“We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles”
There was something endearingly English about the long-running TV series, Only Fools and Horses. Del Boy and Rodney became iconic characters who revealed something of the love-affair we British have with the well-meaning rogue who always seems to make a mess of things. The loser who makes us laugh.
Nowadays, the word ‘fool’ might be given to a deranged person, but the place of the fool is needed by society, for they are the ones who can communicate truths about our humanity. For those old enough to remember, Norman Wisdom was just such a ‘fool,’ and Robin Williams character in the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ seems to show how “Passion makes a madman of the cleverest man and renders the greatest fools, clever.” (Francois, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)
THE FOOL IN SOCIETY AND THE CHURCH
Centuries ago medieval Europe celebrated the great ‘Feast of Fools’ on January 1st; every monarch had his Court Jester. Shakespeare frequently uses a fool in his plays to satirize those whom power had corrupted.
Within Christianity ‘Holy Fools’ have abounded, most specifically in Russia. Indeed, the great cathedral on Red Square is dedicated to one – St. Basil. And, in the west, the best known must be St. Francis of Assisi and St. Philip Neri.
Francis, of course, founded the great Religious Order of Friars Minor. Like him, Philip Neri was the son of a wealthy family and went on to found a Religious Order, the Congregation of the Oratory. For both their ecstatic experience of Divine love resulted in their world’s being turned upside down and their way of life being changed forever. As someone has written:
The fool's naked, dirty, ugly, strange and indecent appearance was a metaphor for humankind's soiled, "naked", sinful souls that have lost their "wedding garments", their innocence.
Having become a fool, humanity lost their divine likeness. The Holy Fools look the way human beings really look in a spiritual sense.
They become symbols - strange and almost disgusting in appearance, but tragic and attractive from a religious point of view. The Holy Fools' disgraceful behaviour carried the message of judgment: those who understood the message started to cry; those who did not, laughed at the fools and threw stones at them.’ (Saward J., Perfect Fools: Folly for Christ’s Sake in Catholic and Orthodox Spirituality, Oxford; N.Y., 1980, p.31)
In a very real sense, they abandoned themselves to God and allowed him to rule their lives and actions, no matter how ‘foolish’ that might have seemed.
THE FOOLISHNESS OF GOD
It was with a sense of foolishness that many regarded the early Christians. There’s a drawing from ancient Rome which shows a human body with a donkeys’ head being crucified on a T shaped cross. And no doubt there are many who consider us to be fools for being here today. But what did St. Paul mean by talking of “Gods foolishness”? Clearly, for St. Paul, the ‘foolishness of God’ was to allow himself to be crucified. That was, and remains, a stumbling block for many and an insult for some. For example, the notion that God should allow himself to be treated as a common criminal and die an accursed death is abhorrent. Yet, for Christians it is the consequence of the Incarnation. God in Christ chose to become at-one with us; to share the whole of human experience right up to giving himself up into the hands of the wicked and evildoers.
As Paul goes on to say in the Letter we heard read: ‘Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world…; …what is low and despised …’ He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God.’ (I Cor. 1:25)
All this can be summed up by the phrase, ‘God’s self-abandonment’. Now most of us like to be in control of our lives and the consequences of being ‘out of control’ is something that causes anxiety for most reasonable people.
Yet there is also a danger, of course, of being too much ‘in control’. We all know of people whom we might describe as ‘controlling’ – even ‘control freaks’. And whilst they make life uncomfortable – even at times unbearable – for others, they can also do great damage to themselves. A too-powerful, overbearing, ego can harm us and turn us into petty-dictators, unable to function properly as human beings.
The ‘fool’ challenges this controlling instinct. Whilst it is necessary and right to exercise reasonable, mature control over our emotions and actions, we need to be careful lest this turns into an obsession. So the fool brings us back to our humanity. His place is to question our values and norms, to act as a critic of the powerful by speaking or acting in ways that communicate uncomfortable truths.
THE CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE
If we turn our attention to our gospel reading for a moment, it might seem that Jesus’ actions were very foolish and any ‘reasonable’ person be forgiven for thinking that he brought the consequences (arrest, trial and crucifixion) on himself.
After all, if you do smash up the economic centre of society, don’t you deserve to be punished? But this was no idle act. It was a calculated act which was meant to have a consequence. As we heard earlier: ‘The Holy Fools' disgraceful behaviour carried the message of judgment: those who understood the message started to cry; those who did not, laughed at the fools and threw stones at them.’
So here we have Jesus acting as the ‘holy fool’, quite in control of actions intended to challenge those who had taken control of the Temple and perverted its place and purpose in society. It’s not so much that you could buy a postcard or a rosary, rather that this place of divine encounter, over which God was in control, had become dominated by the power of a ruling elite. Jesus’ foolish actions were intended to challenge society.
All this would lead, inevitably, to his death, just as so many other ‘fools’ have been swept aside.
Yet their message, once heard, cannot be forgotten. So, with this ‘Cleansing of the Temple’, Jesus begins that process of abandonment to God, that entrusting of himself to that Divine Love which possessed him. For Christians being ‘out of control’ must become, in time, our default position for it begs the question, ”Who is in control?” to which the answer must be, God.
It will probably require of any of us a primal shift from believing that we can be in control of our lives to allowing ourselves to be under the control of God.
But perhaps ‘control’ is a misleading word and we should begin to shift towards direction, movement and guidance as we seek to regain faith in God’s creative, passionate desire acting in our lives.
In 1970 John Austin Baker, a bishop of great humility and humanity, published his masterly book, The Foolishness of God, in which he set out his personal faith in Divine Love and wrote of the way that ‘The crucified Jesus is the only accurate picture of God the world has ever seen.’ (p.406) Let me conclude with a quote from the end of that book:
‘When (I am willing to be a fool of love, an apostle of the cross), what God has done and the manner of his doing it increase my wonder and gratitude. For this means that God leaves me my freedom. He does not wish to overwhelm me, to batter me into submission. Somewhere within me, however choked and starved, there is this natural endowment of sacrificial love that comes from my blessed solidarity with all living things, and with the myriad ages of creatures who have gone before me and brought me to birth. If this perilously feeble flame can breathe and blaze up, it will enlighten me from within to see clearly, and to know where God is to be found – in Jesus (p.405)