On Being a Smartass for Jesus
[Note: The following is an excerpt from Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, a Messy Ministry, and a Call to Mobilize available at Chalice Press here and Amazon here. Also available at Barnes & Noble here , Cokesbury here, and Books-A-Million here.]
On Being a Smartass for Jesus
It seems important to pause at this point to think through the kind of tactics Jesus employed all those years ago, hitchhiking his way around the Palestinian wilds, being all prophetic. Upon reflection, it strikes me that his friends, for the most part, haven’t done him any favors, painting him as unfailingly “loving”
“But he was loving.”
True, but a lot turns on how you define “loving.” Jesus appears in the popular imagination as the chief proponent of M*A*S*H* character Frank Burns’s famous dictum: “It’s nice to be nice to the nice”—Jesus as proto-flower child, spending his time roaming the countryside tossing off bon mots, throwing impromptu picnics, and patting toddlers on the head.
All this bucolic itinerating raises a question, however: If Jesus was so nice, why did anybody feel the need to kill him?
See what I mean?
Apparently, “loving,” when Jesus did it, involved more than smiling a lot and quoting Footprints off that cross-stitch pillow your Aunt Alice gave you when you were twelve.
How did Jesus love, then?
Perhaps we should ask the religious leaders in Galilee and Judea. In the Gospels Jesus devoted a great deal of attention to “loving” them.
Why do I use scare quotes? I’m going to venture out on a limb here and suggest that the religious leaders didn’t feel particularly “loved” by Jesus. That is to say, whatever else they may have felt about Jesus, those folks at the top of the food chain most likely didn’t associate Jesus with baseball, Mom, and apple pie.
Take a look, for example, at how Matthew depicts Jesus’ relationship with the religious elites. The twenty-third chapter is a tour de force of rhetorical smack down.
Note some of the choice “descriptors” Jesus opted for when referring to those religious elites: “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “whitewashed sepulchers,” “snakes,” “brood of vipers.”
Warms the cockles, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it just make you want to run out to a LifeWay Christian store and buy a toaster with a Holy Spirit dove on it?
But I would like to suggest that Jesus-as-verbal-ninja may be Jesus at his most loving.
In this current culture that equates mutual nonaggression pacts (“I won’t dig too deeply into your life, if you won’t dig too deeply into mine”) with the faithful expression of Christian interpersonal social responsibility, the kind of love Jesus practiced with respect to the Pharisees cannot help but appear abrasive, sarcastic, and offensive— in short, mean. But when Jesus said to the Pharisees that, not only were they wrong about the new reign God envisioned, but they were dreadfully, awfully, headed-in-the-opposite-direction wrong, he was demonstrating love in its truest sense. And I mean “truest” in exactly that way—love in its most honest sense—because love cannot exist in the absence of honesty.
To the extent that people are addicted, for instance, you express your love for them by saying, “Your life, as presently constructed, is heading off the rails, and I’m not going to keep up the charade that ‘you know, it’s cool’ in the name of keeping the peace.”
Sometimes, saying no to injustice, hypocrisy, and judgmentalism is the most loving thing you can do.
“Yeah, okay. I get the whole love = honesty thing. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a sarcastic smartass when you do it.”*
See, this is something I think we need to explore further. Jesus didn’t shy away from sarcasm. He had a sharp tongue. Jesus was quick to call out certain groups of folks in the most unflattering terms. (See above, “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “whitewashed sepulchers,” etc.) He didn’t do a whole lot of hand-wringing about whether he was being “nice”—at least in ways we would recognize as “nice” in polite society. Instead, he employed a razor wit when he thought it was called for.
So, the question isn’t: “Did Jesus use sarcasm?” He did. His derision still draws winces.
The question is: “Against whom did Jesus use sarcasm?”
Now we’re getting somewhere, because I think Jesus’ language patterns reveal his understanding of power arrangements. That is to say, if you read through the Gospels, the people against whom Jesus fulminates occupy the seats of power. If you notice, Jesus doesn’t use sarcasm against ordinary individuals, but against individuals and groups who represent the hegemonic power arrangements he thinks are inimical to the unfolding reign of God’s peace and justice...individuals and groups that maintain several layers of insulation against the elements that always seem to threaten to lay normal people low.
Consider: Prostitutes. Tax collectors. Adulterers. Thieves. The weak. The outcast. Lepers. The down-on-their-luck reprobates who’ve lost the ability to defend themselves against the indignities associated with waking up to find themselves at the bottom of an execrable heap. These were the people Jesus not only gave a break, but usually befriended. (See chapter 2.)
His withering fire was reserved for the “scions” of privilege at the top of the food chain.
I think Jesus saved his arsenal of verbal pipe bombs for folks armored against the day-to-day humiliations suffered by just about everyone else, because nothing else penetrated. It’s hard to love people who live in the impregnable fortresses of hegemony. Jesus loved them, however, by refusing to allow their carefully constructed barriers to keep him out. He wielded a rhetorical street-sweeper, the ammunition for which was love jacketed in armor-piercing honesty, dipped in sarcasm and irony.
In other words, Jesus launched an assault in the Gospels , not because he couldn’t control his tongue, or because he despised the religio-political kahunas, but because he was determined not to let their battlements repel the truth of love. The easy thing to have done would have been to “tone it down,” be “nice,” shower his opponents with sunshine. But Jesus loved them too much to do that. So, he lit them up.
Moreover, I want to suggest that sarcasm is still a useful rhetorical tool in the service of love, even though I know this sounds counterintuitive at best, and dangerous at worst.
It sounds counterintuitive because sarcasm sounds mean. And Lord knows, it can be mean. I’ve used it that way myself, more than I care to remember. If we’re trying to be loving, shouldn’t we use language that can’t be misinterpreted?
If postmodernism teaches us anything, it certainly lays out the problems associated with the slipperiness of language and our inability to say anything clearly enough to avoid being misunderstood. But more to the point, the language of “niceness,” as when used to avoid the truth, isn’t loving; hell, it’s not even “nice.”
Making these rhetorical choices can be dangerous because sarcasm used indiscriminately is mean. Sarcasm used against individuals without the layers of insulation provided by power is destructive; rather than chipping away at the painstakingly assembled defenses of power, it blows holes through meat and bone and vital organs. Proper use of sarcasm requires surgical precision, not blunt force trauma.
“But even if Jesus used it, you’re sure not Jesus.”
True enough. That makes it more dangerous, simply because I’m a broken individual tempted by defensiveness in my best moments, and self-aggrandizement in my worst. But just because the employment of sarcasm is dangerous doesn’t mean it should be off limits. It just means that it must be used with great circumspection for the purposes of calling power to account.
So, even though it’s a potentially dangerous enterprise, being a smartass for Jesus is sometimes the most loving thing people who want to live like him can do.
I mean, how else are you going to get through to people who’ve inoculated themselves against the encroachment of the reign of God’s peace and justice—especially since the way Jesus asks people to live stands as a rebuke to the very comfort and stability so many people cling to?
* This raises an important point. I use the word “smartass” advisedly, since it approximates the kind of shocking language Jesus used in his own exchanges with the intransigent powerful.