I’m not an evangelical who reads only what affirms my theology, or failing that, tries to pretend that the artists I like somehow conform to my beliefs. (I tire of the endless debates in evangelical circles about whether Bono is a “real” Christian or not – as if meeting certain criteria would make his music or his activism any more or less legitimate.) I prefer to engage artists on their own terms, and allow them to challenge, provoke, and encourage me to hone my own beliefs – even if my faith is the target of their criticism or satire.
Kurt Vonnegut, who passed away last Wednesday at age 84, was and is my favorite author. If I’m honest, it’s mostly because he’s hilarious. Yes, he uses coarse language. Yes, he seemed to have difficulty with women, both as characters in his books and in his real-life relationships. But his ability to engage a suffering world with humor is what has endeared me most to his work. As he wrote:
Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward – and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.
That quote comes from Vonnegut’s book Palm Sunday, from a sermon he delivered on Palm Sunday in 1980. I recently bought this book after some belabored indecision among the decaying stacks in the used book store, really wanting a funny novel for honeymoon reading more than this compilation of essays and biography. But it was the day before my wedding on Palm Sunday Eve, and I couldn’t resist the convergence. Perhaps because of these deliberations, the book ended up costing me $256 due to a ticket I received for unwittingly parking in a poorly-marked handicapped zone. In the spirit of Vonnegut, I could only curse and laugh: So it goes.
With his death following only 12 days later, I’m glad now to have the added insight into his life that this book provided, filling in the cracks that before I had only pieced together from the biographical fragments present in his fiction. So, as my new wife and I enjoyed our first Sunday as a married couple at a remote West Virginia cabin, Vonnegut provided our Palm Sunday sermon, which I excerpt for you free of charge:
I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by – and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. …
I choose as my text the first eight verses of John 12, which deal not with Palm Sunday but with the night before – with Palm Sunday Eve, with what we might call “Spikenard Saturday.” I hope that will be close enough to Palm Sunday to leave you more or less satisfied. …
Now, as to the verses about Palm Sunday Eve: I choose them because Jesus says something in the eighth verse which many people I have known have taken as proof that Jesus himself occasionally got sick and tired of people who needed mercy all the time. I read from the Revised Standard Bible rather than the King James, because it is easier for me to understand. Also, I will argue afterward that Jesus was only joking, and it is impossible to joke in King James English. The funniest joke in the world, if told in King James English, is doomed to sound like Charlton Heston.
I read: “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him supper; Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those at table with him.”
“Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”
“But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him) said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?’ This, he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and, as he had the money box, he used to take what was put into it. “
“Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.'” …
Whatever it was that Jesus really said to Judas was said in Aramaic, of course – and has come to us through Hebrew and Greek and Latin and archaic English. Maybe he only said something a lot like, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Perhaps a little something has been lost in translation. And let us remember, too, that in translations jokes are commonly the first things to go.
I would like to recapture what has been lost. Why? Because I, as a Christ-worshipping agnostic, have seen so much un-Christian impatience with the poor encouraged by the quotation “For the poor always ye have with you.”
This is too much for that envious hypocrite Judas, who says, trying to be more Catholic than the Pope: “Hey-this is very un-Christian. Instead of wasting that stuff on Your feet, we should have sold it and given the money to the poor people.” To which Jesus replies in Aramaic: “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.”
This is about what Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln would have said under similar circumstances.
If Jesus did in fact say that, it is a divine black joke, well-suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him for his hypocrisy all the same.
“Judas, don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.” Shall I re-garble it for you? “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.”
My own translation does no violence to the words in the Bible. I have changed their order some, not merely to make them into the joke the situation calls for but to harmonize them, too, with the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount suggests a mercifulness that can never waver or fade.
This has no doubt been a silly sermon. I am sure you do not mind. People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.
If you doubt our evangelical creds for reading an agnostic to observe Palm Sunday, you may be alternately reassured that we watched The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday, un-reassured that we watched Life of Brian on Holy Saturday, and were once again sanctified by reading N.T. Wright on Easter as we drove the six hours back to D.C. We’ve now gone an entire week without sacrilege, and we could use a good laugh.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. He is newly and happily married to Ingrid Rodrick Beiler.