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The Foolishness of Jesus

Wisdom & Foolishness in the Perennial Tradition

A pdf version of this commentary to print and read can be found here.

Mosaic of Jesus Christ from Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine Church of the Holy Wisdom, Istanbul, 6th C.

“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”  The apostle Paul, I Cor. 3.19a

 “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”  The 18 C. English poet, Alexander Pope

Wise men say only fools rush in.”  The King of Rock & Roll, Elvis Presley, 1964

Wisdom is often mistaken as knowledge, prudence or pragmatism; whereas foolishness is equally regarded sometimes to be the kind of fool-hearted thing Jesus would have characteristically espoused with many of his confounding ideas about God, God’s ways and how we ought to treat one another. Truth be told, there are plenty of people who consider themselves much too smart to take seriously some of the darn fool things Jesus actually said and meant.  But Jesus was no ordinary fool.

One of the modern misconceptions about Jesus, and the movement that arose as a result of his life and death, is the confusion with regard to both his uniqueness and ordinariness. Believers are often charmed with the idea Jesus fits conveniently into – and therefore concurs with — the normative conventions of our world; while simultaneously assuring us he is the one and only way to our own special place in the next.

In other words, for those who consider themselves a friend to the kind of Jesus who likes things just the way they are, an even better, exclusive offer awaits. Such is the so-called wisdom of much religious claptrap.

In contrast – and, while Jesus never made any allusions to being the one and only messiah of God — those who chose early on to follow his teaching certainly regarded him as the One for them. For them, Jesus uniquely represented the revelatory face of God. In this context, one might then ask in what way was either his extraordinary wisdom, or extraordinary foolishness, unlike others?


Send in the Clown

If he’d even bothered to look in the mirror, Jesus likely saw himself as simply a teacher or sage in a wisdom tradition with which he was clearly familiar; as evidenced by the way he usurped, adapted and modified a number of wisdom sayings that would have already been known to his listeners in one form or another.  He would have also seen himself as one in a long line of prophets or reformers, following John the Baptist and his own religious reformation tradition.

Through the gospel portrayals of him, Jesus was also seen to be a spirit person, or mystic, who was clearly in touch with the spiritual dimension of the divine with which he knew himself to be infused. This is depicted not only by those contemplative moments when he regularly withdrew from those who followed him “to a lonely place to pray.”  It was also reflected in the manner with which he encountered everyone with an indiscriminate openness and radically egalitarian point of view.

As such – and, albeit in his own unique way – he drew deeply from the common well of those universal truths and divine mysteries that can be found in all great religious traditions, from one age to the next. In this sense, he was truly both unique and authentically common or ordinary.  His wisdom was not only a familiar kind of wisdom (the Golden Rule of compassionate living, for example); but one that also characteristically confounded and confronted those crafty types who presumed to know what was still the wiser way to try to conform the world around them to their own self will.

In their eyes, Jesus would have been regarded as a clown. In light of such opposing views of wisdom and foolishness, what then is the importance of such an understanding of the man, Jesus?

When the Galilean sage is understood as neither a fool, nor a messianic miracle worker “not of this world,” one can begin to take seriously the risky business implied in the gospel collections of his fool-hearted teachings and adapted wisdom sayings, aphorisms and parables.

Furthermore, I would suggest, the foolish wisdom of Jesus can even be found in the gospel’s miracle stories; where those supernatural feats attributed to him are typically presumed to be the point of the story, and faith is made synonymous with simply believing what any sane person would be a fool to believe. Where awe and amazement typically overshadow situations that on the surface appear to be imprudent, improbable, reckless or ludicrous, the greater miracle and message in those stories might well be understood as the exchange of one kind of folly for another.

Where awe and amazement typically overshadow situations that on the surface appear to be … foolish, the greater miracle and message … might well be understood as the exchange of one kind of folly for another.

Behind the Greasepaint

For those earliest believers who may have felt compelled to play the part themselves, Jesus was no fool. The Jesus tradition in the canonical gospels portrays the earthly Jesus as a teacher, healer and miracle worker. They also – each in their own way – lay out the case for asserting this 1st century Jewish peasant rabbi to be the Son of God, the face of God, the presence of God; the one who comes from God, and — defying the bonds of earthly mortality — returns to God.

In other words, Jesus the spirit person who was wise enough to have figured out a way to be intimately in touch with the divine presence all around us is also presumed to be the Christ, the anointed One, the very Messiah of God.  As if to prove the point, the miracle stories in the gospels repeatedly portray him with supernatural powers, as suitable credentials for such an acclamation.

What the gospel tradition doesn’t mention much – except by implication with an occasional inference to distinguishing Jesus from other false prophets, messiahs and charlatans – is that the religious landscape of the ancient world was littered with human/divine sons of God who were not only empowered with seeming magical powers; but espoused their own version of truth and wisdom, as well.

So those who chose to follow the way of Jesus made a deliberate choice that wasn’t simply one of the “truth” over all the false choices in this world, with which we are all continually presented; but one that was, in fact, also part of a spiritual tradition that did not originate with Jesus, nor would he have claimed was of his own invention.  In other words, Jesus was a part of what was a wisdom tradition that set itself over against distinctly different “truths” espoused by other schools of thought.

The wisdom tradition of which Jesus was a part could be said to have had two defining characteristics. First, it was a part of a larger spiritual questing that is common in all the great religious traditions; in a word, seeking union with a divine reality which permeates everything.

In this sense, there was nothing unique about Jesus’ vocation or personhood.  This is sometimes referred to as the perennial tradition; because it perpetually and irrepressibly manifests itself again and again in the long line of sages and prophets, imams and rabbis, saints and mystics and “little” buddhas.

The other common characteristic of this perennial wisdom tradition is what is often described as its paradoxical nature.  For example, there is knowledge to be found in unknowing, in acknowledging the inscrutable mystery of the divine. Or, profound simplicity can offer deeper, more profound truths.  And, here’s a big one: If you want to find yourself, lose yourself.  That is, only in dying to one’s self can one then be raised to new life.

But such trust and surrender are counter-intuitive to our human nature. It does not appear to us to be the smart thing to do.  And so we struggle and resist what we perceive or presume to be such foolish advice. This is where the uniqueness of Jesus’ foolishness is at its best.

For example, when the rich young man asks the rabbi Jesus what more he must do than astutely obey all the rules to be assured a place in the eternal presence of the Divine, and Jesus tells him to dispossess himself of all that he has and follow him, the inquirer turns and flees in the opposite direction (Lk18:18).

For all his self-justification in the guise of earnest inquiry, the rich young man who’s done everything right doesn’t really want to hear such foolishness.  It appears to be as unappealing to him as it is perpetually and universally true.  But then again, who wouldn’t prefer to hold on to what you’ve got, and want the easy way out?

The easy way is that “wide door,” as opposed to the more difficult and less attractive “narrow door,” which Jesus tells us we should strive to enter (Lk13:24).  Many will try, Jesus tells us, and not be able.  Why?  Is it our lack of cleverness, agility or ability? No. In the face of our own awareness and capacity to do otherwise, we nonetheless resist.

For example, we’re smart enough to know that gross disparity between wealth and poverty leads to inequity and economic injustice; but we like to believe equality simply means everyone should have the same opportunity to win or lose, and let the winner take all

Or, we’re smart enough to know violence only begets more violence; but we continue to want to believe we can outsmart our enemies with “smart” weapon technology and a bigger stick.  The simple truths espoused by the perennial wisdom tradition of which Jesus was a proponent is typically dismissed as simplistic naiveté.

In stark contrast, the wisdom tradition of which Jesus was a part clearly says such conventional wisdom is, in fact, utter folly.


Preaching Foolishness

Again this is most evident in Jesus’ preaching and teaching in parables. The Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) begins a compilation of teachings by taking the whole notion of who will be blessed — and in Luke’s parallel Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:20-49), who will be cursed – and turns conventional wisdom on its head.

In what might be described as a beatific apocalyptic reversal that is announced as the in-breaking reign of God, the meek and the weak come out on top. Peacemakers, not war-makers, are the ones heralded as heroes.  And those who suffer for the sake of such foolishness will be called the children of God. In other words, the last and the least are the ones who’ll at last find themselves in the presence of the God of such foolish wisdom.

Elsewhere in the same collection of sayings, when Jesus points out the hypocrisy of ostentatious prayers, fasting and almsgiving, the unrecognized “rewards” for those who would instead perform such acts of charity “in secret” would seem a fool’s errand (Mt.6).  But Jesus’ foolish notions do not end there.

Every time we subsequently hear the line, “You have learned …, but what I say to you,” we quickly learn he’s going to take conventional wisdom, exchange it for what would otherwise appear to be sheer folly, and play the fool:  Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, forgive so many times you lose count, and give anyone in need the shirt off your back, and your coat as well (Mt.5).  None of them very smart moves.

Simply proposing such foolish notions is bad enough.  The gospel writer ends this collection of wisdom sayings by suggesting they actually practice what Jesus is preaching; likening one who does so to the wise man who built his house on rock, instead of the fool who built his house on sand (Mt 7).


The Parables of Foolishness

In addition to Jesus’ subversive take on such wisdom sayings and teachings, we have his unique collection of parables; which are generally considered by scholars to be the closest thing we can get to the original notions espoused by this itinerant Galilean rabbi.  And again, we find the parables filled with the same kind of foolishness as his teachings.

For instance, what fool would risk losing an entire flock by leaving them unprotected in an effort to find one dumb enough to stray?

Or, what fool would risk violating their religion’s purity codes by consorting with the unclean, the sinner, those who’d presumably fallen out of divine favor and were beyond the pale?

Who’d be fool enough to risk their own safety to help a stranger who’d been beaten and left for dead by the side of the road; and then provide a blank check for God’s sake for their health care and recuperation?

Who’d scatter seed indiscriminately?

Who’d expect the day laborer who showed up at the end of a long shift to get paid as much as one who’d toiled all day in the hot sun; as if grace and compassion should count for more than the hard work and success of the self-made man?

Who wouldn’t tear down his barn to build a bigger one, in order to accumulate more stuff?  And Jesus calls him the fool? What kind of foolishness is this?

If this is what the kingdom of God is really like, the crafty and savvy of this world would say it’s a ship of fools.

Which brings us around to looking at a couple of the gospel’s so-called miracle stories; with the suggestion that beneath the surface meaning and even original intention of the telling and retelling these fanciful tales, they too plumb the depths of divine foolishness.


The Foolishness in Miracles

Mark, the earliest of the four canonical gospels, tells the tale about Jesus stilling a storm at sea (Mk 4:35-412).  The boat is taking on water and the disciples fear they’re perishing. Meanwhile, Jesus is oblivious, “asleep on a cushion” in the stern.  They wake him, he rebukes the wind, and the seas are calmed.

Jesus asks them why they are filled with fear instead of faith, but all they can do is express their awe and amazement at such a display of superhuman power.  His question goes unanswered, but there’s another more obvious one that is only implied in such a ludicrous scenario.  What damn fool would presume to sleep through such a nightmarish scene?

Two chapters later in the same gospel — following the fool-hearty notion you can feed five thousand hungry people with a couple loaves of bread – Jesus sends his disciples off in their boat for the opposite shore (Mk6:45-52).  Despite a considerable head start, he finds them early the next morning still straining at the oars against a strong headwind and getting nowhere.  (Read between the lines: They’ve not yet gotten to the other side, and a different way of seeing things.)

When they see him approaching, skimming the surface of the water, they cannot fathom a deeper reality. They can only imagine it’s a ghost, an apparition of the old way of seeing things. No wonder they’re filled with fright. Any damned fool knows it’s a frightening world out there.

But Jesus climbs into their boat, and suddenly the headwinds they’d failed to overcome cease.  In Jesus’ opposing presence, one kind of foolishness is replaced by another, and they’re saved; but the deeper point is lost. “And they were utterly astounded,” Mark says, “for they did not understand about the loaves (the miraculous feeding of the 5,000), but their hearts were hardened.”  If only they too could walk on water. In a word, if only their hearts of stone could float.

In Jesus’ opposing presence, one kind of foolishness is replaced by another, and they’re saved; but the deeper point is lost. …   If only they too could walk on water. In a word, if only their hearts of stone could float.

In fact, that’s exactly what the subsequent gospel writer Matthew relates when he retells the same story from Mark, and ups the ante (Mt14:22-33).  It’s the same setting, same story, but this time Peter calls out to Jesus when they recognize him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus challenges him with the same simple invitation offered repeatedly through the gospels, “Come.”

Peter steps out of the old boat and into a new reality. He finds he’s able to perform a supernatural feat no less miraculous than that of Jesus.

In his amazement, perhaps Peter had even wondered to himself in that moment if it really was possible to see and do everything in such a fool-hearty way as Jesus had repeatedly shown them. Only when he begins to doubt that kind of foolishness does Rocky begin to sink like a stone (‘petros’ Gr. stone).

On the surface of such miracle stories, the gospel writer may well have wished to attribute to Jesus such supernatural powers as manipulating and controlling nature; not only nature, but that which uncontrolled nature represents, namely the unpredictable and otherwise-invincible chaos that lurks in the fathomless depths of this world.  Drawing as Matthew liked to do from the Jewish scriptures, Jesus’ powers are portrayed as one who is co-equal and co-creative with the One who in the beginning created and subdued the world around us.

But whatever you want to make of such a magical feat that you can choose to either disbelieve, or literally swallow hook, line and sinker, there is a something one could consider to be even more miraculous.  After all, you’d have to be a fool to think you could leap from a boat and defy the natural law of gravity.

But when you plumb the depths of such a miracle story, the deeper message and meaning is to be found in discovering what has been there from the beginning, and truly, whole-heartedly believing it for the first time.

Namely, if and when our human folly was replaced by the foolishness of Jesus, that would indeed be a most wondrous miracle.


Fool’s Gold

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The kind of foolishness Jesus espoused did not begin with him.  The juxtaposition of differing kinds of wisdom and foolishness is found throughout the biblical story.

The rainbow covenant was a fool’s wager. There’s Sarah’s incredulous laugh at God’s generative promise, Moses’ foolishness that nonetheless parts the waters or draws drink from rock, David’s silly tap dance — all utter tomfoolery.

Jesus not only carries on the noble tradition of reiterating and adapting wisdom sayings; he exemplifies the biblical tradition of foolishness, as well.

And, in the new covenant story, the first disciple’s impetuously leave their former life and livelihood behind, to begin their voyage to the other side; as if in the act of doing so they might discover a kind of fool’s gold, and a different kind of wisdom that would be of more value than everything else.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,” the Galilean sage taught, in his foolishness. “When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Mt13:44)


© 2012 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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