Lent (Day 5) — Reflexion

Martin opens his second chapter, “Why So Gloomy?: a Brief but 100% Accurate Historical Examination of Religious Seriousness,” by suggesting that the gospels, brief as they are, present Jesus in several instances as quite humorous.  The parables are humorous and striking in their riddling quality.  They are meant to confound traditional thinking, and are aiming at breaking through to the hearts of the listeners.  Some of the parables are not humorous — the parable of the Good Samaritan, meant to confound the listeners by making the “hero” of the story, the man who does right, be a Samaritan, and to make one of the Jewish leaders who does not do right (he sticks to his schedule and passes the wounded man by as he is in a hurry).  And that parable, which Martin has not yet discussed, though not humorous does what stand-up comics do all the time — it confounds or shakes up our usual way of looking at things.  The priests and the Jewish leaders would be figures of rectitude, but here they do not do right, but the hated Samaritan (who owes nothing to a wounded Jewish man by the side of the road) does act rightly.  So labels are useless.  Lenny Bruce did this in his stand-up routines, for which he was largely silenced.  And most comics followed in Bruce’s footsteps, so that such confounding of normal expectations, and slaying of sacred cows, has become normal. 

Martin does suggest that some of the humor is stuff we miss, as contemporary Jewish audiences would have been more interested in the strange set-up as much as any punch line (which is not the way we look at humor generally).  And he cites the parable about the mustard seed as one such story, with its elaboration of the great tree starting from the small beginning as likely seeming quite humorous to a Jewish audience, contemporary with Jesus. 

But I began to think about the “why so gloomy” title?  After all, there is much in this life to celebrate.  Every day there are all sorts of opportunities that arise, and moments of wonder.  But we miss them because we’re too busy, or too caught up in the routine or system to see beyond it.  When politicians take time to cut food stamps, but expand some tax credit aimed primarily at helping the wealthy, they are acting out in a way consistent with a system, but missing the face of human suffering before them.  While they may hide their (unwitting) cruelty behind the mask of fiscal responsibility, or some perverted sense that suffering is good for others (but not so much for them and their friends), there is another way of seeing it.  And systems here get in the way of acting humanely to others.  And I think of some of them complaining about not making enough money, but not empathizing with people who have to give up a meal or two to make ends meet, and I wonder… 

One of the things humor is supposed to do, and that Jesus was definitely doing in the parables, was to confound normal thinking — shake it up, break away from dependence on a system which locks one into one way of viewing the world, and locking oneself into a prison of one’s own making, and setting the hearers free.  Humor well done can effect that opening, and can, I think, change the world.  It’s what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do every night. 

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