The Irony of Jesus

I suppose that of all the literary devices, I may be fondest of irony.  Irony may be funny, or it may be thought-provoking, or it may be both.  When I consider the literary value of the Bible, I see many examples of irony.  But no one used irony as much as the God-Man who actually embodied it. 

Imagine a king born in a stable.  Imagine this king surrounded by a court of common laborers, fishermen, and despised tax collectors, and being anointed by a sinful woman.  Imagine this king who tied a towel around his waist and humbly washed the feet of his disciples.   Imagine this king being heralded and lauded as he made his final entry into the holy city of Jerusalem, riding on an unbroken donkey’s colt.  Imagine this king, the greatest man ever to walk the earth, being nailed to a wooden cross to suffer as a spectacle, and to die as a common criminal. 

Jesus was irony.

But not only did he live in irony, he used it masterfully.  Remember the scene early in Jesus’ ministry when he was assembling his team? 

“Mark 2.14  And as he passed by, he saw Levi [most of us know him as Matthew, dlr] the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

“15  And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16  And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

“17  And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

A king among commoners. A Savior among sinners.  But the greatest irony here is that every single one of those “righteous” Pharisees was “sick,” and needed a physician. 

How many times did he perform a miracle and tell his followers or the recipient of that grace NOT to tell anyone?  He pointedly taught that those who wished to be first would be last, and the last first.  He elevated the lowly with praise and brought low the (self-)righteous with scathing condemnation. 

One of the most ironic scenes I can recall is that fateful scene in Matthew 25, where Jesus is describing the parting of the true disciples from the false ones.  The sheep would be marked by meekly doing as Jesus would do.  The goats would have likely been gloating over their meticulous observance of every point of law, but failed to live and serve as their Master had shown them.  These would be the ones whom Jesus had mentioned in Matthew 7.21-23:  

“21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  23  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ 

You would think that if they had accomplished all of these big visible feats, they would surely have an express ticket for Heaven.  But Jesus said that while they may have indeed done those things, they neglected the real will of God. 

So if doing big things in front of a lot of people in Jesus’ name won’t get you to Heaven, what will?  Well, that’s not something I am completely qualified to answer.  Really, it’s not my call.  But I do know this: that doing the will of God is not just religion for show.  God wants his children to take care of each other.  To do justice.  To love and to live mercy.  To embody love and reflect that love to the benefit of others.  To be the purest light, the real image of God in a hopelessly sin-darkened world.  Religion for show won’t get you to Heaven.

And there is another point of irony: so often the people using Matthew 7.21 the most are the ones who themselves take the most pride in their show of religion.  They get it all right – the acts of worship, the structure and organization of the church as they consider “right”—but lose sight of what it is we’re supposed to be doing in the first place: loving God, and loving each other. 

Now, they will say that getting the precise form of worship and the exact congregational organization right is showing love for God.  They will cite Jesus’ observation that if we love him, we will keep his commandments.  And that is true.  But we can’t pick and choose which commandments are more important than others.  When we quibble over who we can help with a donation from the church treasury, are we really showing love for our brothers and sisters or for Jesus?  When a preacher declares in an admittedly extreme game of “what if?” that it would be more acceptable for a homeless baby to starve to death rather than use money from the church treasury to feed it, do we really understand the love of God, and that it doesn’t matter where the money comes from, if it’s all God’s money anyway, whether in the church treasury (is that Corban?) or my wallet?  When we elevate men—some of questionable motive and dubious qualification— to positions of leadership yet fail to recognize, let alone celebrate the service, contribution and wisdom of women, are we showing love for Jesus, who respected women and counted them among his closest friends, even allowing women to be the first bearers of the news of his resurrection?  When we build entire doctrinal formulas from single phrases, even single words, doctrines that divide brother from brother, yet ignore examples and observations that do not conform to our specific traditions, are we living and exhibiting what Paul said matters most: faith working through love (Galatians 5.6)?  Or is that conformity working through coercion?

Oh, irony abounds among us humans, too.  Nowhere is it more apparent than where we talk about liberty yet do not hesitate to bind inferred laws on everyone.  The thing about human irony is that we don’t do it nearly as well or remotely as effectively as Jesus.  Where his irony underscored his humble majesty, our ironies more often than not underscore our foibles, frailties and failings.  Jesus said we might strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.  We judge the one with a speck in his eye, but fail to see the plank impairing our own vision.  Such irony is classic Jesus, the God-Man, the Servant-King, who taught that the way to abundance is through denial, but more importantly, the way to life is through death.  And that may be the greatest irony of all.   

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