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Three Times Jesus Used Sarcasm to Make a Point

Three Times Jesus Used Sarcasm to Make a Point

It always strikes me as funny when I hear Gen Xers bad mouth millennials (which seems to happen on the regular). My peers forget the early ’90s when we were seen as the world’s entitled-jerk generation. We’re just lucky that social media didn’t exist while we were the world’s scapegoats.

The irony generation

When angry boomers and their “greatest generation” elders talked about my generation, they’d always accuse us of caustic irony and cynicism—it seems we had ushered in a golden age of sarcasm. We were the generation who had David Letterman as its patron saint.

The ’60s hippy revolution had devolved into the self-centered ’70s, which sloped into the hollow ’80s. We grew up in that vacuous decade—10 years that majored in form at the expense of substance. It was an era of big hair, cold brass and soulless art (Patrick Nagel, anyone?).

As my generation came of age, we didn’t really rebel. We just viewed the world around us with wry contempt. Grunge was my generation’s response to our culture’s emotionless, inorganic plasticity. We fought our generational battles by openly mocking the idols of authority. We exposed the ’80s’ illusions with a sense of detached irony, and came to hold sentimentality and earnestness with skepticism. Over time, the irony that set my generation free became its own prison.

I honestly think that one of the biggest problems Gen X has with millennials is that we don’t know what to do with forthright, heartfelt passion. We didn’t have the tools that are available to millennials to make our voice heard. We couldn’t quickly organize marches or easily raise awareness. We felt powerless and the only weapon we had was to see the world as a huge joke that didn’t deserve to be engaged or taken literally.

I’m incredibly proud of the generation that followed us. And I’m thankful that we stripped away a lot of the pretense that would have prevented them from engaging so effectively.

‘Sarcasm creates a far chasm’

I’m sarcastic. Actually, that last sentence doesn’t seem strong enough. I work in sarcasm like Zoltan Szabo worked in watercolors. I had a co-worker who constantly (but politely) reminded me, “Sarcasm creates a far chasm.” Apparently, he felt I was too sarcastic (as if that’s a thing) and wanted to remind me that sarcasm negatively impacted relationships.

I now have a public platform that’s equal parts candor and irony, and I’m often getting comments from people who just don’t get it. I still think that satire and sardonic critique are the best ways to unmask the powers that be, but people seem really uncomfortable when they see these tools used in conjunction with Christian spirituality.

The other day I posted a photo on Facebook of the Easter Bunny rolling away the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb. It was well-received until some guy felt the need to drop into the comments to correct my irreverence. His criticism was brief, “So that’s how much His life for yours, means to you?”

I get a lot of angry people who want to debate and argue with me. I generally try to be as accommodating and kind as possible—until I catch a whiff of condescension or rudeness. At that point, I feel my generational conditioning kick in and the scalpel comes out. I don’t really care about the argument (which will inevitably go on forever); I just want to cut away the pretense and ugliness, exposing the argument for what it is. It’s a response that I’m not always proud of.

The word “sarcasm” comes from the Greek word sarkasmos (a sneer, jest, taunt, mockery). The root word is sarx which means “flesh.” Taken more literally, sarcasm means “to strip off the flesh.” That seems to be a pretty damning definition, but it’s not. Sometimes pretext and hypocrisy needs to be surgically removed before genuine dialogue can happen. It’s amazing how many people think that sarcasm is off-limits for Christians.

Our sarcastic Savior

When someone tells me that irreverence, satire and sarcasm strikes a tone that isn’t Christ-like, I wonder what Bible they’re reading. Jesus fought against an entrenched power structure and often did so with cutting satire. If you don’t think there are any jokes in the Bible, you’re probably reading it with too much sanctimony.

Here are a few examples of Jesus’ sarcasm (and if I included Paul’s, we could be here all day):

Have you not read? (Matthew 12)

At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry …” – Matthew 12:1–3

This is a pretty common response Jesus uses when he’s being confronted (Matthew 12:5, 19:4, 21:6, 21:42, 22:31). Matthew’s Gospel is written to appeal to Jewish readers, and I think he draws attention to Christ’s use of this phrase because he knows they get the joke.

Usually Jesus says this to the Pharisees, whose power rested on a superior knowledge of Scripture. When Jesus asks them if they’ve read a Scripture before He explains it to them, it’s a taunt. They’ve read it; they just haven’t completely understood or internalized it.

This sarcasm isn’t just mean-spirited mockery; it’s strategy. The public way that Pharisees confront Jesus is a power play intended to give them the upper hand and establish their dominance. By taunting them, Jesus assures everyone present that He’s not intimidated by their “authority,” and He maintains the advantage without letting the conversation devolve into a debate. More important, He demonstrates God’s annoyance with pride.

Sarcasm level: Gandalf from Lord of the Rings

Which good work do you punish me for? (John 10)

The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him.Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” – John 10:31–32

Jesus had just claimed that He and God were one, and the smug Jews who were present picked up rocks to stone Him. It’s a particularly tense moment that Jesus ramps up with a fairly brassy question. They’ve been looking for an opportunity to take him out, and Jesus’ blasphemy just gave it to them.

Christ reminds them of the many ways He has already established who He is. If they want to test the veracity of his statement, there are many witnesses who will corroborate. So, which good work do you plan on killing me for? It’s a fairly bold sneer for someone facing down a mob.

Sarcasm level: Rob Gordon (John Cusack) from High Fidelity

Guess I need to die in Jerusalem (Luke 13)

Just at that time some Pharisees approached, saying to Him, “Go away, leave here, for Herod wants to kill You.” And He said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.’ Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem. – Luke 13:33

First of all, I love that Jesus calls Herod “that fox.” Today we would call someone a fox because we considered them clever. That’s not how Jesus meant it. Foxes were solitary, destructive and unclean. Herod ruled over the Jews and feigned solidarity with them, but he was a dangerous, poisonous man who was only looking after himself. Our Lord was not speaking kindly.

This seems like a good moment to talk about tone. When Christians speak out about other Christians or authority figures, they’re often chastised. It’s as if politeness is the highest Christian virtue. Here we see Jesus summing up Herod’s character with an epithet, and if you read Paul’s letters, He’s frequently calling out people and groups (read Galatians 5, for Pete’s sake).

You cannot protect the sheep by hugging wolves.

Jesus goes on to make one of the driest, most melancholic jokes in the entire Bible when He says, “Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem.” He’s basically saying, “I know you Jews love to kill your prophets. Far be it from me not to trek back to Jerusalem to give you the opportunity.

Sarcasm level: John McClane (Bruce Willis) from Die Hard

Sweeping, mean-spirited generalities

Was every Pharisee terrible? No. There were many kind, sincere Pharisees who were nothing like the image that’s often presented in the gospel accounts. Did that stop Jesus from lambasting the lot of them? Nope. Just check out Matthew 23:

  • They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. (verse 4)
  • They do all their deeds to be noticed by men. (verse 5)
  • They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places (verse 6–7)
  • [They] shut off the kingdom of heaven from people (verse 13)
  • [They] devour widows’ houses (verse 14)
  • [They] travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, [they] make him twice as much a son of hell as [them]selves. (verse 15)

It just goes on and on this way, and Jesus talks like this about them throughout the gospels. If this was written in the 21st century, they would have responded with a #NotAllPharisees hashtag. If I was to write about any group this way, I’d get so many emails my server would explode.

But this wasn’t really about individual Pharisees, this was a problem with the pharisaical system. And any sincerely religious Pharisee would have had to agree with Him. Speaking in generalities is another polemic that’s frowned upon, but let’s be honest; it’s an extremely effective rhetorical device—especially for people trapped within in a broken system.

I wrote a post called “Hello, I’m a Recovering Racist” after being exposed to a lot of discussion that I had initially written off as sweeping generalities about whites. But the more I thought about it, the more my perspective was challenged. My thinking eventually evolved from “#NotAllWhitePeople” to “Maybe there is a problem.” Once I recognized the truth in those generalities, I could identify ways that my thinking contributed to the issue.

That change in my thinking only occurred because I found myself lumped in with someone’s generalities about whites. I needed the slap in the face to seriously question the things I believed. If this discussion was framed as “some white people do this” I would have excused myself from any culpability and went on with life. I had to see myself included with the guilty group in order to come to grips with my share of the blame.

The same goes with criticisms of men, evangelicals, straight people and Americans. When I hear criticism leveled at a group that I’m part of, my first instinct isn’t what it used to be. In the past, I would’ve become defensive and angry. Now I just listen, ruminate and try and do a personal inventory. Where I would have tone policed the person responsible and told them they shouldn’t use generalizations, now I recognize that it’s a device that Jesus used—a lot.

Is respect demanded of us?

When power is distributed unequally, people don’t have a lot of options to restore balance. Mockery, satire and sarcasm aren’t simply mean-spirited responses, they’re rhetorical weapons in the hands of those on the bottom. They defy the status quo, challenge power structures and strip away affectation.

It’s Jim Halpert rolling his eyes at the camera on The Office. It’s Voltaire’s Candide parodying philosophic optimism. It’s a world-weary Tyrion Lannister sneering at the ridiculous motives of those around him.

Jesus loved and died for the Pharisees He belittled. He even showed some measure of respect to their position (Matthew 23:2–3), but that didn’t instill in Him any obligation to fake kindness toward the damage the pharisaical system was doing.

If I had a white supremacist neighbor with cancer, I hope that I’d be there to give him rides to the doctor, bring him meals and serve him in whatever ways I could. In fact, I would hope that I could truly befriend that individual. Would I show deference and respect to his opinions? Nah.

This article was adapted from Used with permission.

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