Despite the general belief to the contrary, there is some evidence that Jesus was a comedian. Comedy, good comedy at least, is all about timing, surprise, truth and discomfort. That’s how I see it. Making people laugh is only part of the gig. A video of a guy getting whacked in the groin might make you laugh but it isn’t necessarily good comedy. Now, as far as I know there’s no record of Jesus doing that last thing but there is plenty to suggest he was quite good when it came to timing, surprise, truth and discomfort. This Sunday’s gospel text, Luke 14:24-33, is one example.
Before I go on there is something I must tell you. In case you don’t know Mennonites take this passage from Luke extremely seriously. It’s part of our collective psychological bedrock. Say someone pokes fun at you for your suspenders, your caped dress or your buggy—it’s this text that comes to mind. “Yes, Lord I’m taking up my cross.” Your fellow congregant gets annoyed that you’ve called him out for watching violent movies or quilting with an electric machine—you tell him he should have counted the cost. Along with the Sermon on the Mount this is the passage that gets Mennonites to pull up their spiritual bootstraps and to be serious about following Jesus. It makes us grit our teeth and love like Jesus did.
But, and I say this at the risk of being shunned, there is something comedic about this passage. If it didn’t make us grit our teeth with loving concentration, we’d laugh.
So the setup is this: Jesus is trucking from town to town in Judea. He is being followed by crowds. He is popular. He is the current thing. His message is resonating. His teaching is compelling. He is inspiring hope. Then he turns around and says, more or less, ‘Come on, follow me.’ The crowd surges forward a bit.
‘But you gotta hate your momma . . . and your daddy. And your wife, and your children, your brother, your sister. What the heck, you’ve gotta hate your whole life.’
They had expected him to maybe rally the troops or give a great half-time speech: ‘you can do it, you were made for this, go out and get ‘em.’ Or maybe they thought he would try to wring votes out of them. But he didn’t. He told them they had to hate their momma and their daddy. They had to be willing to give up their own life, to pick up their cross, or lynching rope or electric chair, whatever symbolized giving up their life for others. ‘You do that,’ Jesus insinuates, ‘and you’re playing my game.’
If Jesus was doing standup this would be the moment when everyone would be quiet. All you’d hear would be a couple of glasses knocking together in the back, maybe an awkward cough.
‘What?’ he might smile, ‘were you hoping for colored wristbands and matching tattoos? Did you think I was just going to gush over your new haircut?’
The thing is or was, family meant just about everything to a Jew in the first century. Through family you got your standing in the community, your status. Through family you got access to some form of education or training in a trade. Through family you were protected and fed. Through family your legacy lived on after you died. And most importantly it was through family that you became a Jew, that you became a part of God’s elect people. Through family you weren’t the unwashed masses, you were graced with knowledge of God.
And Jesus doesn’t give a fiddler’s fart about family or family values. I believe it was the memoirist Frank McCourt who introduced that term to us North Americans, ‘fiddler’s fart.’ Just like I don’t recall Jesus ever hitting a dude in the groin for a joke, I don’t recall him using the term ‘fiddler’s fart.’ But if he would’ve of known it, he would’ve used it here. (Though that kinda calls his omniscience into question, doesn’t it?) Anyway, what I’m saying is that Jesus would have told them that the way they had constructed their lives, what they had believed distinguished them from everyone else, that wasn’t worth very much when it came to following him.
‘You all want to apprentice with me? Think of it as tossing your whole life in the garbage bin. You’ve gotta be willing to do that.’
And then Jesus tells a couple of actual jokes: the bits about building a tower and not having the cash to finish, going out to battle without seriously thinking things through. These were probably living, running jokes about their leaders. Like if I said every Sunday morning I worried about a shirtless prime minister coming out of the little room off the sanctuary where we keep our sound equipment.
Jesus’ political reference would probably have gotten a laugh. Then just as the crowd would have relaxed a bit and just as they thought he was about to wrap things up with a nice TED Talk-like super-cheery finish he would have added the line about giving up your possessions.
Ugh, we would have all been had. The joke wasn’t about Herod it was about us. We hadn’t yet gotten his point. His way of life, living for others, treating everyone as though they were God’s beloved children—that wasn’t the warm up. That was the real thing.
Like the crowds that followed Jesus, we tend to think we can add following him to the list of other things we want to be about. They and we want to make it just one more ‘and’ in a long run-on sentence that is our life.
Our culture is one where we’re encouraged to try and do everything at once. We want to fill our lives with these ‘ands’. We want to be an athlete and a scholar. We want to be a totally successful parent and a fully committed employee. We want to have a covenanted relationship and total freedom. We want to give Christ our ultimate allegiance and give it to our country. We want a deeply immersive spiritual experience and we want it to be without expectations pointed our way. We want to be socially conscious and socially popular. We want the security of wealth and we want to be known as generous. We want to be followers of Jesus and fit into our city without grinding any gears.
However, following Jesus, as I gather from the man’s comedy bit here, is something different. It can’t just be added. It can’t just be one more ‘and’ in their life. Following Jesus elbows the other stuff out of the way. Not that there’s no room for anything else, but this following thing has to be the most important.
And there’s no one-size-fits-all way to do it.
The name Wilbert Awdry might not be familiar to you but you’ve probably encountered his work before. In the mid-1940s Awdry began publishing children’s stories. The whole venture started with a story he made up for his son who had the measles. Awdry’s stories were mostly about trains. The ones about a blue engine named Thomas became the most famous, Thomas the Tank Engine. Awdry had been educated at Oxford during the early 1930s. He was ordained to the ministry in 1936 and he became a curate, an assistant minister, in Wiltshire. In 1939 Awdry declared himself a pacifist. His timing was not particularly good. Or maybe it was, it depends on your perspective. Pacifism, of the optimistic liberal variety, had been somewhat trendy around the turn of the century but not so much on the eve of the Second World War. Awdry lost his job. His bishop wouldn’t tolerate him. It may very well be that this was Awdry’s way of taking up the cross.
Following Jesus seems to involve imitating his voluntary journey to the cross: living peacefully in a world of violence, giving up comfort for the wellbeing of others. This cross, we need to remember, is not a disease or a natural limitation. We often speak of things like that as “our cross to bear.” However, that’s not what Jesus was getting at. Nobody is born with his cross; nobody is born his disciple. To take up the cross is something we choose in God’s grace. It is never something we ask of anyone else. It isn’t a tool for manipulation. This is a way of saying that following Jesus is, as Richard Hays has put it, “volunteering for risky duty.” Now, as near as I can tell, Awdry’s suffering for his pacifism was not too great. The next year the Bishop of Birmingham hired him. He was once again employed.
The wisdom of the Christian tradition is that we listen to passages like Luke 14 again and again. We hear them in our youth, as we contemplate the possibilities ahead of us and think about how we will spend ‘our’ life. We hear them in midlife when the demands of family and work threaten to swamp us. We hear them later in life when we have accumulated possessions and have a rich network of relationships. In each new context we may realize that following Jesus demands something different.
Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus, a slave who ran away, maybe even with some stolen money. Onesimus met Paul and eventually felt the compunction to return. Paul appealed to Philemon’s faith in Jesus. He wanted him to welcome Onesimus as a brother not as a slave. As many frustrated people have observed, Paul does not launch a frontal attack on the institution of slavery here. Yet I think his assertion that Philemon, Onesimus and he are brothers is a Trojan Horse full of warriors for justice. Following Jesus re-orders our relationships. For Philemon it challenged the ancient distinction between slave and free. It reminds us that those we dislike or look down on are our siblings.
Like a good comedian Jesus seems drawn to the things we wouldn’t normally talk about. He speaks about the hidden absurdities of our lives. He targets our social network, our relationship with our stuff and even our ‘relationship’ with our own bodies. Just like everyone is a bit nervous to sit too close to comedian, we’re sometimes nervous to read the gospels. For good reason. Jesus has timing. He speaks the truth. He’s willing to talk about the awkward stuff.
Dorothy Day was a sort of aimless bohemian as a young person. Then she became a Christian and joined the church. She met other Christians. Like some of the early Anabaptists, she became convinced that our desire for wealth can get in the way of how we might help others, so she voluntarily lived in poverty. She started communities, Catholic Worker communities, where Christians would focus on serving the poor and campaigning for justice. These communities now dot the continent. Because of Day’s openness to the disruptive call of Jesus, the hands of Christ now serve where they otherwise might not.
It’s the ‘ands’ in our lives that are dangerous, we might reduce what Jesus is saying in Luke to that. It’s something to chew on at least. We can’t be everything. We can’t have everything. We have to make choices. And most of all, we can’t tack following in the way of Jesus on to the end. It just doesn’t work. It’s at the beginning or it really isn’t there at all.
I think that’s right but I do say it with a bit of hesitation. My hesitation is because we are always tempted to make following Jesus into a program with a clear checklist for do-gooders. Mennonites have their do-gooder list. I suppose all Christians do. But it can’t be that simple. Look, we’re a church that values peace, values it deeply, but I have no idea of Awdry’s pacifism was really one worth respecting or not. Maybe the guy just didn’t want to get messy. I don’t know. I do know that Dorothy Day’s commitment to voluntary poverty had tough ramifications for her daughter. The communities she founded are by most reports weird places to raise a family.
The comedy of Jesus isn’t a Ted Talk all wrapped up with a bow. It isn’t a program for a better world. It’s an ongoing, relational thing. A comedian for a friend. One that you’d like to shut up but shouldn’t. If you shut him up you’ll miss the goodness.
The grace is in the discomfort.