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Dying Laughing

August 26, 2007

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 13     Luke 14:1-14


“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If we really were a Christian nation this would be a fitting motto. Perhaps because we live down under everyone else, there is something appealing about down being up and up being down. Have you noticed, it shows up in our banknotes? We put Edmund Hillary who climbed to earth’s highest heights on the $5 note – our lowest denomination. And then, in a country that has a very low view of anything nuclear, we put the man who first split the atom, Ernest Rutherford, on the $100 note – our highest denomination.


Ironic? Yes. Coincidence? I think not. I first learned about our national obsession with humility while still in the States reading up on my soon to be adopted country. Like Jesus, we consider it bad manners to exaggerate our own importance. From far away it seemed quite charming. Certainly it was egalitarian. It wasn’t until I got here that I understood that humility wasn’t a self-imposed Kiwi discipline. Anyone getting too full of themselves can expect a joke at their expense to cut them down to size. An example of Kiwi humour would be the farmer who when his donkey died called his local councilman, who told him he would have to bury it himself. He said, “Oh, I know that, I’m calling to offer my condolences to his relatives.”


In reflecting on the Gospel and Kiwi humour I wondered if it was also a coincidence that humility, humour and humanity share the same root. It isn’t. It is from the mother of language, Sanskrit, and means humus. All three are interestingly enough related to rotting kitchen garbage and autumn leaves.


The ancient Hindus, who spoke Sanskrit, apparently had a nice sense of irony. Like Kiwis, they understood the value of humus – rich soil that supports new life, but is created by the degradation of life. Any Kiwi turning their humus pile on a Sunday afternoon understands that earth is both a grave that swallows up and a womb that burst forth. It is the natural order. We are part of that order and nothing we do changes this reality. That doesn’t keep us from trying, but all is vanity. All we can really do is joke about it. When we laugh at our plight we share in the divine laughter. Even though it is an old joke, it brings tears of laughter.


In light of these thoughts I re-read Luke’s story of Jesus attending a Pharisee’s black tie dinner. I wondered if Luke is trying to tell a joke. Now he is no Fred Dagg, our beloved Kiwi comic, but it would read better as a joke. Jesus, a Pharisee and a man with dropsy walk into a bar…


After setting up the joke, Luke has Jesus heal a man with dropsy on the Sabbath. Why “dropsy?” Why isn’t the man blind or deaf or epileptic? While the name itself sounds a little humorous, I thought there had to be more of a reason. Not knowing what dropsy was, I Googled it. It is water retention that gives us puffy eyes in the morning and swollen feet and ankles at night. We call it œdema the curse of mothers-to-be and those who spend their 8-hour day on their feet. While we know it is a symptom and not a disease, in Jesus day they thought it was a disease of having an unquenchable thirst for water. It was a disease of never having enough. We know not having enough isn’t a disease. It is a symptom of the human condition. We all know about wanting more. We invented the concept. Blaise Paschal first touched on why describing a god-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person. This hole leaves us feeling incomplete. Nature abhors a vacuum so we suck in anything we can to fill it. Paschal thought it explained our desire for God. The existentialist Jean Paul Sartre agreed that there was a god-shaped hole in each of us. It was left there when God died. Either way, they agree there is a hole to fill, leaving us seeking more.


Now that the context for the joke is set, Luke’s Jesus teases his hosts. Jesus asks if it is OK to heal on the Sabbath? Jesus knows the Law and he knows the answer and he knows the Pharisees know that he knows. He also knows they are fond of the Law and the Sabbath because they are its enforcers. It works to their benefit. It gives them power and importance protecting God’s will. But he also knows they know that life isn’t always so neat as the Law makes out. Sometimes it is something they value that requires bending the Law to protect. He has caught them in his little trap. They know it and like smart lawyers everywhere they remain silent rather than testify against themselves.


Since everyone loves a lawyer joke (even lawyers), we smile along with the other party guests at how neatly Jesus takes the piss out of them. Only Jesus knows he hasn’t given the punch line yet. He isn’t after just lawyers, but you and me as well. After the guests and we scramble to sit next to him, the guest of honour tells an after dinner story that seems to be about good etiquette, but in truth is a joke about the secret of making good humus. We facilitate the natural order by turning the leaves and garbage. Rotating the top layer to the bottom and the bottom to the top is an act of cooperation with the natural order, be it material or spiritual. All things living are dying from the moment of conception and in death all life is beginning. Nothing is discarded, but it benefits from being rotated. Nothing escapes this truth. That is the way it is. Full stop. Power, wealth, prestige, the addiction of our choice will not deter death. Get a clue he is telling us. When we resist this divine truth, thinking we are too good for the humus pile or to turn it, we are in denial. We are no different than the man with dropsy or the lawyers. The joke is on us.


If he ended here, it would be a cruel joke. All we would be left with is an empty longing in the god-shaped hole in our soul. Our laughter would be hollow.


But the joke isn’t over. What makes a joke good is an unexpected twist at the end. As he proceeds with the joke describing what can happen if we invite ourselves to the head table, he has us squirming uncomfortably in our seats. Then he relieves the tension by encouraging us to throw a party. That sounds good; a nice escape from our reality. But he then tosses a twist into the twist. He says it will be a better party if we invite disposable people – the kitchen garbage of our society – “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” By “throw a party” he means accept that we are part of the humus pile.


We might forget to laugh if we think he is talking about being politically correct, but that is not the case. And for unapologetic liberals like myself he isn’t talking about justice either – at least not directly. He is telling us of a surprising way to fill our god-shaped hole.


In comedy timing is everything. Some times we have to wait for the audience to get it. Jesus waits, wondering if his joke will bomb. Finally, the hush is broken by a few chuckles, “Oh! It isn’t about bad manners, but good earth.” Good earth requires worms and bacteria to do the work of transformation. Our spiritual lives require love and compassion to do the same work. As long as we see society’s scraps as useless garbage different from us, it is we who are useless to the cycle of life. We remain empty focused on death, cut off from the mystery of life it nurtures. Love and compassion are the worms and bacteria that the kitchen scraps offer us. We join them in the humus pile for our sake, not theirs. They are what transform us into something useful and life giving. With enough time we discover the god-shaped hole is filled with good humus and good humour making us fully human, fully alive. “Who would’ve thought,” as we laugh out loud applauding Jesus, the life of the party.

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