When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Blessed be the Lord who has judged the case of Nabal’s insult to me, and has kept back his servant from evil; the Lord has returned the evildoing of Nabal upon his own head.” Then David sent and wooed Abigail, to make her his wife. 40 When David’s servants came to Abigail at Carmel, they said to her, “David has sent us to you to take you to him as his wife.” 41 She rose and bowed down, with her face to the ground, and said, “Your servant is a slave to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.” 42 Abigail got up hurriedly and rode away on a donkey; her five maids attended her. She went after the messengers of David and became his wife.
43 David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel; both of them became his wives. 44 Saul had given his daughter Michal, David’s wife, to Palti son of Laish, who was from Gallim.
So Fool one drops dead of a heart attack and Fool two becomes her husband. Sort of an odd end to the story, especially for us, as we’re gazing cross-culturally into this long ago time of patriarchal polygamy.
But the Nabal thing is kind of funny. I think it’s precious that Abigail waited right until he woke up with a vicious hangover to tell him what she’d done.
And I think we’re meant to find the marriage to David as redemptive and charming. Some Jewish traditions, on the basis of this passage, speak about Abigail as one of the four most beautiful women of the scriptures. And when I do that, I hope they mean that in terms of inner beauty. Because the way things end here, we’re told of two politically motivated marriages David had, one of which is arranged. But that’s in contrast to this love match to the widow Abigail, a wiser and better person than David, who he has the good fortune to be able to marry and bring into the royal court as he becomes king.
Again, the polygamy complicates the happy ending for us, but I think the original authors meant well here, praising the faith and courage of Abigail, and what she saw in God to produce such wisdom in her. Because she didn’t have a lot of choices, right? Her situation was desperate. But she gambled on the presence of a living God. That if she chose wisdom when surrounded by fools, if she chose integrity and savvy, perhaps God will intervene, as God did here, in many ways, as it turns out.
Let’s think about how we might try this ourselves.
- Avoid fools as much as possible
Again, this is just the baseline wisdom from Proverbs. That anytime we have a choice, we shouldn’t deal with blowhards, with people that seem full of their own not-so-great ideas, people that rush to anger and unwise action, people that don’t listen to advice or let themselves be accountable.
Abigail didn’t have this choice. Often we don’t, but if we can, we’re wise to keep fools at a distance.
- When dealing with fools, don’t confront – expose and disempower.
This is the Free Billy take away, it’s the best lessons of creative anti-bullying work, it’s what Abigail does when she’s caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s the lesson of non-violent movements for social change. It’s the way of wisdom.
There’s a mode of confrontation that isn’t foolish, that isn’t stoked by resentment and rage. It’s to remain free ourselves, to creatively expose the folly of the other, and so to remove much of the power of the fool.
On a basic, day to day level, this is why when drivers honk at me and give me the finger and swear at me while I’m on my bicycle, which seems to happen often enough even when I’m rule abiding, I shout back, Thank you – you have a great day too, or something like that.
I don’t like myself in fool-mode, and nothing much gets done there either, so I’m trying out a different way.
How do we do this, though? Faith helps a ton, which is why our third invitation is:
- Don’t fear the fool – let faith build courage to protect and boldly carry on.
If we know that ultimately, the fool’s not in charge, we have more options. If we can trust and hope that God is alive, and that God is good and wise and laughs at people who are acting like fools, than can ignore the fool. Or we can choose savvy, bold love against the fool. Or we can turn our energy to the people that might be victimized by the fool and act protectively, as Abigail does for her whole household.
If in our workplaces or in our countries or any other group we’re in, we see an empowered fool, it might be a better use of our energy to stop shaking our fists at the fool, and ask if we can use our energy to protect people the fool’s out to harm.
Vengeance is mind, says the Lord. We can leave judgment to God and do something better with our time.
If we’re honest, though, we don’t just need help taming other fools, but taming our own inner fool too. So two final thoughts in that direction:
- Welcome critique and back off of hastily made vows and commitments.
Fools follow through on all the stupid things they said they’d do, and fools – by definition – shield themselves from others’ criticisms. So do the opposite of this, by habit. Back down from things said in anger. Say you’re sorry, even when it makes you look bad. Get people and structures in your life, personally and professionally, that tell you the truth about yourself.
- Where you’re prone to folly, slow it down.
Take a deep breath, or a whole bunch of them. Do what your grandma said, and think before you act, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Take your time when you’re threatened and riled up, before you say or do something you regret.