Jesus as Wise Fool

Foolishness and Salvation, part 2

The fool, however, is not just a jester – and isn’t always aiming just for laugh, however insightful the laugh might be.

The word fool derives from the Latin follis, a pair of bellows, a windbag. “A silly or stupid person; a person who lacks judgment or sense,” says my Random House Unabridged as the first definition of “fool.” So, in addition, to the wisdom we can discern through laughter, there is a second approach to wisdom through sheer, unfunny folly.

In his life, Jesus played the role of the fool in this sense of appearing to lack judgment. His went around Galilee telling people the kingdom of God was like a mustard weed. What an absurd thing to say. Jesus’s audience would have been familiar with the prophet Ezekiel – who spoke of the Lord taking a twig from the lofty heights of the mighty cedar and planting it in Israel where it would shelter beasts and birds, a symbol of the glorious restoration of Kind David’s realm. Jesus’s audience would also have been familiar with the prophet Daniel – who spoke of that tree reaching to heaven and extend to the ends of the earth. And this Galilean vagrant turns the mighty cedar of Lebanon into a lousy mustard weed?

A fool is one who doesn't know what everybody knows. The fool knows nothing. His knowledge is a zero – like the number on his Tarot card. A fool can look at things that nobody else can see because they think they already know what's there.

The Commonwealth of God, said Jesus, isn't what you think: the fulfillment of the prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel that looks just like any other kingdom you ever saw only bigger and mightier. No, it's like this silly weed that you, in your cultured despair, so readily despise. It is made up of the people you call weeds, and it grows from the smallest seed of genuine love, or genuine hope, or genuine vision.

Jesus says, "the last shall be first" (Matt 20:16). What crazy talk is that? "Blessed are the poor," he says (Luke 6:20). What nonsense! "Blessed are you when people revile you" (Matt 5:11). Huh? This is clearly a guy who doesn’t know what everybody knows.

When someone asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he answers, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor.” (Luke 18:22). What kinds of fools does he take us for? Sell everything and give away the money? We'd have nothing. How could we live? That's crazy!

I probably won't be selling all that I own and giving away the proceeds. But when I read that passage in Luke -- also, emphatically, included in Mark and Matthew -- I do get, for just an instant, a flash of how liberating that would be.

The poet William Blake says, "If a man would persist in his folly, he would become wise." Or if a woman persists in her folly, she becomes wise. If you and I persist in our foolishness, we may well become wise. By persisting in the foolish message that the insignificant weeds are the really the most significant of all, that the last shall be first, that there is blessing in poverty, not in wealth, the wisdom begins to emerge.

How foolish it is of us, this congregation, to come together and call ourselves a faith community, to meet on Sunday mornings. We foolish Unitarian Universalists! We have no creed, no shared beliefs, not even a canon, such as the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible, or the 27 books of the New Testament, the Quran, or any set of sutras, scriptures, or texts that we are united in making central. How can that be a religion? What utter foolishness.

Church is for getting together with others of like mind, and sharing a substantive doctrine. But we Unitarian Universalists come together to be a community of diversity. Community of diversity? What an outlandish notion – an outrage to good sense.

Still we persist in our folly. We don’t know what everyone else knows – that the point of a religion is to have definite, graspable beliefs to convey. And, since the point of a congregation is to be the body of those who share the one true doctrine, then diversity of beliefs could only mean admitting false ones.

We Unitarian Universalists are so foolish as to say that religion is not about beliefs. That’s why I argue that we are not agnostic, and that we misunderstand our own religiousness when we say we are. “I’m agnostic,” is the answer only if the question is “What do you believe about God?” Or, “What do you believe about the soul, in particular, its prospects for an afterlife?” But we’re there with our silly jester’s cap and wand saying, “But that’s not the question.” The next card in the Major Arcana – the magician, or the wizard, or the shaman – represents the character who knows the answer. The fool is the one who keeps changing the question.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Foolishness and Salvation"
See also
Part 1: An April Fool's Easter
Part 3: Foolish UUs!

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