Last Sunday’s lectionary gospel reading, John 1:43-51, provided a perfect entrée into Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. When Philip tells Nathanael he has seen and met the Messiah, Nathanael instantly responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Sounds like a most prejudicial knee-jerk reaction, yes?
And it’s true. The folks of Nazareth, and Galilee in general, were quite prejudiced against by the sophisticates of Jerusalem. Residents from Up North were rustic “farm folk” who had a funny accent (see Matthew 26:73), and, far from the Temple and its strict observance of every jot and tittle of the Law, even practiced Sabbath a little differently.
These farm folk from Up North were labeled the “am ha’artez” (or “people of the land”). This was the term originally given to the poor, uneducated folks who, in the early 6th century BCE, were not taken into Babylonian captivity. (Only the intelligentsia, who would have had what it takes to pose a threat to the Empire, were carted off to refugee camps.) When, 70 years later, those "gifted" refugees were allowed back to their beloved homeland, there was much bad blood between the “people of the land” and the returning “people in the know.” You can read all about it in Ezra and Nehemiah.
“Am ha’aretz” went on to becoming a prejudicial slur of the Jewish community of the Far North. It meant “bumpkin” or even “shameful and ignorant boor.”
It’s no surprise that Nathanael would say what he did. And, in this Martin Luther King Jr. Week, it’s important to remember the prejudice and name-calling that the Christ was born into ... and began to overcome as he so classily turned it all into a bit of warm, wry humor. At John 1:47, as soon as he hears the thoughtless slur he says of Nathanael, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” I can’t help but think Jesus winked just after he’d said this, diffusing escalation.
Bottom line, this scene suggests that the places and people we are most prejudiced against -- the places we put our greatest, unreasonable fear and animus -- are also the places ripe for comedy of the best kind.
I’m not afraid to say it, my favorite sitcom in the whole world is The Andy Griffith Show. This is in large part becuase it takes place in the land of the “Am Ha’Aretz.” The kooky people of Mayberry are considered bumpkins by the proper sophisticates of Raleigh. And yet, time and again, it’s Mayberry's Sheriff Taylor and his band of bumbling deputies who invariably catch the dangerous criminal that the much-higher status lawmen of the state’s (and sometimes nation’s) capital, with all their high-falutin knowledge and state-of-the art surveillance equipment, are unable to accomplish.
The Andy Griffith Show teaches us time and again that it’s the places we least expect good things to happen that so often are exactly where beyond-good is found. And, watching it all unfold is not only heartwarming, it is delightfully funny. We laugh, because now we see how what we would otherwise summarily disdain is actually, surprisingly, winning the day. It feels good to experience walls being knocked down in this way. We laugh (or at least I do) in the hope that the nutty example presently presented will inspire more walls to get knocked down in all the places and amidst the people unintentionally but nevertheless instinctively I may harbor prejudice.
I’m not afraid to say this, too: my new favorite sitcom is, like The Andy Griffith Show, another journey into most surprisingly high-status low-status sacred place. It’s called Black Jesus, and it’s on the Adult Swim network. Perhaps you have heard of it. Perhaps you have seen it! Perhaps you have been incredibly offended by it. But maybe it’s totally won you over!!
The premise of the show is, imho, most theologically correct. It asks the question, “If Jesus were alive today, where would we find him?” Black Jesus’ answer is: among His homies and brothers (and home girls and sisters) of Compton. Jesus lives and teaches in and for the black-and-brown neighborhood proper folk would consider not only the least likely but one for which there is MUCH prejudice and fear amongst “proper folks” whether they consider themselves blue or red.
And, way more controversially, everyone, Black Jesus included, uses most foul language (which is constantly bleeped out, to make the foulness even more apparent). In addition, rather than dedicating themselves to learning the true meaning of life and love whilst fishing or farming Jesus and his tribe spend their days figuring out how to start a community garden where they can grow many things, most importantly, weed. WHAAAAT?
Here's the tamer trailer to the series:
There is MUCH to say about Black Jesus – I will definitely write about it more. Here I just want to introduce you to the show, if you haven’t already seen it. And been offended and then delighted by it. Black Jesus is presently off network air but has been renewed. In the interim, you can catch every episode on Netflix, Amazon, etc.
Enjoy! Enlighten! Exhale!!