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Christ the Fool

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What is it about mockery that hurts so much? We all know. Mockery causes shame. It strips us. It exposes us. Mockery isolates some feature of another human being and then holds it up so everybody can see it and laugh and whistle. You isolate what you find so peculiar about another human being. Maybe you imitate it. Or, best of all, you force your victim to mock himself. So if you are a Nazi, you capture a rabbi and you make him preach. If you are Babylonian guards, you force the Jewish exiles to put on a nightclub act for you with their sacred temple songs. In the 16th century, Calvinists could simultaneously mock and murder Anabaptists by drowning them. (You believe in baptism by immersion? Here, get your fill of it.)

Much childhood mockery seems to arise from ignorance and insecurity. Provincial children mock an accent or a style of clothing. Cruel children mock another child for being clumsy or homely. Ignorant children ridicule classmates who are artistic or gay.

But ignorant sources of mockery remove none of its sting. Mockery is meant to hurt, and it does. Most twelve-year-olds would rather be slugged than mocked. If you are the parent of a child who is being mocked by a group, and you see it just once, you will never forget.

The same thing is true if you are a follower of the Lord:

Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hey there, King of the Jews,” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off his robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him (Mt. 27:27- 31).

Matthew shows us one of the depths of our Lord’s suffering. Here are some Roman soldiers who are bored sick with their job. But they’ve gotten hold of this Jewish carpenter who thinks he’s a king. So the soldiers set him up and run him through their burlesque. They strip him down and dress him up. They hurt him and jeer him and smack him around. In a vile irony, they kneel before their king not in humility, but in mock humility. They horse around with the Lord of life, never seeing for a moment that he had come into the world to absorb just such wickedness as theirs.

The soldiers think they have a fool on their hands and they think that’s funny. But since he is a Jewish fool, it’s not so funny. These soldiers are as anti-Semitic as an occupying force can be. They hate Jews and try to hurt them whenever they can. Dereliction by Randall Nyhof Doesn’t everybody know Jews are hard to govern? Doesn’t everybody know they’re pushy and demanding? Aren’t they famous for their chutzpah? And now here’s one who takes the cake. So, then, time for a little worship. “Hey, there, King of the Jews” they shout at this silent man. “Yo! King of the Jews.” Hey! Kike-King! Jew-King! In another cultural context they would have said “Nigger-King.”

Do we have enough in us to take this scene to heart? You recall Isaiah 53. In Isaiah 53 bystanders think that a fool just gets what he deserves. A fool is stricken by God, smitten by God, and afflicted. But, no, says Isaiah. No, the suffering servant is bearing our griefs. He’s carrying our sorrows. And mockery is meant to cause a special grief and an especially bitter sorrow. Mockery is meant to cause shame–the shame of being stripped, and isolated, and publically hurt. In fact, the Romans reserved crucifixion for persons they wanted not only to kill, but also to humiliate. Crucifixion exposed a person– first by stripping, and then by publicly assaulting his flesh and tendon and bone, and then by presenting the person, now trapped and maimed, as a spectacle. The crucified one knew that he was naked, and if he did not, the catcalls of local wags and jokers would remind him. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ–“that howling wilderness event,” as Moltmann calls it–stripped our Lord not only of his clothing, not only of his dignity, but also of his friends and disciples, who largely left him. Finally he lost even the comfort of God.

“They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hey there, Jew-King,’ they said.”

Those who mock like to have a victim they can control. Johannes Neuhausler (What Was it Like in the Concentration Camp at Dachau?) tells us that Nazis had a special fondness for mockery as a pleasant way of killing time and killing the spirits of prisoners. The camp commandant at Dachau used to lead bigwig Nazi visitors to the jail where especially distinguished prisoners could be presented. Much was made of the presenting: it showed who controlled whom. In looking over their visitor list, the Nazis could decide which prisoners they wanted to feature. It was so amusing on a given Thursday to feature a scabby, dehydrated bishop or a professor now clearly insane. It was so satisfying to gather in a ring around some humiliated officer or artist or journalist, to have them in your power, to make them go through their paces. Sometimes the prisoners were stripped and forced to run back and forth in front of the guest assembly’s whistles and catcalls.

Such wickedness has a history, and Matthew reports the center of it. How hard it is for us to accept his report! We like to think of our suffering Lord as a tragic figure, sorrow and love flowing mingled down. We like to dwell on his courage and deeply mysterious sense of alienation. But can we absorb Matthew’s picture of Christ as a fool? Here he is, ringed by hooting soldiers, draped with somebody’s motheaten bathrobe, adorned with that sick joke of a crown, his beard matted with other men’s spit. Here is the king of heaven, somebody’s boot in his back, lurching around a drill ground while soldiers kneel and giggle. Here in the depths of St. Matthew’s passion is God made to look absurd.

He was bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows. He was suffering not only for human sin, but also from it–from one of the vilest forms of it. Mockery is mortifying. And in this case the Roman soldiers may have been working from an old rule of human sin: we human beings not only hurt people we hate, we also hate people we have hurt. If we hurt them badly enough, they eventually look so ragged and bloody and awful that even they feel as if they’d be better off dead. So we kill them. Telling the story of Jesus in his humiliation, Matthew shows us the link between mockery and death: “After they had mocked him, they… put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.”

Where mockery is concerned, crucifixion is just a way of finishing it off.

Cornelius Plantinga Jr. is president of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a contributing editor to Perspectives.