Wry with a Dash of Bitters

    As I have stated before, one of the best ways to detect the humor of an ancient biblical character or story is to find a contemporary that’s remarkably similar.  Fill yourself up with the comic enjoyment of the latter and then put that character or story in the sandals and/or situation of the former.  It’s remarkable what happens.  Stale or confusing scripture crackles…cackles… with new life!  New understandings, appreciations and, best, laughs surprisingly easily emerge.  Even if the laughs produced are more like uncomfortable, knowing "harrumphs."   

    One of the contemporary characters that I believe can best help us understand the comedy of Jesus (as presented in our synoptic gospels at least) is Hawkeye Pierce.  While we most certainly would extol Hawkeye as “funny,” his humor is not of the side-splitting “ha ha” variety.   As the head of a Korean War MASH unit, Dr. Pierce understands and describes the tragic absurdities of war with humor that is both wry and resigned.  The world is such a messed up place, but somehow it really helps to laugh at it.  Even if the best that can be produced is a world-weary smile to accompany the tears.

    While it could arguably take a lifetime to cull through all of Hawkeye’s great one-liners shared in both the movie and tv versions of M.A.S.H. to give us a sense of what I (and Jesus) are talking about, here is a nice compendium of a few.  

    Each of these jokes has a punch line that makes you wince as much as laugh (the laugh track provides an almost ironic counterpart!).  The set-ups are for the most part angry observations about the state of things or people that the Korean War has engendered; the punch lines almost make light of them, but, after a few moments of contemplation, they drive the stake even deeper.  

    For example, the joke near the top of this reel about the knife.  First Hawkeye’s friend Trapper John exasperatingly wonders how Hawkeye could have let someone (I’m guessing one of the traumatized patients being treated in the M.A.S.H. tent) get hold of and terrorize with a knife.  What a terrible situation.  Instead of simply saying it’s terrible, Hawkeye responds by saying it’s especially unusual because back at home patients don’t grab a knife till after they’ve seen the bill.  He offers a clever slam at American health care all around.  (And yes, clearly, the more things change….)

    Take for another example the joke about the suit that Hawkeye apparently ruined (of a general?) while he was operating in the midst of an onrush of critically wounded patients.  Hawkeye doesn’t just tell the general (?) to go stuff it; he satirically says when he has time (which of course he won’t because he’s trying to fix 80 people with the supplies for 40) he’ll knit the general (?) a new one.  He compares himself, and most ridiculously, to a nice old granny who has all the time (and well-intentioned but misguided) intentions in the world.  He initially might seem here to offer a softer response than simply berating his superior (which would get him in a lot of trouble of course).  However, his saracasm is sharp and his point digs much deeper.  It’s sort of a “less-is-more” strategy and, perhaps, more effectively sends the message that next time, the general (?) should think twice before putting M.A.S.H. doctors down.

    Oftentimes when Jesus shares his observations about the world to his listeners, be they “the crowds”, his opponents, or his faithful (if dim-witted) disciples, his take on things is a lot like Hawkeye’s.  With a bit of smug self-satisfaction I call this kind of Hawkeye-esque humor “wry with a dash of bitters” (which would be even more clever if Hawkeye’s cocktail of choice wasn’t the martini….).  There is a twist at the end of many of Jesus’ lines that is not just clever, dryly clever, but also speaks volumes about the messed-up nature of many things.  It invites world-weary smiles to accompany the tears.

    There are, I think, some good examples of this in the New Testament lectionary of last Sunday:  Matthew 10:24-39.  

    This section begins with Jesus sharing what sounds like standard teaching about how the disciple is not nor should ever seek to be above the teacher; rather he/she should seek to be like the teacher.  Yes!  Nothing unusual here.  Then he slips in the line, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”  

    It may take a couple of minutes (like it sometimes does with a Hawkeye Pierce line) to get the sarcasm and cleverness here.  But if we remember (or just acknowledge) that one of the criticisms routinely leveled against Jesus was that he was evil, and Satan-filled (the same kind of criticism leveled against effective critics of the status quo today), we can start to appreciate that what Jesus is slyly saying is that his disciples shouldn’t be surprised they’re being called evil and Satan-filled, too.  And they shouldn’t, out of fear, distance themselves from Jesus when such claims were being made.  Remember now, the disciple should never consider himself above the teacher….

    Sure, Jesus could have just scolded the disciples for their faithlessness and fear, but by being clever and infusing just a bit of bitterness, he helps everyone see that their reactions are human, this is the way the world works, and it’s not going to shake him and shouldn’t shake them.  He’s critiquing it all with a heavy wink, which makes things a little easier to take.  

    Later in this textual section, Jesus comforts the disciples by telling them they have absolutely no reason to fear in sharing His truth with the world, because God is watching over them.  After all, Jesus says, does God not care for sparrows, who are small and insignificant and on the lowest rung of the food chain?

    And then he says (as he does elsewhere), a dryly, wryly funny line:  “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”   

    It’s about as absurd a response as Hawkeye saying he’ll next time try and knit the general (?) a suit when next he messes it up whilst in triage.  Of course Hawkeye isn’t going to knit a suit!  Of course humankind are worth more than many sparrows!  It’s a sort of subtle shaming that Jesus rains upon his disciples.  They need to quit assuming God won’t be there for them.  In how many ways has Jesus already made this abundantly clear??  The disciples can grimly laugh at themselves for their ridiculous reticence rather than lower their head as Jesus yells at them.  Just like the bloviated general (?) needs to get over it and move on.  War is hell.  Actually, that’s not even true.

    I encourage you to let Hawkeye’s cadence, voice, personality, soul, be Jesus’ as he speaks.  Not all the time, but a lot of the time.  Not only will you start to get how funny (if bitterly wryly funny) is the Messiah our bible presents, but oftentimes what he says will start to make more sense, and, hence, gets the point across much more effectively, and motivatingly.  

    After all, that’s what humor is really supposed to always do, right?