SERMON: I am Charlie Hebrew: Jesus, the world’s satirist par excellence

Epiphany 2, 18 January 2015

Queen Camel, Corton Denham, West Camel, Weston Bampfylde

Revelation 5.1-10, John 1.43-51

 

‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’

It’s satirical – what Nathanael said to Jesus in Galilee that day.

We could easily imagine Nathanael’s question on the front cover of a first-century equivalent of Private Eye, a Jerusalem version of Charlie Hebdo, let’s call it Charlie Hebrew: a cartoon picture of a figure with a messianic look about him but emerging not from a royal palace or military HQ but from a ramshackle carpenter’s shed in the backwoods, holding not a glistening sword in his hand but a blunt chisel. And the caption below: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ It’s satirical.

[1]

And when Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’

That’s satirical too – Jesus had seen Nathanael and Philip talking under the fig tree, and either heard what Nathaniel had said about anything good coming out of Nazareth, or worked out from his body language that he was a sardonic sort, given to sarcasm, open to satire. So Jesus met satire with satire: welcoming Nathaniel as ‘an Israelite without deceit’! Rather like Private Eye running a front cover picturing Richard Dawkins entering a church, the vicar at the door greeting him with the words, ‘Here’s an evolutionist with an open mind towards our faith’!

Start to look at it this way and you’ll begin to see that the gospels are full of satire. ThatJesus himself is the satirist par excellence.

Picture our fictional magazine Charlie Hebrew, covering events back in Bethlehem in AD.1 with the headline, ‘A King is Born’ over an incongruous picture of a motley collection of people and animals gathered around a newborn in a backyard stable.

Roll forward thirty years to imagine our publication again where the headline now reads ‘The Messiah arrives’ over the picture of a kingly looking figure entering Jerusalem – but through a back gate, and riding not a gleaming chariot but a glum-looking donkey.

Jesus is the satirist par excellence – nothing shows that more than what he did to the cross – subverting its power and reversing its meaning entirely, turning the empire’s ultimate symbol of punishment and death into God’s glorious symbol of forgiveness and eternal life.

We will come back to that soon, but first let me make this observation – that the sort of satire I’m suggesting Jesus epitomises, is of a different order from that used by Nicodemus, who was a sort-of Charlie Hebdo man of his day. Nicodemus’ satire puts Jesus down, tries to undermine him, put him in his place. It’s ungenerous, it’s diminishing. It gives the crowd an opportunity for a cheap laugh, a petty sneer at both Nazareth and Jesus himself. In this, Nicodemus shows the same sneering spirit as Pilate later did, when he ordered the words ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ to be fastened above him on the cross. [2]

Satire is defined as ‘a genre of the arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement … its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.’ [3]

In the wake of the terrible killings of the Charlie Hebdo journalists there are many debates taking place about the appropriate use of satire as social criticism – last Thursday Pope Francis spoke in defence of free speech – as a fundamental human right and a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good, but said that there are limits to freedom of speech, especially when it insults or ridicules someone’s faith: ‘You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,’ he said. But others would disagree. [4]

Such debates take place in a world of extremes – where the fundamentalism of Islamic extremism  clashes with the fundamentalism of liberal secularism and we are all caught up in the crossfire.

And this is the world which Jesus satirises – by not getting involved in these debates which require the taking of sides, by not being scandalised by the opposition, by not pointing the finger, the pen or the gun. But by directing us outside this conflict to show us another way.

Jesus’ satire is firmly grounded in this world but introduces a whole new way of seeing and of being. It is a satire which opens one’s eyes to understand society, which provides the keenest insights into our collective psyche, revealing our deepest values, our society’s structures of power. [5] Highlighting their limitations. Showing them to be wholly self-destructive. And offering something different altogether.

In a world which can only imagine power as being gained through wealth and influence – from his humble birth to his undistinguished death, Jesus introduces the servant spirit as being the way one can be lifted high.

In a world which can only put things right by eliminating those who upset our equilibrium – by the cross, Jesus reveals the sacredness of the scapegoat, the innocence of the victim.

In a world which can only imagine stopping people killing by killing them – a world absurdly locked into endless spirals of violence – by the resurrection, Jesus kills death and introduces reconciliation through forgiveness as the higher force.

Jesus challenges all fundamentalisms, all extremes. His backyard birth and foot-washing style of servant leadership, satirises both the powerful and those on the outside agitating for power. His ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ lampoons the idolatry of the economic system as the basis of human flourishing and the battles fought by opposing sides within it. His donkey-Messiah performance on Palm Sunday mocks both the prevailing kings of the day and those seeking to follow a Messiah who will rule by terror and force of arms. His death on the cross derides the motivation of rulers who manipulate the law to keep their version of the peace, and the equally aggressive ambitions of subversives who challenge authority by acting outside the law.

One problem with worldly satire is that it appeals to elitism, that it stands outside and above those whom it lampoons, treating them as a different species, not-like-us. This is the way of the world; the way which leads to crucifixions, jihads, holocausts and Reigns of Terror. [6]

The beauty of Jesus’ satirical way – a way of life he called the Kingdom of God – is that it does not stand outside the world or apart from others but inside, alongside, but in a wholly different way.

Where the world says, ‘Love your neighbourand hate your enemy,’ Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies’ – opening up for us the potential in putting down our weapons of war and learning dialogue and understanding and reconciliation.

Where the world says, ‘Love your neighbourand hate your enemy,’ Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ – opening up for us the potential in being freed from the dark forces of hatred and revenge, enabling us to move into the light of forgiveness and hope. [7]

Paul once wrote, ‘The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ [8]

Jesus reveals the wisdom of God in ways which look ridiculous to the world.

Jesus reveals the truth of God in ways which look to the world like silly little lies.

Jesus reveals the judgment of God in ways which look imprudent to the world.

Jesus reveals the love of God in ways which the world finds incomprehensible.

But – consider this. The Jesus way is the real way that God intends the world to work. This is the keenest insight of all; which emerges into our collective psyche like a candle in the darkness, like an antibiotic into our infected body.

I am Charlie Hebrew: is what we are saying as we worship him today. I have seen the light; I have taken the dose. I’m trying to live in the world with one foot in the Kingdom of God. I am trying to follow the way of Jesus, the world’s satirist par excellence.

 

Notes

[1] This sermon was preached in the wake of the Paris murder of 12 journalists from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, by Islamist gunmen.

[2] John 19:19.

[3] Elliott, Robert C (2004), “The nature of satire”, Encyclopædia Britannica, cited in Wikipedia: Satire.

[4] Pope Francis On Charlie Hebdo: ‘You Cannot Insult The Faith Of Others’, Huffington Post, 15 January 2015. Nick Cohen, Yes, words hurt, but that doesn’t excuse a punchy pope, Guardian, 17 Jan 2015

[5] Wikipedia: Satire offers the writings of Harold Rosenberg, Vine Deloria, and Roderick Frazier Nash as proponents of these insights about satire’s role, but my suggestion is that Jesus’ satire supports, but is once – and radically – removed from all of these.

[6] Wikipedia: Reign of Terror. As Giles Fraser points out, ‘The glorious triumph of atheistic rationality over the dangerous totalitarian obscurantism of the Catholic church is one of the great foundation myths of republican France. And coded within this mythology is the message that liberty, equality, fraternity can flourish only when religion is suppressed from the public sphere. It is worth remembering what this ideological space-clearing involved.’ (France’s much vaunted secularism is not the neutral space it claims to be, Guardian, 17 Jan 2015),

[7] Matthew 5.44.

[8] I Corinthians 1.18.
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