The Laughing Christ: Jesus As Trickster and Holy Fool

April 1, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Who was he? Who in the world was this guy Jesus of Nazareth? What was his point? He showed up, made a real splash among the Jewish community in Galilee, upset the Roman authorities enough so that they executed him when he was just in his early 30' s, showed up after his death to eat some fish with his friends, and we haven' t stopped talking about it since.

If that sounded excessively irreverent to your ears, that' s what we' re all about today. It' s April Fool' s Day and it' s Palm Sunday. Here is a rare opportunity to consider the remarkable fact that there is much foolishness in the Christian story -- not the foolishness of modern minds who think themselves beyond the beauty and intensity of this myth – but the intentionally subversive foolishness, mockery and wildness of its hero, Jesus.

Reverence is a chief virtue of the spiritual life. We are covenanted in this congregation to cultivate it as individuals and as a community. But one of the problems with Jesus for this community – whose members tend to have an itchy, tentative relationship with him -- is that, out of either disdain or respect for the stained glass Christ of the conservative traditions, we don' t touch him at all. We have tended to dip our toe into the Christian story two times a year in a big way: Christmas time – when he' s just a harmless baby representing all that hope and promise – and Easter, the height of all that mystical resurrection business that really has to be treated with utmost seriousness, or does it? How about that little kid I read about somewhere who drew a picture for his Sunday School class showing Jesus coming out of the tomb on Easter morning with his arms open wide, going "TA DA!"

That kid had the right idea! I hope he will always hold onto the image of Jesus as that thrilling magician, flouting even the laws of nature with his Father God to come back from the dead to make the point, This is a story about love! This is not a story about domination and fear! If that child does, he will be able to have a living faith, rich in poetry and creative imagination -- not a man-made system of rules and doctrines installed by rote into his little head by ministers and priests.
Dealing with Jesus only on Christmas and Easter is like having a great shelf full of cookbooks, picking out your favorite and most beautifully illustrated one, dropping it into a pot of boiling water and hoping you get some fantastic soup.

Here comes Jesus today, riding an ass triumphantly into Jerusalem from the east while Pontius Pilate rides in on a noble steed, from the west.

It was a show-down. It was a great show-down between the power of empire v. the power of God as Jesus taught it – a power that is not about wealth or military might, but about love, compassion, sharing, and the radical giving away of self in order to have life more abundant.

I have no idea what went through Jesus' mind that morning as he rode that donkey into the city as his followers stood on the road shouting for him Hosanna! Hosanna! and waving palms. Did he put on a brave face knowing that it was entirely likely he would be arrested and executed? Was he laughing at his beloved community for seeing him as a hero in the mold of a King David or a warrior like Joshua, when he had kept telling them that he would not – would not, would not, would not – deliver them from Roman occupation by the sword?

They didn' t get it. Most of them didn' t get it. They' re going "Hosanna, Hosanna" – these oppressed Jews, totally the bottom of the barrel, loving this messiah they' ve declared, this healer, this one who makes the blind see and the lame walk.

You are the light of the world, he told them. No one after lighting a light puts it under a bushel basket. You are the salt of the earth, he had told them. But if the salt loses its flavor, it' s no good.

The kingdom of heaven is like this, he told them:

A man whose son totally offended him in every way, left home and squandered his inheritance came limping back to beg forgiveness, and his father opened his arms when he saw him – he ran to his son and said, "Go kill the fatted calf! My son was lost and now is found!" That' s how much God loves you. You must love each other like this. Remember this. You won' t always have me with you. If you have ears, hear me. Listen up.

The least of you is most precious to God, he said. The most untouchable of you, the most dispensable by the world' s standards is the most valuable in God' s sight. To serve such a one as you is an honor. If you have ears, listen up. I' m teaching you a totally new way to think, to feel, to order your moral lives. This will not be easy! Others will persecute you for it.

And then he went into Jerusalem that day, riding an ass, and his followers are all going, "Hosanna, hosanna, cool – we' re gonna have a revolution!"

So I see Jesus laughing to himself. We already had the revolution. I gave you the revolution. It' s a revolution inside you. See him laughing there on the front of your order of service? I have that image on the wall in my study at home. It' s by Fred Berger and it was done for an article in Playboy magazine in the 70' s! I told you, today is about irreverence!

But back to Jerusalem where they were having this big block party, waving those palm fronds. To this day, most people – even Christians – haven' t the foggiest notion what this guru was really teaching. For every wonderful and clear thing that came out of his mouth, there was something totally off, like, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."

Say WHAT?

Another time he told a story about an egotistical, hypocritical Pharisee and a tax-collector who was actually a pious and good man.

What? You can' t say that! Tax collectors aren' t good! And Pharisees are the holiest men in our community!
But he did say it.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds that grows until it becomes a tree.

What? The kingdom of God isn' t like a weed. We thought it was majestic, distant, in heaven. Didn' t you teach us a prayer that told us that God is in heaven?

Yes, and the Kingdom of God is also within you.

Jesus, you make our brains hurt.

You can see how he had as many enemies as he had friends. He spoke in riddles, he was an enigma, oh, and yes… he had a rather wicked sense of humor.

There was the time a group of jealous Herodians came to him and thought they' d catch him in hypocrisy. "So Jesus, we know that you' re really righteous and spiritual and you' re no respecter of one man above any other. Tell us something, then, is it lawful and righteous for us to pay taxes to the emperor?"

They knew that if he recommended that they not pay taxes, he could be arrested. All of the Jews living under Roman occupation were heavily taxed, in fact, they were crushed by taxes and corruption and payola.

But Jesus was real cool. Why are you guys messing with me? he asked. And then he asked someone for a coin. Let me see that coin you use to pay the poll tax, he said. It was a denari. He asked, Whose face and inscription is on this coin? They said, It' s Ceasar, of course. Jesus said, Cool. Then give Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar. Give God what belongs to God.

Smooth operator. Turned it right around.

This is in the book of Matthew, chapter 21, if you want to look it up. It sounds a little different than the way I just told it, but it' s all there.

There' s no reason for us to leave this service today understanding all these stories and parables we' ve heard. Here' s a secret: no one understands them all, even people who spend their lives studying them. Even the Pope doesn' t understand all the parables, trust me. Jesus is just too complicated for that, and what' s more obvious – Jesus wanted to mess with you and me. He had a strong trickster element to his ministry. He wanted to shake, rattle and roll us. Because here' s something that Jesus knew: complacency doesn' t lead to change, and Jesus was above all a radical change-agent.

That' s what Tricksters do. They knock us on our rear-ends and wind up there themselves. Boing! They shape-shift , create, and wreck things as they are being created. Anansi, the trickster spider of African mythology, has the entire creation in a clay jug and drops it, and sends all the pieces of creation scattering everywhere. Raven, a trickster figure in Native American lore, stole the sun, the moon, the stars, fresh water and fire from the guardian Grey Eagle, and burned his own feathers in the process. That' s why he' s a black bird to this day.

The Yoruba tell a story about their trickster god Eshu, who was seen walking through a village one day wearing a red hat. Or was it a blue hat? The villagers who had seen him argued amongst themselves. "He was wearing a blue hat, I tell you!" said some. And others said, "You' re crazy! That hat was RED! What' s the matter, are you mad?" Just as the village was about to erupt into violence, Eshu himself showed up and showed them his hat: red on one side and blue on the other. The villagers on one side of the road had only been capable of seeing the blue side, and the villagers on the other side had only been capable of seeing the red half. You know what he did? Eshu laughed at the villager' s confusion, saying "Bringing strife is my greatest joy." He was teaching them a lesson about the limitedness of their perception and having a grand old time making mischief as he did so. Sound familiar?

Matthew 10:34 draws a startlingly similar parallel from Jesus' own words: ‘Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man' s enemies will be the members of his household." (Tim Boucher,"Pop Occultist")

As I said, Jesus was messing with us. Am I a deity? Am I a man? Look, my hat' s red! Look, my hat' s blue! Am I a warrior? Am I a pacifist? Red! Blue! Did I die on the Cross? Was I really seen alive again? Blue! Red! No hat! Ta DA!

The fact that his teachings and the stories about Jesus are in creative tension with each other does not mean that they are wholly inaccessible or that you should not explore them for yourselves. Jesus was a trickster, he was not a shyster. He was not Tony Robbins or Joel Osteen or some other promiser of personal reward if you listen to the tapes and think the right thoughts. He had no interest in our earning personal wealth. He wanted our money and our lives. Don' t mistake Christian con-men for the real man from Galilee. He may confuse you, but he won' t cheat you.

"I come not to bring peace, but a sword," said the Prince of Peace. Curious words. Enigmatic. Perhaps a prophecy of what he knew would follow his lifetime: disagreement, fighting over who gets to call themselves Christians, power trips, head trips, efforts to make him into an spaced-out, sexless mama' s boy who would threaten no one, disturb no one, and keep the losers he most loved out of the social clubs that call themselves churches.

The Kingdom of God is like this. We can put a man to death, we can misinterpret his teachings and do all sorts of terrible things in his name, and misunderstand him and use him as a wedge between communities of people and even nations. We can sanitize him and domesticate him and even try to make him a personal errand boy for the rich and powerful.

And underneath these layers of nonsense and garbage, the goodness and integrity of the man will live, will shine, will even be fairly easy to see to those who are looking. Underneath the accumulated layers of garbage, the life and teachings will be a thing of beauty that heals, that gives hope, and that joins people together. Even after all this time, even after all this division, misinterpretation, abuse and pain. Because after all these centuries and all this misunderstanding and all this ignorance, the kingdom of God is still like Jesus said it was. A realm of love. A realm of equality. A realm of selfless generosity to the least of these. A realm of blessing. That anyone manages to remember this in the name of Jesus after all the mischief that' s been committed in his name may be the greatest magic trick of all.