I have learned that Texans put a lot of stock in their boots. Years ago, when I was still in Arkansas, I knew a guy who desperately wanted alligator boots, but he couldn’t afford them. I told him he just needed to go down to the swamps of south Arkansas and kill his own alligator to get his boots. Well, I went with him and stayed in the hunting lodge. In the late afternoon he hadn’t come back, and I was worried. I walked to the edge of the swamp and saw him in hip waders with his shotgun on his arm and four dead alligators by his side. Even as I stood there he killed a fifth. “Why’re you shooting so many alligators?” I asked him. “Heck,” he said, “I have to. Every one I’ve found so far is barefoot.” He was a fool.
Then there’s the quality control officer who got fired from the M&M candy plant because he kept throwing out all the M&Ms with a “W” printed on them. He was a fool.
Fools, either fictional or real, we dismiss and ridicule. They are those who can’t seem to grasp the way of the world, the clueless who fail to realize how incapable they are of navigating life. We make jokes about fools, I think, to disguise our own phobia at being made to look foolish. We say things like, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Just think how many of our fears have, at their root, the fear of playing the fool in the eyes of those around us.
Consequently, St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians today is a perplexing one, so much so that I almost skipped it. The Old Testament option for today was the Ten Commandments in Exodus. The Ten Commandments are a preacher’s dream: ten to choose from and each one sermon-worthy! Thou shalt not make graven images…Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy…Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife…The homiletic possibilities are endless. But in the epistle, we read this:
“God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe…For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called…Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
When I read these words of Paul, I felt convicted to risk foolishness of my own and save the Ten Commandments for another time.
In college I was fortunate to study for a term in England, and at Stratford-upon-Avon I saw a production of King Lear. The pathos and tragedy of that play are difficult to bear, whether or not one is a fan of Shakespeare. At the play’s outset, Lear is the quintessential wise and worldly king. He is revered and respected and honored by all. But Lear succumbs to the very human need for acclaim, comfort, and ease. He divides his kingdom among two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, who first flatter their father with false declarations of love, and then quickly ridicule, dismiss, and discard him. Dissent erupts in the kingdom, and then war, and as King Lear’s world quickly falls apart, it is demonstrated that his worldly wisdom was only a razor’s edge from madness.
The play King Lear is a complicated and meandering story, but once one figures out how to follow the plot, the characters are easy. Goneril is wicked. Her baby sister Cordelia is pure. The illegitimate nobleman Edmund is devious. The only character in the play who defies easy definition is the character known as the Fool.
On the one hand, the Fool is just that: a court jester for the King, someone to lighten the mood with jokes and whimsy. Those around him assume he is simple, and therefore silly, and that his way of being surely will not take him anywhere in the world. And yet, as all the other characters in King Lear follow their very worldly logic to destruction, only the Fool sees the world through different eyes. When Lear is blind to the duplicity of his older daughters, the Fool recognizes their true nature. Like an Old Testament prophet, the Fool sees ahead down the destructive path on which Lear is set. And the Fool not only sees, he speaks. Even when others threaten and demand his silence, the Fool speaks the truth. The Fool recognizes that the other character’s claims of high-mindedness are really just smokescreens for brutality, lust, and power. He tells the King—and anyone else within earshot—of the danger and futility of their courses of action, of the pain they are causing one another.
But there is more to the Fool than truth-telling. Prophets can become hardened and bitter. They often say their piece in anger and then ride stridently away. But not Lear’s Fool. As the King descends into madness and becomes an increasingly pathetic and pitiable character, the Fool’s demeanor becomes correspondingly compassionate. He will not leave the side of his king, no matter how deranged Lear becomes. He protects the King in the King’s weakness. He is fierce in his love and gentle in his service. The Fool somehow combines the conviction to speak truth to the world with a deep and committed love for that same world.
What does it mean to follow Christ? I once asked a class this question, and one person’s response was that a Christian is someone who tries to follow the Ten Commandments. Many of us might give similar answers. We might say that being a Christian means following the teachings of Jesus; loving our neighbors as ourselves; or even having a personal relationship with Jesus in which we talk to him regularly. These are good answers. They’re all true, and the nice thing about them is not one of them makes us look foolish. The problem is, they’re incomplete. They—even the one about talking to Jesus—don’t tell the whole story.
Paul says that following Jesus means being a fool for Christ. What does that mean? It means, I think, becoming something very like Shakespeare’s Fool.
The misty world in which King Lear is set is a thousand years removed from our own, but it might as well be today. All around us, brutality, lust, and power mask themselves as merely the ways of the world. Those who profess high-minded wisdom—in politics and world affairs, in business, in the basic skills of living life—in fact too often take us down paths of destruction and despair. We see, repeatedly, how razor-thin the edge is between worldly wisdom and madness.
We are to be fools for Christ, and that means we are to name these things for what they are. We are to speak truth to the worldly wise, even when it brings danger and opprobrium upon us. Like Old Testament prophets, we are to cry out to the world the destructive paths it is on, and we are to proclaim, with Christ, the better Way. When violence is pursued, we are to preach peace. When greed is called good, we are to counsel generosity. When fear and exclusion are trumpeted, we are to expand the arms of embrace. And we are to do so knowing full well, and being willing to accept, that the world will call us fools.
But modern prophets, like those of old, can become bitter and hard. Not us. We won’t tell the truth—the real, the deep, the Gospel truth—because of cynicism or relish. We’ll do so out of love. Like the Fool beside the crumbling King Lear, we will walk alongside this crumbling world—God’s world—because we love it. And even when the worldly wise tell us our compassion is misplaced and futile, we will not abandon this world or those in it who are betrayed, hurting, and alone. We will be faithful to the end.
St. Paul tells us, “Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” So let’s be fools, and experience that weakness that will ultimately save the world.