Could Jesus possibly say the words recorded in Matthew 23:23-4 without at least a hint of a grin on his face, while his disciples snickered at the image?
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
Who, in their right mind, would hire a blind guide or avoid eating a tiny little bug, but attempt to swallow a big, hairy, and smelly camel? I believe Jesus had a sense of humor because God also has a sense of humor. You can’t look at a wildebeest or a warthog without entertaining the possibility that God likes to laugh. Moreover, I do not believe we can read Exodus 3.1-4.17 without realizing God has a great sense of humor. In particular, I think God likes “comedy of the absurd.”
I first encountered “absurd comedy” in the early 1970s when I stumbled across the British comedy team “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The skit I saw was entitled “Philosophers’ International Football: Germany vs. Greece.” Basically, the viewer was to believe he or she was watching a soccer match between teams consisting of German and Greek philosophers.
On the German team were such famous thinkers as Hegel, Nietzsche and Schleiermacher. And for the Greek, Plato played in goal and the Socrates was the striker. Instead of wearing soccer uniforms, the Greeks dressed in “togas” while the Germans wore fashionable attire hailing from the time period in which the philosopher lived. Except Franz Beckenbauer. He wore a soccer uniform because, well, he was a German soccer player from the late twentieth century.
Once the referee, Confucius, began the game instead of a quick start, all the players simply wandered around obviously lost in deep thought…as one might expect from a philosopher. Suddenly, Archimedes had an idea. He began kicking the ball and darting between the reflective Germans, and the Greeks ultimately won when Socrates scored the winning goal off a diving header into the German goal. Of course, an argument broke out between Germans and Confucius, but the content of the debate was more like a heated scholarly discussion than a sporting event.
To me this was wonderfully funny.
Of the comedians and comedy teams I know, I like Monty Python the best; and a central reason being the fact that to me much of life is resembles their skits: it is often a little crazy. Another reason I enjoy this type of comedy is the fact, as far as I can tell, occasionally when God intervenes in chaotic human affairs life becomes a little more absurd. Just look at Moses’ life.
You remember the background to the burning bush incident. God’s chosen people, the Hebrews, are in Egypt. The special, select, unique, and wonderful people of God are in that country. And what are they doing there? They are slaves and they have been slaves for over four hundred years. “Chosen” must have meant something different back then.
But a recurring point in this story, and the entire Bible, is that God isn’t unfaithful. He hears Israel’s cries and a savior is called—Moses. Moses is the best possible man for the job. He’s a murderer. He’s a fugitive. He has a speech impediment, and his practical work experience over the past forty years is primarily limited to watching sheep. Other than that, he’s ideal, or he’s at least as good as the plan.
Recently, I repeatedly read Exodus 3 and 4, and each time the story seemed more and odd to me.
First of all, God reveals himself as a burning bush, and says to Moses, “I have heard my people’s cries, I am sending you to Pharaoh to secure Israel’s freedom.” At this point, Moses asks what, to me, is a fair question to ask when a burning bush tells you to go to the very place where you are wanted for murder: “Why me?” As if to calm Moses, God replies, “It’s okay, don’t worry. I have a sign for you. And this is the sign. AFTER you go to Egypt and bring out the Israelites, then you will worship on this mountain” (Exodus 3.12). Perhaps I am a little slow, but my understanding is that signs usually come before events to warn or reassure. But God offers Moses a sign which comes after the event.
If I were Moses, I believe I would have immediately put my sandals back and left that place. But he was more diplomatic than I am, so he stays but raises a second objection: “What if I go and tell them their God sent me. They’ll ask, “What is God’s name?” What shall I tell them? God replies, “Just tell them ‘I AM’ sent you.” Oh, great! This God doesn’t even have a personal name. He goes by a verb.
God continues with THE PLAN. “Once you are in Egypt, assemble the elders and tell them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers…appeared to me and said….’” By this time, I wonder if Moses is attempting to imagine how this meeting might play out. There he is in a crowded room with the assembled elders. There will be one little old guy in the back row who shouts out, “So. God appeared to you? The creator and sustainer of the universe appeared to you. What did he look like?” And Moses will have to be honest and respond, “He, ah, um, looked like a medium sized bush. But he wasn’t any old bush. He was on fire.” And knowing he has Moses where he wants him the same little elder will continue, “I see, and what was the first thing God said to you?” And Moses will have to reply, “Take off your sandals.” With that kind of imagery in his mind, Moses had to be wondering if THE PLAN could get any more absurd. The answer is “yes.”
God moves to the next point. “Now after the elders listen to you, go to Pharaoh, and say, ‘We’d like a three-day holiday so we can travel into the desert and sacrifice to our God.” (3.18). Right. First, slaves don’t get holidays. Second, they don’t get holidays which involve traveling three days away from their masters. And third, Pharaoh is probably smart enough to know they aren’t coming back.
Anticipating the objections, God says, “I know Pharaoh won’t listen, but I will change his mind.” Finally, a glimpse of reality! But, of course, it is only temporary because God then reveals THE PLAN’s next phase. “After I change Pharaoh’s mind and before you leave, every Jewish woman is to ask her Egyptian neighbor for gold, silver and clothing.”
Quickly Moses reviews THE PLAN. I go to Egypt where I am wanted for murder. I tell the elders that God appeared to me as a bush. Then I ask the world’s most powerful man to give the Jewish slaves a three-day holiday in the desert. Finally, before we leave, we ask the Egyptians for their valuables. Moses concludes this is crazy, and he’s having no part of it. Three more times he attempts to wiggle his way out of the call.
First Moses argues, “Look, the elders aren’t going to believe any of this” (4.1). But God reassures him that there are ways to convince the elders. God tells Moses to place his staff on the ground and it turns into a snake, and better still God tells Moses to reach out and grab it by the tail. Then Moses is directed to put his hand inside his cloak and upon removing it his hand is leprous. And here is my favorite line in the entire story: if they don’t believe the first miracle, they may believe the second (4.8). But if they don’t like either of those options, simply take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground. It will turn to blood (4.8ff).
Moses knows a desperate moment when he’s stuck in it, and so he responds, “I can’t speak. I stutter.” God will not accept such a flimsy excuse and so he reminds Moses who created his mouth. Also, it is God who makes ears either to hear or be deaf. God promises to help Moses.
Finally, Moses draws together all the courage he has and says aloud what he has probably been thinking all along: “I don’t want to be a part of this scheme. Please, send someone else.” At this point, the Bible says that God became angry with Moses and said, “Your brother Aaron is a good speaker. Take him along with you. He will be your spokesman.” Evidently Moses ran out of arguments, because the next thing we read is Moses tells his father-in-law, Jethro, that he wants to visit his relatives in Egypt (Exodus 4.18).
What could have made Moses change his mind? On the surface, there’s not a lot which could or should have convinced Moses that this was a good idea. After he repeatedly attempted to wriggle out of the assignment, why did he come around and agree to participate?
I doubt that THE PLAN’s superior quality swayed his thinking. Some may argue Moses finally realized that he was working with God. If one reads Exodus 3 and 4 you will see that at least nine times, Moses hears God promise to help him. Simply because someone tells you he or she will help does not mean assistance will be forthcoming. No. Moses’ mind was not altered because of THE PLAN or the promises he received.
I think the past enabled Moses to agree to an absurd plan dealing with an uncertain future. In the story, an important phrase dealing with the past is repeated four times: “…the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob….” More specifically, that which enables Moses to carry out God’s plan is his recollection of how God had successfully worked with previous generations.
When you think about it, God had a sense of humor even before Moses’ time. Abraham was told to leave his country and go to an unknown land, which turned out to be a semi-arid wilderness. And God promised Abraham a son. His wife, Sarah, saw the joke here because Abraham was quite old and they had no children after many years of trying God said, “Okay, you laugh, but you will call your child Isaac.” Even in naming the child, God showed his sense of humor because Isaac means “s/he laughs.” A modern translation may be something like “what a joke.” And yet, Genesis 24.1 reads, “…the Lord had blessed Abraham in every way.” Sometimes the path to blessing took Abraham through some bizarre territory and experiences, but God was faithful.
Then there is Abraham’s son, Isaac (He laughs). In Genesis 26 we learn that Isaac and his family were facing a famine and God told them to go to Philistia. Egypt would have been a better choice, but God directed them to the territory of the Philistines. Once there, trouble began because the local men thought Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, was very lovely and Isaac lies to them to save his skin. Again, God was faithful, and saves not only them, but, overall, they prosper. People came to make treaties with a guy named “He laughs.” Ultimately Isaac’s life ended the same way Abraham’s did: with Isaac receiving every conceivable blessing from God.
Finally, why God would work with Isaac’s son Jacob is a mystery…unless God had a sense of humor. Jacob’s most distinguishable quality was his ability to con people. For example, he stole his brother’s birthright. But that’s okay because upon falling in love with Rachel, Jacob was conned by his would-be father-in-law, Laban. And it didn’t stop there. Jacob conned Laban out of many sheep prior to leaving with his two wives. Ultimately, Jacob had many sons and there was the beginning of the nation which God had promised three generations before. Of course, the family ended up in Egypt and in slavery which eventually brought us to the story of Moses.
It is only God’s actions and faithfulness in the past which gives us confidence in the present, which often seems absurd and out of control. Equally important, it is only God’s track record which allows his followers to act in the future. God has repeatedly proven himself as the One who deals with the craziness we face. While this is easy to say, it is true. When bizarreness surrounds us, we should try to learn how to relax. We will not avoid craziness in life, but we can learn to live with it because God seems to work best in craziness. And God redeems our out of control lives and situations. We can never give up hope when facing absurdity. God has a track record of redeeming hopeless and crazy life situations.
If we could learn to live with this central theological idea, our lives will be considerably better. And we must allow God to work in whatever fashion God deems best. If God wants us to go with the flow of absurdity, then sit back and enjoy…as best you can. If, on the other hand, God immediately removes us from craziness, give thanks. God has a good track record of redeeming lost causes.
Finally, our quality of life will increase if we can learn to see life the way God sees it. This is especially true if we could see life’s funny and odd side. If God doesn’t take himself so seriously that he could come up with the Exodus plan, then we had better learn to relax and even perhaps laugh. Can you imagine being a sourpuss condemned to an eternity in the presence of a God who enjoys a good laugh? I’d rather not think about it. It is so absurd.