No fools in April
One of the earliest images (from around 225 CE) we have of Christ being worshipped is of a man in front of a
crucified figure. The caption reads ‘Alexamenos worships his god’ . This is thought to be an anti Christian piece
of work – or certainly an anti-Alexamenos one! But the representation of Christ is the real curiosity for it shows Jesus
as having a donkey’s head. Donkeys were thought of as foolish creatures, something we see in Shakespeare’s A
Midsummer Night’s Dream where a village workman is made to have an ass’s head and falls in love with a fairy
In the first chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about foolishness
and how, on the one hand we are called to be fools for Christ, proclaiming a gospel that makes us look stupid and naïve,
to have faith in a man that was crucified was considered exceedingly stupid and it was, as Paul says, a stumbling block to
faith in Jesus for many people then and now.
On the other hand, Paul talks about the foolishness
of God being wiser than the wisdom of man. I Corinthians 1, 23 -25;
…we proclaim Christ
crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the
wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness
is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
But those of you who read carefully will have noticed a sleight of hand here in my writing. I have made it look
as if foolishness and stupidity are one and the same – which they are not. ‘Stupid’ is not using the brains
you were born with to think something through. We may think of it as dull-witted but stupidity is not so much about mental
ability as mental willingness. A fool though, is someone like a jester, far from dull-witted but agile of thought and
sharp as a pin and, in kingly courts of old, expected to speak truth to power where others would simply fawn and flatter.
How many of our current day ‘kings’ could do with someone to speak truth in their ears! Again, to quote the Bard,
‘jesters do oft prove prophets’ as Shakespeare says in King Lear, a play which examines foolishness
in all its guises from stupid folk to professional wit via old age folly, and malice which gets its come-uppance. Jesters
use humour to teach deep truths, sugaring the pill. It’s why Jesus used parables and why so much of His words are full
of humour – if only we could take off the ‘must-be-serious specs’ and perceive them.
How does this affect the Christian? How are we to be fools for Christ and speak truth to our hearts and
those around us?
Not by being daft about life and doing reckless things that threaten our health and that of those around us.
Not by behaving as if forgiveness is a gift to be taken for granted as we habitually do those things which, by omission or
commission hurt others deeply (‘we have not done those things which we ought to have done and have done those
things which we ought not to have done’ as the old prayer book puts it). Not by pretending that all will be well and
just let things go by without taking action against climate change, poverty, waste or other things which engage us and challenge
our sense of justice. Not by failing to think about our faith and doing what Jesus tells us when He says ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your mind …’) Too
many Christians want a ‘simple faith’ which is fine if you are ‘simple’ but many of us are far from
this. ‘Engage brain before putting mouth in gear’ as the fridge magnet philosopher has it. I
think that those of us capable of tertiary level education owe it to God to do this with our faith and explore the
wonderful intellectual integrity it has.
So what to do then to be good fools for Christ? To follow
where we believe He is leading which may indeed make us look foolish in the eyes of those lead by seemingly brighter
lights. To give from the depth of our pockets and the depths of our hearts. To go beyond reason and act from love. ‘God
so loved the world…’ says John, not ‘God so thought the world’. It was not as an act of capricious
amusement that God called the world into being but as an action of love, God sharing the joy of being alive with us hence
we are made in God’s image, capable of great creativity and great compassion.
At the point of decision reason fails us and we go with our hearts be it the colour of the car (‘resale
value’ or ‘the kids/wife/granny…. like it’) the location of the house (Cotswolds or Trondheim?!)
or following Christ when there is nothing to commend Him other than that He seems to make just about more sense than the others
who attract us, as Peter says in John 6.6. As Easter draws on, the common sense (intelligence) of the common good will keep
us separate yet a while but the common sense (feeling) of us as a community of praying, worshipping and joyful Christians
will hold to eternity. ‘Speak the truth in love’ as Paul says (Ephesians 4. 15) not out of malice, but do speak
the truth that Christ teaches us which is no folly nor ignorance but grace personified (John 1.14).
Word became flesh
and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s
full of grace and truth.
Enter subhead content here
Matthew 15 A Hand-Washing Tale
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem
and said, 2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For
they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ 3He answered them, ‘And
why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For
God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must
surely die.” 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever
support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7You
hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.” ’
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and
understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it
is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples
approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will
fall into a pit.’
Well, they wouldn’t get away with it today!!
Not washing hands is now as unthinkable as not taking off your shoes when you go into a Norwegian’s house. Of course
this was long, long, long before the trials of today and global infectious diseases. It’s a bit of fun to hear of the
disciples not washing their hands against the context of our present and necessary preoccupation with making our mitts clean
and healthy but as an example of how to make a big story out of a little one it has a lot going for it.
The Pharisees come out all the way from Jerusalem just to pick
a fight. This was no casual encounter but a ‘let’s go and find the troublesome rabbi’
expedition. They went mob-handed. They went out fighting and prepared. They may even have thought that
this argument was more water tight than their last one (Matthew 12, ‘why do your disciples eat on the Sabbath?’
– presumably it took them a week to fathom out the next bit, eating on the Sabbath then not washing
hands before they eat, thinking backwards they were good at, well, better than thinking forwards at least).
Jesus comes out fighting too, ‘OK, if you want to
talk about breaking commandments, let’s have a look at some of the ones you Pharisees break…’ And here
is a lesson for us today in our c-virus ridden time. Caring for those who have cared for us, our parents, our elders, our
weak and frail and vulnerable. These are the commandments of God we should be keeping. Don’t look at the petty stuff,
look at the big stuff. C-virus is not about washing hands but about caring for the community at large to stop infection spreading
– look at the bigger picture.
Hierarchical institutions, such as the Pharisees belonged to, are often concerned with upholding their man-made laws
to maintain the position of those in charge in the institution. Power is a heady drug and the Pharisees were trying to enforce
their power on Jesus. But Jesus is no fool and no mean power either. They were trounced, as so often they are in the Gospels
and small wonder they wanted Christ dead. Our own Church history sometimes reads like a power-grab story with the Church making
rules where God’s grace would be.
a complete upending of the dynamics of this story, where the Pharisees had sought to get the crowd on their side (how daft
could they be? They’d only manage that at the rabble-rousing crowd scene with Jesus and Barabbas) Jesus turns directly
to the crowd and, in the sight and hearing of the self-righteous Pharisees, tells the crowd that what the Pharisees teach
is Wrong, capital W. ‘Red faced’ doesn’t begin to describe how the Pharisees must have looked,
puce with rage, white with anger, black with loathing, green with envy, a whole rainbow of colourful language
is available here!
It’s what comes
out of the mouth that defiles, makes dirty, impure, unacceptable. When we speak ill of the living, when
we fail to help those threatened and weakened by circumstance, that is when we break the 2 salient commandments
of God – Love the Lord your God, and then, love your neighbour as yourself.
The disciples were worried about the reaction of the Pharisees to the way that Jesus humiliated them.
‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ they
say to Jesus, as if He didn’t realize He’d only gone and upset The Pharisees, like, the powerful people, the top
set, the ruling clerics, the men who knew where they lived and had boys to send round??? Jesus’ reaction is amazing
when you hear it for what it is. ‘So what? They are blind people leading blind people. If they all fall into the pit,
it will be no loss.’ This isn’t the stereotypical Jesus of compassion and gentleness fame but a Jesus who is sharp
to the point of caustic and damning almost with judgment of the Pharisees behaviour. Some scholars would argue that this is
evidence of Matthew’s anti-Pharisee attitude. If it makes you feel more comfortable to attribute Jesus’ attitude
to Matthew, think why that should be. How would our behaviour stand up to such scrutiny?
To what are we blind? About what are we sure to the point where we challenge even God who tells us different? Let’s
start with ‘love your enemy’ and see how far we get. We have examples enough of this not happening in
our midst without need to go outside the Body of Christ.
‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desire known and from whom no secrets
are hidden’ has to be one of the scariest opening sentences in the whole of the liturgy. Thank God
for the grace of the Holy Spirit to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts.