Homily: “Religion and a Sense of Humor”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 20, Year C). Cross-posted from the Parish of Tazewell County

We have a story about a rich man who learns somehow that his manager—that is, his steward—has been mismanaging the rich man’s money. This is not a story about stealing, or embezzlement, the scholars tell us. This is more a story about incompetence—this manager has probably made some poor decisions and the hemorrhaging of money can go on no longer, deems the rich man. Something has to be done, and so the rich man confronts the manager, and tells him your days are numbered, so do what you can to fix it. Not exactly the glorious vision of the Transfigured Lord, not exactly the world glistening white with Jesus.

One might reasonably imagine the disciples, having this story dropped on them, might be a little perplexed. This, from the Son of God? This from the anointed one? This, from the savior of the world?

Apparently, Our Lord wants to teach us about religion through a story about a man who is dishonest, corrupt and effectively untrustworthy. Perhaps some of the more snarky of Jesus’ followers may have quietly said to themselves, “Oh that Jesus, there he goes again.”

This Jesus, who, on a solemn occasion reported elsewhere in the Gospels, joked about camels walking through eyes of needles. This Jesus, who learning that all the disciples wanted after a fruitless night’s fishing was a small breakfast, gave them 153 whoppers that broke the nets and flooded the boat. These Jesus, who after hearing from His mother that the party at the Wedding in Cana needed, maybe half dozen more bottles of wine, gave instead a hundred and twenty gallons of heavenly vintage.

This Jesus, in His perfect humanity, embraced a sense of humor, what some have called a sense of “lightsomeness,” and others a holy sense of irony. “Irony” in the wider world can mean contradictory, or deliberate ambiguity. In the biblical tradition, yes; but moreso, irony implies both reason and wonder in man’s approach to the transcendent. Many of Our Lord’s sayings are “irony”: mysterious, paradoxical, offering simple teaching which contains inexhaustible profundity as well. For example, as we heard recently: To love God we must hate parents and friends; to be rich we need to become poor; to reach maturity means to become as little children. Our Lord’s sayings must mean far more than is immediately apparent, not because scholars get clever with the biblical text but because they are spoken by the Son of God. “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” is either an exhortation to suicide or it is irony.

This strongly implies that a sense of humor is not barely permissible to religion but  in fact, a profound religious quality: pride, as we have said, is the root of all the sins, and the worst form of pride is to take oneself too seriously. As the 20th-century English writer G.K. Chesterton has it, “Humour . . . is the chief antidote to pride.” A sense of humor allows us to be comfortable with not only the seeming strangeness of many of Our Lord’s sayings and teachings, but also with oddities of parish life, and the strangeness, even impossible to understand passages from the Old Testament that seem to defy logic and good sense—Jonah spending three days in the belly of a great fish, to take one of dozens of examples. If we expect that God’s will for us will be straightforward, clear and easy, the tradition of the Church shows us that we will be disappointed. But if we expect that God’s will, as it is revealed, will be inconvenient, awkward and at times confusing, everything will be quite smooth. A sense of humor is a profound religious quality.

So it is by this corrupt, incompetent manager that Our Lord will have us learn about religion. The manager’s ability to respond to this crisis, “literally a visitation of his Lord,” is where the religious dimension of this story lies. This is the example our Lord is teaching to the disciples. As the manager is discerning and responsive to the visitation of his Lord, we should be so discerning and responsive about the visitation of Our Lord. Again, Blessed Mary is our best example: at the visitation of God by means of the angel Gabriel, Mary discerned and she responded by offering herself completely to God’s will: “Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’” God’s summons to us makes for something of an emergency situation, a never-ending day of reckoning. Are we quick enough to see what to do in the situation, and are we ready to take what may seem to be reckless action?

And are we ready to forgive? The manager quickly forgives the debts owed to someone else. How much more does Our Lord invite us — challenge us — to forgive the debts owed to us, the wounds we have received. If we cannot prove our worth, by forgiving in an unrighteous world, how unfitted are we for the wealth, the healing, the glory of God’s forgiveness.