As we mourn the tragic death of Robin Williams, we also are invited to greatly celebrate his life. And his amazing creative gifts.
One of the things I will most remember about Robin Williams was that he showed us how the power of humor can completely overwhelm a space. Once Robin got going with his observations, voices, and madcap antics, he unleashed a Comedy Spirit that completely overwhelmed you and everyone else in the room, suctioning whatever sadness, anger, pain and other “unfunny” preoccupation you may have otherwise had. All that could then be done was to laugh and let the healing, transforming, community-building power of laughter do its thing.
Here are a few examples….
It's no small coincidence that this Sunday’s lectionary gospel reading is Matthew 15:10-28. In this section of scripture we hear Jesus teaching about the power of “what comes out of the mouth.” We also witness the power of humor to blast clean the filth a mouth may be producing, even as it comes from the mouth of Jesus’ himself.
How might Robin and his extraordinary gifts help elucidate this strange, disturbing and, in the final analysis, comic text?
It begins with Jesus teaching his disciples that “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander” are what defile a person (ie render a person “impure” and, hence, cut off from God). A Canaanite woman then comes on the scene. She asks Jesus to heal her desperately sick daughter. Jesus summarily dismisses her saying he only tends the children of Israel. Whaat? This is shockingly unbecoming of the One we’re taught proclaims radical inclusivity as one of the major characteristics of God’s Kingdom.
But wait, there’s unfortunately more. Jesus then throws out a most-outrageously mean, slanderous and even racist zinger: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs. He might as well have been saying, “I don’t serve (the “n” word).”
“Dog” was a terrible slur in the ancient world. Just a few chapters back in Matthew's gospel Jesus warns, “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” (7:6)
Why in the world would Jesus speak to this needful woman and her sick daughter in such a demeaning, derogatory way? Well, for one thing, the Israelites (Jesus’ tribe) considered their neighbors the Canaanites evil and to be avoided. For another thing, Jesus has up to this point in Matthew’s gospel proclaimed he is there to minister to the Children of Israel only. (See 10:5-6) For yet another thing, perhaps we're catching Jesus on a really bad day, when he's tired and needs a break. Maybe, just maybe, the Son of Man struggles with burnout like the rest of us and finally snaps....
In any case, the Canaanite woman will accept none of the manure coming from Jesus’ mouth. Without missing a beat she rebuffs his scurrilous rejection.
But she doesn’t yell at him (which would totally be justified). She doesn’t seem to exhibit anger at all. What she does do is shoot back to Jesus a sharp, funny retort: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
The humor of this scene really pops if you imagine Williams as that Canaanite woman. I can hear his voice in that punch line. Without hesitation, he responds with ironic playfulness and calm. I imagine his posture becoming increasingly goofy and animated as he's kicking his comedy into higher gear. I see a twinkle in his eye as he realizes it's good to trust the power of unbounded wit to transform the ugly spirit in the room and in an instant.
If it were Robin in this scene, I’m sure he would have then slipped in a whole bit about big dogs who lumberingly slobber when licking floor crumbs and little dogs who get so excited they puke; and then there's the crazy face a puppy makes as he scrambles to get onto the table to lap up the crumbs just barely within reach.
Then he says, absurdly anachronistically and hardly able to speak because he's lapping so ridiculously furiously, "You should see me when the chips are Lays!"
What wild and crazy things do you imagine Robin doing and saying??
As presented in Matthew, there is no extended Williams-esque comic bit by the Canaanite woman; her tart single line does the trick. Jesus seems to right away get the joke...and the fact that it's on him. Immediately he accedes to the mother's request saying, “Woman, great is your faith!” Yes, great is her faith that Jesus will heal her daughter and, maybe even more to the point, that he will move beyond whatever it is that’s causing him to talk trash. Great is her faith that he can be the evolved Messiah the hurting, hating world needs.
While it may seem totally objectionable to suggest this text tells us Jesus had issues that needed serious attention, I find it makes me want to follow Jesus even more. If Jesus can admit to and muscle through his crap (without the need for explanations and excuses), so can I. And in so doing take life and mission to a whole new and even more influential level.
My prof at the Claremont School of Theology, Dr. Greg Riley, once pointed out that in Matthew's gospel, after this encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus no longer claims to be “just for Israel." By the time this gospel ends (28:18) the now-resurrected Christ is standing on the mountaintop commanding his disciples to go to the ends of the earth to teach, serve, disciple and love.
As is so often true in the Bible, here the least likely person ends up being God's Messenger. And Jesus' savior. And with perfect timing. Thanks, Canaanite woman!
Thanks, Robin, for helping us realize the radical humor - and grace - of this story. You have helped us realize so much grace this week. And remember so much humor.
God bless and keep us all as we journey onward - in this world and the next - continuing to heal and transform one another with our wounds, warts, words...and wit.