The classic, endlessly punny and quotable comedy film, “Airplane!”, has one punny quote that probably stands above (2 above’s!) the rest.
That’s when passenger Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielson), says to incredulous Ted Striker (Robert Hayes) - a former, albeit traumatized war flyer - that he and only he can land the aircraft since the pilot and co-pilot have been felled by food poisoning.
“Surely, you can’t be serious!” says Striker.
“Yes, I am serious,” Rumack sternly replies, “…and don’t call me ‘Shirley.’”
You can enjoy the moment here.
What makes this line oh so very popular?
Maybe because it’s so surprising. At a point where the story reaches its crisis point…there is only one person to land the plane and he has been called forward. Will he do it? We expect a clear “yes!” from the one called to rise to the occasion. Instead, the life-or-death questioning becomes a silly pun.
And the pun is SO silly! It totally undermines the invitation for heroism that the moment perfectly sets up, including Dr. Rumack’s wholly serious tone of voice and demanor. Plus, it’s one in a line of unexpected, comically unheroic moments; once we get over our surprise, we happily add this gem to the film’s very long list.
And we know by now, at this point in the film, that no one is actually heroic nor will come through as expected from similar, albeit serious airplane disaster stories, all will somehow be well in the crazy, upside down and thoroughly twisted parodic reality presented here.
Putting on our comic lenses, we just may see a similar thing going on in this week’s lectionary gospel reading, Mark 10:17-31.
It starts with an opening salvo to the “rich young ruler” who seeks counsel from Jesus on a very important, most-serious, uber-life-and-death subject.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And how does Jesus respond? With a clear-cut and helpful answer? No! Rather, with a surprising, quick comeback.
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone….”
While this may or may not elicit a chortle, Jesus’ response is curt and clever. And invariably puts the rich young ruler in a much-humbled state - not unlike what happens to Striker after he’s told not to call Dr. Rumack “Shirley.”
Jesus goes on to lay out in extreme no-nonsense fashion what ultimately is needed for eternal life. It’s far more than what the rich young ruler expects, or can possibly accomplish…not unlike panicking Ted Striker as he looks at the plane’s endless and over-the-top control panel.
Jesus apparently softens his tone (“loving him”) as he doles out his advice to the rich young ruler: sell everything, give all your $$ to the poor, and then you can follow me.
This, from the Comic Lens, is also wonky - not unlike something the always unpredictable Dr. Rumack would say. After all, when did Jesus become 100% works-righteousness? When did it become absolutely necessary to do something almost inhumanly good in order to become a Jesus follower?
Jesus then rolls out some choice hyperbole: it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He speaks truth about the relationship of God and money in an amusing, over-the-top way. Was he intending his over-the-top command to the rich young ruler to be understood in this same, amusingly hyperbolic way?
We don’t know. Nor does the rich young ruler, since he’s already left in a state of utter despair. But we do know Jesus keeps preaching, now shifting the subject to what God can do in securing salvation that humankind never will. Now we’re hearing thoughts on God’s absolute grace. Perhaps the disciples heads are spinning as they try and keep up. (Sort of like we must when trying to keep up with the Zucker brothers’ rapid-fire joke-making!)
There is one final Dr. Rumack-ism in this scene in Mark 10. We’re told at v. 28 that after Jesus says everyone must leave everything behind, Peter speaks up and says this is what he and his fellow disciples have done!
Maybe Peter is looking for a compliment from Jesus, and/or maybe he’s sharing aloud and with excitement something he’s just realized - finally, he and the disciples have done something right! (Usually, they don’t get whatever it is Jesus is trying to tell them….)
However, Peter’s exclamation doesn’t seem to register to Jesus one bit. Jesus just keeps pontificating on. How do we know? Because instead of Mark saying, at the beginning of v. 28 “Peter said,” at the beginning of v. 28, Mark says, “Peter began to say….”
This suggests Peter’s attempt at piping up and engaging Jesus in dialogue is interrupted and totally ignored by his Messiah and teacher. Instead, Jesus is off to the races once more, with more almost inhumanly stark instruction about what is needed to follow him. Is Jesus a little over-the-top in taking himself seriously — like Dr. Rumack often is, which makes him so funny?
It all reminds me a bit of another classic “Airplane!” scene….
I know it may sound crazy to compare Jesus to an “Airplane!” character. But, then again, it’s not too far-fetched, considering some of the other absurd scenes involving or concerning Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Just a couple of scenes previous to this one, Jesus sets out to heal a blind man and has to perform the miracle twice, because the first time it didn’t catch! (See Mark 8:22-26 - the wonkiest healing story of the Bible!)
Then there is the most absurd version of the Easter story ever, the one that ends this quirky gospel at 16:1-8: the women at the tomb are told to go and tell the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to others…and they’re so scared they tell no one. THE END.
I think when one reads Mark, one must always be especially open to the possibility/probability that no one - not even Jesus - is going to act the way they should, especially in critical moments when they should shine. It is said that the underlying Mark wrote his gospel was to satirically condemn the way “important Christians” were caving to Roman authorities once arrested and threatened with persecution if they didn’t renege their beliefs. In Mark’s gospel, chaos and confusion seem to more often than not have the upper hand. With and on the part of everyone.
However, on this side of history and the gospel story… knowing that somehow, in spite of the fact no one - NO ONE - acted properly Christianity is still here… it should give us a sense of extreme gratitude and praise for a God whose grace never stops seeing us through and giving us second chances.
And Airplane 2!