God Chose Foolish Things
In his first letter to the Christian community of Corinth, Paul writes, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” What does this mean?
To understand biblical texts, it helps to know something about the context. For instance, during the middle of the first century CE when Paul wrote, the community of Corinth was a relatively new town, a growing commercial center, with a few wealthy business owners and a lot of impoverished citizens. The society was patriarchal, the men vying for prestige and status. Most Corinthians worshiped the old gods, including the Emperor. Christians and their values were new to the city. 
Thus Paul found the burgeoning Christian community in Corinth to be misguided. He wrote his letters to teach them about God and the values preached by Jesus. At this time, there were no Christian Scriptures the group could consult. As is true for us today, it was easy for the Corinthian believers to be led astray by cultural and economic influences. Additionally, Paul observed, though they believed they were wise and strong, their wisdom was the wisdom of fools.
But the self-assured and powerful businessmen of Corinth didn’t listen to him. They laughed at Jesus-worshipers, for as John Proctor puts it, how could anyone be crazy enough to believe the world could “be saved in such a wretched and awful way”?  So Paul told them, “If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’” (1 Corinthians 3:18-19 NRSV). As Oscar Reed writes in Beacon Bible Expositions, Paul was warning these new Christians of the “danger of substituting the wisdom of this world for the truth of God.” 
According to Paul, wisdom came from renouncing worldly things and seeking God’s truth. Competition and pleasure-seeking were folly. The apparent foolishness and weakness of Jesus was actually wisdom, strength, and salvation. The wise, Paul told the Corinthians, depend on God rather than on their own power and intellect.
Jesus As Fool
Is Paul saying, then, that Jesus is the fool, that he is the one whom God sent?
So it seems. In her article about the “holy fool,” Olive Fleming Drane makes a case for that idea. She gives examples of the absurd in Jesus’ ministry, such as his propensity for turning things on their heads. The first will be last, he tells us, and the blind will lead the blind. In his sermons, a yoke becomes a symbol of freedom.  As he rides into Jerusalem to face his detractors, he parodies kingship by sitting not on some valiant steed, but on a donkey.  If this isn’t clowning, what is it?
From our safe distance, it’s easy to believe we would have recognized the greatness in this man, even as he hung between criminals, his scalp pricked by a crown of thorns. Yet it was not the obedience of a servant to her master or of a subject to his lord that brought Jesus’s mother and some of his followers to the foot of his crucifix as he died. It was love. They knew him as serious, strong, optimistic, impassioned, visionary, and full of laughter. More than once, these women and men may have thought him foolish. But did they realize that, thousands of years later, his foolishness would be considered holy? I doubt it.
If they didn’t realize the sacred nature of this person with whom they lived, what makes us think we would recognize him now? Holy fools walk among us today, but we rarely notice them. If we do, we condemn them.
The Holy Fool
In England, members of an organization of Christian clowns perform and teach in churches throughout the country. They call themselves “Holy Fools,” referencing another of Paul’s quotes from First Corinthians: “We are fools for Christ” (1 Cor 4:10).
Their work includes evangelizing, but even more, it reminds us of what it means to be human. As Gene Nelson explains, the clown asks, “Who are you really under all the stuff beneath which you hide?” [Nelson.] By pretending to be something she is not, the clown reminds us that we, too, have masks.
Yet clowning is not done to condemn. The Holy Fool website tells us that, in their clowning, the fools represent faith, hope, and love to the people with whom they frolic. Again, it is Paul who lifts up these values, writing, “ And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13 NRSV). Thus these modern-day clowns attempt to spread the message of Jesus, the sacred clown himself, offering a similar light-hearted, but challenging, foolishness to those who will listen.
Like Jesus, clowns turn our common understanding of right, wrong, and justice on its head. Clowns slap at our sacred cows and dance in the face of our confusion. Rather than giving us answers, they ask more questions. We allow them to shatter our worldview, to guide us into recognizing what lies beyond our rational mind.
Faith, Hope, and Love
They can challenge us this way because they disarm us by being silly, by prancing around wearing bright noses and baggy clothing. Who but a clown would be foolish enough to put themselves out to the world in this way, risking ridicule and rejection? To do do, the Holy Fools attest, they must have faith. 
They also must have hope. Regardless of the odds, they believe in themselves. For the clown, everything is possible. Today they will manage to cram themselves into that minuscule car, they will walk the tightrope, they will find love. 
For, like the rest of us, clowns seek to love and be loved. The Holy Fool “wants to give his complete self,” asking nothing in return from his audience, not even that they pay attention.  But if he has no audience, how is he loved?
The fool knows that though people might not love her, God does. Love is everywhere, if we but open ourselves to it. Laughter can help us do this. Yet laughter can also devolve into tears, because when tears are real, they arise out of love. The holy fool does not shy away from any true emotion, not even sadness. In this way, she can hold onto not just faith, hope, and love, but also joy.
Fools in Folklore
Perhaps because fools brings us so much wisdom and happiness, they abound in folklore. For instance, there is Lazy Jack who, unbeknownst to him, manages with his antics to bring tears of joy to the eyes of the depressed daughter of a wealthy merchant who thus gives her to the young man in marriage.  There are Anansi and Coyote who, as they try to trick others, end up tricking themselves. The ridiculous Nasrudin searched for his lost key beneath a street light not because that’s where he lost it, but because it was the only place bright enough for him to see. 
There’s also a Buddhist story about an argument. It seems there was a tradition in a particular country that if a wandering monk sought lodging at a village temple, he must first win an argument with a current residents. In one temple, there were only two monks. The elder was educated and intelligent; the younger, who had but one eye, was brash and thoughtless.
One day, a monk arrived there and, as was tradition, challenged the monks to a debate about the Buddha’s teachings. Being tired, the elder brother asked the younger one to debate the monk, suggesting they do so in silence rather than with words. So the younger brother sat with the visiting monk awhile, the two of them gesticulating, until the visitor ran to the elder and said, “Your brother is a wonderful fellow. He has beaten me.”
Surprised, the elder brother asked what had happened.
The visitor said, “I started by holding up one finger, representing the Buddha. Your brother then held up two fingers, representing not just the Buddha, but also his teachings. I responded by holding up three fingers to represent the Buddha, his teachings, and the sangha. Then your brother held up his fist, reminding me that all three arise out of one realization. Thus he won the argument, and I must leave.”
After the monk left, the younger man burst into his brother’s room. “Where did he go?” he asked.
“He left. He told me you won the debate.”
“I didn’t win anything. He made fun of me, and I’m going to beat him up.”
“First tell me what happened,” said his brother.
“That cretin held up one finger, poking fun at me for having but one eye. Trying to be polite to a visitor, I held up two fingers, showing that I was glad he had two eyes. Then he rubbed it in by holding up three fingers, pointing out that we have three eyes between us. So I shook my fist at him because I was going to beat him up, but the coward ran away.” 
Isn’t this the way life goes? We make assumptions about what others are telling us, and we react according to our own worldview. Fools get angry and attack because they assume the worst, yet are the assumptions of the visiting monk not foolish, too? Of course, in this instance, by thinking the best of the younger brother, the visitor avoided a fight.
God’s Laughter and Our Lives
Recently, I wrote about God’s laughter. Surely, like Jesus, God has a sense of humor. After all, when we make plans, God intervenes, twisting the future and changing the present.
A few months ago, I met with a woman at the hospital who had relapsed. In the process, she lost a lot. Her major struggle wasn’t the grief, though, but her confusion about why God had done “this” to her. The first time she got clean, she had begged God to take from her the desperate cravings that wracked her, and God had. This time, God did not.
I’m glad I didn’t try to give her an answer, for when I instead invited her to explore her own beliefs, she found an answer beyond anything I could have imagined, one that contained a wisdom beyond my own. She came to the realization that for God to use her in this life, for her to be the most effective servant she could be, she had to fall. Not that she hadn’t fallen before, but her first recovery was easy, and she had taken credit for her sobriety, secretly judging those who were less successful.
Now she saw how hard it could be. She had to stop and listen more carefully for God’s voice, to search her heart. This time, she realized, her struggle would be different, her surrender wider and her hope more poignant. She saw a new truth, and in the seeing was joy. In the absurdity of her assumptions and the frustration of her goals, she saw something grand and holy. She saw faith, hope, and love.
Years ago, as I prepared to wrap up a group I was leading, I commented that I would be back the next day, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” The face of one young man lit up. Excitedly, he asked if I lived by a local creek.
“I live near there,” he said, “and it floods a lot.”
Feeling his longing for connection, I felt apologetic as I explained to him that it was just a saying. It meant I would be there if I could, if there were no disaster, if God didn’t laugh at my plans.
His face fell. Perhaps, as the moment that had seemed like a bond between us passed, he lost some innocence, but it wasn’t significant. When the class ended, he tromped out with a friend, soon returning to the easy rhythm of life. If he was a fool, he was a wise one. He didn’t let any minor embarrassment stop him from rejoining the community.
If we are lucky, we will be more than simple fools; we will be holy ones. Jesus, clowns, monks, tricksters all remind us to open our hearts to the joy in life so we might find those things that remain: faith, hope, and love. No matter how wise or how foolish we are, we can seek them. If we look, we may discover a faith warm enough to keep us company on the journey, a hope bright enough help us focus on the sacred purpose of our lives, and a love holy enough to give us strength and wisdom so we might collaborate in the healing of the world. Only a holy fool would dare do something so outrageous. May we be such fools.
In faith and fondness,
- Proctor, John, First and Second Corinthians, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015, 3-6.
- Ibid 27.
- Reed, Oscar F., Beacon Bible Expositions, Volume 7 : Corinthians, Kansas City, MO: Foundry Publishing, 2010, 53.
- Drane, Olive Fleming, “The Holy Fool: Clowning in Ministry,” Bible Society, Spring 2011, 17, https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/uploads/content/bible_in_transmission/files/2011_spring/BiT_Spring_2011_Drane.pdf, accessed 8/2/19.
- Nelson, Gene, “Christ and the Clown,” The Community Church of Sebastopol, sermons, April 10, 2016, https://www.uccseb.org/Sermons/2016-April-10.pdf, accessed 11/1/19.
- “About Us,” Holy Fools, 2019, http://www.holy-fools.org.uk/?page_id=96, accessed 8/2/19.
- Holy Fools.
- See Yolen, Jane, Favorite Folktales from Around the World, New York: Pantheon, 1986, 174.
- See “Sufism/Nasrudin,” Wikibooks, https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Sufism/Nasrudin, 16 August 2017, accessed 11/2/19.
- Adapted from Amber, Charlie, “Zen Story: Trading Dialogue for Lodging,” The Daily Zen, June 28, 2015, https://www.thedailyzen.org/2015/06/28/zen-story-trading-dialogue-for-lodging/, accessed 8/2/19.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved