I never sleep really comfortably, except when I am at a sermon, or at my prayers.
-- Francois Rabelais, Gargantua (trans. J. M. Cohen)
The license of the plebeians must be restrained and humiliated. . . . But if one day . . . the art of mockery were to be made acceptable, . . . it would summon the dark powers of corporeal matter.
-- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
It’s been said that Yeshua and his followers would have been indistinguishable, in the markets of ancient Palestine, from Cynic philosophers – wise-cracking countercultural street performers who sang for their supper, and came indoors of an evening for a good meal and a piece of floor to sleep on. If no one in the town would take them in, their rules of engagement told them to shake the dust from their feet, and move on.
It’s also been said that the prophet could speak for hours to multitudes who gathered on hillsides. And that the multitudes would listen. He could make a splash, in the city square or on the hillsides. He was a good communicator. The most indubitable fact about his life is that he attracted enough attention to get killed.
How does one hold the attention of an illiterate audience in a noisy city square, or on a hillside? Not with a sermon. Street sermonizing is a notoriously deluded enterprise. There are people preaching what they think to be The Word on street corners of my city today, and no one stops to listen. Not unless they have other skills – skills that can only be described in the language of showbiz.
We don’t have to speculate about his skills: the research has been done. The scholar of street performers in Washington Square Park discovered that the successful artists, who gather and hold audiences, get an audible response every eight seconds.* There are two ways to do this: “making people laugh (comedy) and showing something amazing (testing fate).” We know the kind of conjuring tricks by which a holy man could earn his reputation – these miracles appear on the record, even if he did not do them, because prophets were supposed to amaze the crowd. What has been concealed, though perhaps the signs are in plain sight, is his gift for comedy.
The deepest secret about Yeshua is that he was among other things a comedian. To reconstruct his act, we must read it in a way that priests will not permit. They’ve kept the lid on through the centuries, for when the comic word breaks out the falsely dignified are first to be deposed. It isn’t easy to discover what was covered up. There’s no logical way to see what has been veiled. Comedy is what doesn’t translate, easy to conceal, a matter not of content but of form and context. A man gets beaten with a stick: is it comedy or tragedy? no telling in the abstract. If we would search out laugh-lines, we must look for signs of irony, of wordplay, of satire and table-turning. We should ask how the line would sound if Mort Sahl had said it. Or Henny Youngman.
“Let the dead . . . bury the dead.” Ba-DUM-bum.
“The Sabbath was made for man . . . not man for the Sabbath.” Think about it.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s . . . and to God what is God’s.” Don’t let the dust choke you on the way out.
Well, maybe you had to be there. No, seriously. You had to be there. You had to see him work the hecklers, outwit the tricksters, disappoint the ones who wanted him to self-incriminate. You had to hear the crowd roar when he brought the pompous rascals down. These were the poor and desperate of Judea, unsure of their next meals. They loved to see the wise and mighty put to nought. Their laughter was the congratulation that he offered them. “I'm not so much interested in politics as I am in overthrowing the government," said Mort Sahl. Yeshua wasn’t a politician or a soldier, but he played with words like “kingdom of God,” and in the kingdom of Caesar that was enough to get him killed.
Laughter is not systematic. It’s a corporeal event, asserting paroxysm against syllogism, the belly against the brain – body (if you draw such distinctions) against the soul. It’s always liquidating authority. It puts the Word in Flesh, and scares the church to death. Boo!
*Sally Harrison-Pepper, Drawing a Circle in the Square: Street Performing in New York’s Washington Square Park (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1990)