Continuing my beef with Hollywood big budget Bible movies and their failure to include any of the humor in or implied in the text, making for unnecessarily dreary epic after unnecessarily dreary epic….
There are the for-the-most-part humorless, fairly lifeless Jesus movies (Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter and Life of Brian being, of course, notable exceptions, although neither purports to be presenting what's written in the Bible). More recently, as part of the History Channel mini-series (and then expanded into its own film Son of God) we were treated to a Jesus who smiles a lot , at least at first (which is especially sweet since the actor playing him looks so much like Brad Pitt).
Even so, with this much rosier Messiah, the expression on those to whom he teaches about the Kingdom of God is always the same: complete solemn reverence. We see the usually-massive crowds intently listening to Jesus, taking everything in without question, completely understanding and embracing what he’s saying the minute it lands on their ears. We don't see anyone express shock, surprised jubilation, skepticism, confusion or doubt. And, God forbid, no one laughs.
Somewhere down the production line it has gotten lost that Jesus’ main mode of teaching was in parables (ie riddles). Riddles have punch lines. Riddles make us laugh once we get the joke! Riddles make us scratch our head and furrow our brows when we don’t. And that’s not the only way Jesus taught. He also used satiric hyperbole to mock the behavior of those in power and amuse (and awaken) those who were oppressed. He was wickedly clever in the ways he taught the crowds to stand up for themselves and effectively break unjust systems without capitulating to violence. Various previous blogs in The Comic Lens further discuss this all.
One of the scenes you’ll always find in a Jesus movie (except perhaps in Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter because there the Lord is too busy saving lesbians in Ottawa), is the one where, surrounded or in front of a doting, mostly impoverished crowd, he imparts his now-well-known “Beatitudes.” True to Hollywood form, once Jesus begins saying “Blessed are those who are poor -- or poor in Spirit -- for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” and then moves onto naming the merciful, the mournful, the peacemakers and the persecuted blessed, to name a few, Jesus' voice tends only to increase in mellifluousness, as does the swell of the violins in the soundtrack background. The crowd, of course, sits in utter stillness, taking it all fully, and most seriously, in.
Here is the "Beatitudes" scene from Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth." No laughing, now!
I wonder, however, if what is really going on is much more tumultuous. What Jesus is saying to the crowd is so far from what it would have understood as proper rabbinical thinking it may have sounded, at least initially, patently absurd. Could Jesus' brazen, uncompromising, rhythmic pronouncements about blessing have created, and intentionally, the same kind of crazy, anarchistic stir we witness (and enjoy) when, for example, Groucho Marx's Rufus T. Firefly, newly appointed ruler of Freedonia, announces (tunefully) "The Laws of My Administration" (from Duck Soup)?
We laugh at this song because the laws Rufus lays down are so silly (and/or so wrong). We also laugh because we recognize through his zany, smart foolishness, a stinging critique of political leadership everywhere.
I wonder if what Jesus was doing initially with his announcement of "The Beatitudes" was, like Groucho, baldly (and joyfully) mocking and critiquing Temple authorities and parodying their corrupt, misguided understanding of God's ways. Not only were the Temple brass so wrong in insisting it's the wealthy, worldly powerful, militarily victorious, high-status characters in society who are God's favored (and why it's sooo important to follow the purity codes even more strictly so you might have the chance to receive some of this good stuff) -- not only is their obsession with the blessing/curse code in Deuteronomy 28 way off-base -- but they're nothing more than a bunch of pompous ninnies!
I wonder, too, if, as they hear Jesus in no uncertain terms spell out who is truly blessed (or, even more absurdly, happy, if we use the Common English Bible translation for Jesus' Beatitudes) -- "Happy are people who are hopeless! Happy are people who grieve! Happy are people who make peace! Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Rejoice and be glad!" -- the crowd is thinking, "Is this guy for real or is he some kind of nut???" We're so familiar with the deeper understanding of "The Beatitudes" we miss how crazy they must have sounded back then, and how crazy Jesus might have totally seemed.
I wonder if Jesus, as Groucho Marx often did, is playing the Wise Fool with such sassy abandon that our logic becomes completely unmoored. We have no idea what strange idea is going to come out of Jesus' mouth next as he offers crazy blessing/happiness after crazy blessing/happiness; however, we know it will be smart, say something important, and be very funny in its undercutting audaciousness. Maybe it's not unlike the effect Jesus' scandalous parables had on hearers, completely cracking open their sense of conventional morality, making room for a profound, transforming experience of God's grace. The folks don't know what just hit them! But they know it was something Divine.
Then, the dust settles, and there's the chance to take in what really just happened. Jesus just turned the world upside down....
.... And somehow managed to turn them all into God's beloved, incredibly powerful and important Children. Just as they were. Because of who they were (and weren't and would never be).
Wouldn't it be cool to see, in a Jesus movie, a shot of the people at this point: many are still smiling while shaking their head, some giggle uncontrollably, everyone looks at one another to see if lightening has struck or if God is really okay with all of this....
And then there's a shot of Jesus, who suddenly wiggles his eyebrows quickly, pretends to ash his cigar, and says..