One of the most popular forms of comedy today on screens large and small is known as “black comedy" (aka "gallows humor"). This is a kind of envelope-to-button pushing hilarity that presents an often offensively lighthearted treatment of an otherwise dark subject — something in the culture that is either taboo or has become terribly perverse or both. Black comedy seeks its audience to simultaneously laugh and cringe. Not only is it intended to wake up the conscience in a particularly powerful way, since the reality provided in black comedy is so ridiculously outrageous and smartly clever, but also its underlying righteous indignation seeks to lift us up and thrust us into action. Or, at the very least, distance us from the status quo, which is way to busy perpetuating wrong to get the joke.
One of the best known examples of black comedy is “Dr. Strangelove,” a wacked-out satire of global nuclear war that ends with cowboy Major “King" Kong riding a bomb accidentally detonated by a faulty airplane door like a State Fair bucking bronco. Here's that iconic scene:
As it explodes upon reaching the earth, a luscious version of "We'll Meet Again" accompanies various views of an expanding mushroom cloud. Indeed, laughter mixed with cringing most certainly ensues.
Another best-known example of black comedy is found at the ending of “Life of Brian” when Brian, a potential Messiah among a sea of potential Messiahs, is capriciously condemned to death like thousands of others, and they all end up on the cross singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” The inanity of the song, sung as if by a Broadway chorus line (albeit crucified), makes the whole scene - and the historical reality it humorously mirrors - hilarious and more than grotesque.
While I would argue that wearing comic lenses shows us black comedy throughout the gospels (after all, worshiping one who dies on a cross is the ultimate lighthearted treatment of a taboo subject in the ancient world, anyway), we find a particular bit of this kind of dark humor in the account of the poor widow who gives all she has - but two coins equaling about a penny - to the Temple coffers.
According to Mark 12:41ff, Jesus and His disciples watch this woman sacrifice everything, and He calls her out as giving more than the wealthy who give but a fraction of what they have.
This text is commonly used to encourage wealthy people to give more to the church. It feels like a corollary text to Mark 10:17ff where a wealthy man is told by Jesus that to inherit the Kingdom of God he must sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and follow.
This seems all well and good except for the facts that a) here the widow is not giving all she has to the poor, she’s giving it to the Temple; and b) Jesus has in the verses just before 12:41 castigated the scribes running the Temple of commanding honor throughout the town while cheating widows out of their homes.
In other words, just after Jesus roundly condemns the system that takes gross advantage of the vulnerable poor he then points out — with praise — a victim of said system that is participating in its corruption to the max.
That’s a lighthearted treatment of a dark subject if I ever saw one!
Sort of reminds me of the tone of the show M.A.S.H. - a black comedy always poking very silly - and hence, serious - fun at the horrors of war.
Here are some choice M.A.S.H. quotes:
PA Systems Announcer: “Attention, all personnel... the wounded you've all been waiting for has finally arrived in person... report to the Big Top immediately; the circus is about to begin.”
Hawkeye Pierce: “You ever had one of those wars where everything goes wrong?….The way I see it, the army owes us so many coffee breaks, we should get 1954 off.”
In fact, if we let ourselves hear Alan Alda’s voice saying Jesus’ words in Mark 12, first warning of the scribes “who like to walk around in long robes..and have the best seats in the synagogues…and devour widow’s houses…and say long prayers;” and then, in that ironically upbeat voice of his that cheers on what he’s really putting down (like when Alda/Hawkeye says “Halloween in Korea — bobbing for schrapnel!”), here complimenting, facetiously, “this poor widow [who] has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury!” we can really start to sense the grim humor here, and the scathing criticism it’s really - and cleverly - meant to convey.
The imagination reels with what could...should be next. Like hearing Jesus, in Alda-esque tone, say something like,
“And I bet she thinks Heaven’s a bunch of Arizona swamp land….”
To top it off, we hear a little bit of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, sung this time by the scribes, as they draw more widows (and their pennies) to the Temple collection chest.
Now that, imho, would be one entertaining, enlightening, humorously cringeworthy, and most Markan, Chapter 12!