I’m married to a woman with a quirky sense of humour. A sense of humour that’s so deep you sometimes don’t know you’ve been had until days later, when she sighs deeply and explains, as if to a small child, ‘that was a joke, Evan’. As Alison will freely admit, she cracks herself up.
Like the time a few years ago when I got a phone call from a young man named “Bob” who told me he and his friends were keen to join our youth group. ‘At last’, I thought – ‘a customer!’ – and told him all about the good times he and his mates could have in our church hall on a Friday evening – Alison says she felt so sorry for me then she didn’t have the heart to interrupt me – though that didn’t stop her having a good laugh later when she confessed that she was “Bob”.
This is the woman who sent her sister and her new husband a pair of personalised coffee mugs as a wedding present – except their names are Chris and Gavin – not “Barbara” and “Walter”. Or who decided, one year, to buy silly birthday presents for the whole family from a mail order catalogue – my brother-in-law is still scratching his head about the wind-up flashlight. My other brother-in-law got the last laugh – he found his strap on spiked lawn aerator shoes so useful he’s still using them, years later.
The point is, with humour, you either get it or you don’t. If you have to explain why this sort of stuff is funny, then it isn’t any more. If you over-analyse it, you miss the point. I’ve learned to just go with the flow.
Jesus, in our Gospel story today, sounds just a bit exasperated. We’ve come in to the story a bit late, just after the point where John the Baptist, having been arrested for telling King Herod off, chained up and destined to lose his head any day now - John, who had spent his career warning everybody to repent quick smart, and who told people Jesus was God’s Messiah who was supposed to come crashing in at the end of all things with the fire and judgement of God in his hands – right at the end of his life John gets the collywobbles and wonders whether he has backed the wrong horse. Jesus isn’t behaving the right way! John, the stern denouncer of other people’s sins, the prophet who lived out in the desert in smelly animal skins and ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey – John just doesn’t get a Jesus who refuses to tell people off, who eats and drinks with ratbags and scoundrels, a so-called prophet who emphasises not the judgement of God but the priority of God for human freedom and joy. So John manages to smuggle a message out of jail, ‘are you really the one?’, he asks. ‘Or, did I get it wrong?’
And then there’s the bit that today’s reading leaves out in the very middle – always the bits the lectionary writers avoid that turn out to be the most telling! – Jesus starts having a few failures. After sending the disciples out on a solo mission he goes on a little reconnoitre of his own – but the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum – Jesus own hometown – don’t want to know. They don’t get the point. Jesus does start talking about judgement here, in fact Jesus gets very cranky indeed - and why? These aren’t famous fleshpots of ancient Galilee, just minor Jewish villages that probably didn’t really deserve to be lumped in with the likes of Sodom and Gomorrah in the punishment stakes. They just didn’t get the point.
And so Jesus wonders out loud about ‘this generation’ who don’t seem to be able to read the signs of the times, who don’t seem to know what they even want. ‘The children’ in this little parable seem to be Jesus and John themselves – one beckoning all the other kids to play party games and the other trying to get them to join in a funeral procession. ‘Damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ seems to be the gist of it. John the Baptist was too gloomy for you, his demands for holiness and repentance were too much for you to swallow, then when I come along telling you about the hospitality of God, eating and drinking as though the good times are already here, the time of waiting is over and the party has already started – when I tell you that God’s future is already here because God is already actively involved in the world, transforming human hearts and overturning structures of injustice – then you dismiss me as a party boy. You tell me I should be more serious.
It’s the exasperated note of a leader who just wants us to lighten up a bit. In the marvellous Monty Python movie, ‘The Life of Brian’, Jesus is preaching his famous sermon on the mount, but the crowds are really huge and Brian finds himself in a little group over on the next hill. ‘Blessed are the peace-makers’, Jesus shouts, over in the distance. ‘What did he say?’, someone says. ‘Something about cheesemakers? What’s so special about cheesemakers, I’d like to know?’ ‘You can’t take it too literally’, some know-it-all tells him. ‘It’s not just about cheesemakers, he really means any purveyor of dairy products’.
Stop over-analysing. Stop hanging on my every word as though you want to make a religion out of it. Just watch what I’m doing. Just watch my priorities, because they are God’s priorities – to set free the ones who are locked in cages of their own selfishness, to give sight to those who can’t see the wood for the trees, to bring new life to people whose hearts are dead to the beauty and joy of God’s creation. Children get it. Grown-ups often don’t. It’s not about the quality of our liturgy, which hymns we sing, it’s not about whether we see ourselves as evangelical, or progressive, or Anglo-Catholic. It’s about whether we live with hearts that are open, whether we recognise and respond to the God-presence that fills creation and whether we live in a way that brings the compassion of God into the lives of others.
‘Wisdom’, Jesus tells us, ‘is vindicated by her deeds’. Elsewhere he says the same thing more picturesquely: ‘a tree is known by its fruit’ – or as Samwise Gamgee puts it in ‘Lord of the Rings, ‘fancy is as fancy does’.
Then, when he’s had his grouch, comes the invitation to all of us who are feeling overburdened and overwhelmed. This is one of the all-time favourite images of the Gospels, an image of sacred rest after four Sundays in a row of hearing about the challenges and costs of discipleship. ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light’.
When you really think about it, it’s an odd sort of metaphor. A yoke is something you put on a beast of burden, a restraint, but something that also serves to spread the load, that makes the task possible We all wear the yokes of multiple responsibilities and commitments, human beings can’t live without giving their heart to something. But as St Paul comments in today’s reading, compared to the impossibility of living by rules and regulations, by factions and ‘isms’, the ‘yoke’ that Jesus wants to share with us is experienced as freedom – to love God and neighbour, to learn from Jesus how to live the reality that all creation resonates with the beauty and joy of God.
It sounds naive, at best. A hippie religion, just have a good time. Delight in God’s creation, delight in one another. But Jesus knows what’s just up ahead – he knows he’s going to cop the fury of those who take religion so seriously that they miss the point. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds – wisdom is revealed in miracles of sharing and compassion. Jesus, who sees himself as following in the best Wisdom traditions of the Hebrew Bible, invites us in like the woman on the street in Proverbs who calls passers-by to share her feast. It’s an invitation to let our hair down, a call to inclusiveness and lightness of spirit that is the opposite of the sort of religion that interprets scripture as a list of demands and rules.
It’s no accident, I think, that the very next story in Matthew’s gospel is about an argument over what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath. Is it OK for Jesus’ disciples to pick heads of wheat and eat them? – I think that when Jesus says, ‘the Sabbath was made for people, not the other way around’, he’s not just affirming the setting aside of regulations to meet a situation of desperate need - but that it’s actually OK to pluck a few heads of grain just to enjoy the stringy chewing-gum taste and texture of half-chewed wheat while you’re walking along deep in conversation.
It’s about joy – God’s joy that’s expressed in the goodness of creation. Our joy – not just in some far-off heaven but right here and now, if we’ll allow ourselves to experience it, right in the middle of the busy-ness, the seriousness and sometimes the pain of everyday life. You’ve just got to get used to God’s sense of humour.