One is sickened by the chatter of fussy go-betweens about Christ being the greatest hero, etc. etc. The humorous interpretation is much better. – Soren Kierkegaard.
The first book I ever wrote was called Jesus the Fool and it got me into all kinds of trouble with church people who considered the title alone blasphemous enough.
So, why did I call Jesus a fool? Well, there are two ways that Jesus was a fool. The first is that by this world’s standards of success, prestige and influence, Jesus can be thought of as a failure, a misguided (though well-meaning) fool.
The second way is the more provocative. It suggests that Jesus actually played the fool in order to get his message across. I think both are true.
In his classic work, In Praise of Folly, the 16th century humanist Desiderius Erasmus differentiated between these two types of fool, referring to them as the natural fool and the artificial fool. The natural fool, according to Erasmus, lacks intellectual capacity. He or she is a simpleton, naïve or an innocent. But says Erasmus, the artificial fool is a professional, like a jester or a clown. The artificial fool says, under the cloak of comedy, the things others think but would never dare utter. Let’s look at these two types more closely.
THE NATURAL FOOL
It was Erasmus’ view that Christianity is close to a kind of natural foolishness, a community of simplicity that insists its adherents become like little children in order to grasp it. Of these so-called natural fools, Alistair Campbell wrote,
“They frequently fail to understand the more complex aspects of human experience, and their lack of ability to predict consequences can at times endanger themselves and others. yet this lack of sophistication gives a refreshing directness to the simpler person’s way of relating to others.”
And of course, didn’t Jesus, the ingenuousness of the young child watching the parade, point and shout, ‘Look the emperor has no clothes’? The impact of such simplicity lies in its power to expose insincerity and self-deception. in a sense, the fool holds up a mirror in which we can see a reflection of our own hypocrisy. If you read the gospels, you will see Jesus do this again and again to devastating effect.
On this first level of meaning, even the Apostle Paul recognized the folly of the gospel message of love and grace and forgiveness when he wrote to the church at Corinth, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe’ (1Cor 1:18, 21). Paul knew the simplicity of the gospel message was likely to offend the more sophisticated and philosophically astute thinkers of his day. But rather than shirking from causing that offence, Paul embraced it, believing that the artlessness of Jesus’ message was its best feature, not its worst. In fact, Paul reasoned that it was only when one could humble themselves enough to embrace the folly of the gospel of grace that one could appreciate its gravity.
In other words, we must become as fools. Paul continues, “If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise… We are fools for Christ…” (1Cor 3:18; 4:10).
The early Christians weren’t only fools for believing the folly of the cross, they followed a man who might colloquially be referred to as a ‘loser’ by the standards of his day, and ours. He appeared to achieve very little in his lifetime. He amassed no personal wealth. He was not widely travelled or highly educated. He left no sons to carry on his name. His life was short and spent entirely in the company of ordinary, and in some cases, disreputable people. He made dramatic and seemingly ambiguous claims about his own identity. He was alienated from his own people, and then tortured and executed as a young man by the Roman authorities in the fashion after which common criminals were normally despatched.
In this regard, Jesus was a fool and his message of peace and love is tinged by a pathetic naivete by those unpersuaded by it. Yet, his lack of affected sophistication lent a refreshing directness to Jesus’ style of relating to those around him.
But there’s more to it than just Jesus’ childlike unworldliness. As I mentioned earlier, when I say Jesus was a fool, I mean both a natural fool and an artificial fool.
THE ARTIFICIAL FOOL
As a prophet and teacher, Jesus played the role of the artificial or professional fool with remarkable impact. He was the jester at the court of human arrogance and self-interest. Jesus was so radically different to the people’s expectations of a prophet that in his early ministry he was almost unrecognizable in that role.
The classic role of the Fool or the court jester was to represent those who are vulnerable to the abuse of human power, but are are nonetheless able to speak truth to power under the cover of humor or satire. He is able to do so by reinvesting dignity in the oppressed and by divesting the powerful of their influence. The Fool could be easily derided or rejected by the court, but he could never be ignored because he brought freshness, vitality, and a new perspective.
As the cover image of this post I have used Jan Matejko’s famous 1862 painting, Stańczyk, showing an exhausted jester backstage at a ball at the Polish court of Queen Bona. Stańczyk, the male figure depicted in the painting, was a real person, the court jester when Poland was at the height of its political, economic and cultural power during 16th century. He was a popular jester, known for his eloquence, wit, and intelligence, who used satire to comment on the nation’s past, present, and future. But speaking truth to power is stressful and exhausting. His solemn, reflective demeanor reveals the burden of the Fool, to speak truth, but to surprise your intended audience.
Theologian, Harvey Cox, in his book The Feast of Fools shares how similar the Fool’s role was to the ministry of Jesus:
“Like the jester, Christ defies custom and scorns crowned heads. Like a wandering troubador, he has no place to lay his head. Like the clown in the circus parade, he satirizes existing authority by riding into town replete with regal pageantry when he has no earthly power. Like a minstrel, he frequents dinners and parties. At the end, he is costumed by his enemies in a mocking caricature of paraphernalia. He is crucified amidst snickers and taunts with a sign over his head that lampoons his laughable claim.”
It’s not unlike the character Touchstone in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. He is said to use “his folly like a stalking horse and the presentation of that he shoots his wit.” The Fool does the same. He stalks, disarms and transforms those to whom he comes.
It was also Shakespeare who said, “Fools do often prove prophets,” and this is exactly what I have in mind here. As the Fool, Jesus was able to transform the mindset of his followers, who in turn, like an army of ‘fools for Christ’, transformed the culture of the Roman Empire and thousands of cultures since.