Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (I Corinthians 1:26-31) transports me to Renaissance Italy, circa mid 16th century, where the crises of endless wars and economic upheaval are threatening the exceptional advances of intellectual and artistic achievement of the era. The irony of such magnificent human achievement (Michelangelo, for example), juxtaposed with such horrific failures of diplomacy and economy (8 wars in 65 years) is not lost on one group of artists who invent a new theatre form – the commedia dell’arte. The commedia is an improvisational street theatre that has stock characters and stock plot lines which generally lampoon the stupidity of an elite that is forever causing lovers to be divided, lauding instead the hidden wisdom of the lowly servants who always manage to reconcile those lovers in the end. The influence of commedia characters, such as the dim-witted Harlequino and the blustery Capitano, ranges from modern day circus clowns to the cast of Gilligan’s Island. The characters were known as the zanni, from which we get our word zany.
Paul seems to be scripting a commedia scene when he writes to the church at Corinth in today’s passage. He is addressing a church divided, much as the city of Corinth was divided, over what constitutes wisdom, and whose wise leadership they should follow. The port city had enjoyed its “golden age” five centuries prior, but they were experiencing a renaissance of sorts in the first century. Corinth was home to many shrines of human accomplishment, but their civic life had also eroded to the point where the word corinthian had come to mean an unsavory life of debauchery. And so Paul enters the fray of their debates and turns their conflict on its head with some theological lampooning that would have made Harlequin proud. He says that instead of pursuing some system of sophist wisdom, which ultimately would only separate them into warring camps, dividing their love, they should put on the clown costume and follow the fool’s way. Paul is essentially reminding them of the nature of God and how God acts in this world of competition and status and pedigree and survival of the fittest. God opts for foolishness, at least by those standards of the world system. God chooses the zanni – the zany. I love Paul’s word choice in the Greek – mora tou cosmou – literally, God elected the cosmic morons to put the world’s wise to shame. That’s the same message Matthew was giving in his choice of genealogical ancestors included in the start of his gospel. Jesus may have had a precious few noble and worthwhile folks in his family tree (jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, for one), but for the most part, they were a joke. The idea of the Life Force of the Universe deciding to change the world by entering it as the next branch of this family tree really is moronic, when you think about it, but that’s how God seems to think and work. The idea that this God With Us baby would grow up to change the world by dying the most dishonorable death imaginable is equally moronic. That’s not how the world works. That’s not how power operates. But it’s how the power of God operates. God’s Son on the cross is the ultimate oxy-moron, i.e., pointedly foolish concept.
And yet, the church, in cooperation with the cosmos over the centuries, has somehow managed to take this oxymoronic street theatre comedy of the gospel and dress it up, dulling its point and divesting it of its shock value, ultimately transforming it into something sensible that can support all the wars and the battles and the divisions that the wise inevitably get us into. The Judeo-Christian tradition is even used as one of the prime bragging points for those today who want to tout the “exceptionality of America.” Such boasting seems to make good common sense to the average Joe out there, but Paul seems to be calling for some uncommon nonsense instead. So sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip that started back with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Judah and Tamar and ended with a baby growing up to cast his lot with the moronic sinners of this cosmos, all because God so loved the world, and those lovers desperately needed to be reconciled.