I Am the Eldest of Three..., Epiphany 4 (A) - 1996

January 28, 1996

I am the eldest of three children. My sister is nine years younger than I. My brother was born only two and a half years after me. And I must confess that I experienced no little sibling rivalry with him. In my toddler's view of the world, he was a usurper who was pushing me out of my appointed place--that is to say, out of my mother's lap. Furthermore, he had big, beautiful blue eyes. There were huge and were surrounded by long eyelashes. Even as an infant he looked as if my mother had put mascara or false eyelashes on him. Well, these eyes of his would stop people in their tracks. One of my earliest memories (I must have been about 3-1/2 at the time) is of walking with my mother who was pushing my brother in a stroller. Strangers would stop us to comment on my brother's beautiful eyes. It seemed to me that he got all of the attention. It is no wonder that I developed a healthy case of sibling rivalry.

The intense form of that rivalry continued for several years. When I was six, there occurred another incident that is seared in my memory. It involved my brother, of course, but it also marked the first time that I found out that what was in the Bible affected my own young life.

In addition to having those enormous blue eyes, my brother had developed a knack for pestering me. Even at a tender age, he knew how to provoke me to a rage. He was always underfoot, particularly when I had friends over. If we didn't allow him to play with us, he would manage to plant himself squarely in the middle of our play--even knocking over the toys we were busy with. My natural inclination was to enforce my physical superiority--I was after all bigger and stronger than he was--and hit him. My mother quickly broke me of that. She was after all bigger and stronger than I was and enforced her physical superiority on my bottom (these were the days when children were still spanked).

I discovered a new tool. I had a bigger vocabulary than my brother and I would retaliate in words. I could say things to him that he didn't even understand! One snowbound day I had my best friend over to play. I had a Fort Apache set--one of those toy models with little three-inch-tall soldiers and Indians made out of hard rubber. My friend and I had this thing all set up in the living room, and we were re-enacting every scene of the Rin-Tin-Tin movie that we had just seen. In walks my brother. When he asked if he could play, we big six-year-old boys told him to go away. He promptly did the reverse. He walked to the middle of the room and sat down right in the midst of all my toy figures, smashing a whole troop of soldiers. I was furious. I searched for just the right word to call him. I found it. I blurted out--"Get out of here. You see what you've done, you FOOL!" Those big eyes looked puzzled. He didn't know what a fool was. (To tell the truth, neither did I, but I at least knew the word.)

But then from the other room came my mother's voice. "What did you call your brother?" "A fool," I replied. Immediately, she came into the room, with a Bible in her hand. Opening it to Matthew's gospel, she read to me: "Whoever shall say to his brother 'you fool' shall be in danger of hell fire." I gulped. I had really done it this time. I didn't even know for sure what a fool was, but I had put eternity at risk for calling my brother one. (Presumably it was alright to call anyone but your brother a fool.) I was heartily sorry and wondered what could be done. My mother made me apologize. And then she employed that time-honored remedy for children who said things that they shouldn't. She washed my mouth out with soap. To this day I can't abide Ivory soap, and to be on the safe side I've never called anyone a fool (at least out loud). I have an abiding distaste for the word.

I am not endorsing my mother's disciplinary methods; nor do I subscribe to her literalist interpretation of Matthew 5:22 which allowed her to use the Bible as an instrument of fear and punishment. I tell the story to illustrate the deep aversion I have to the word fool and its cognates, foolish, foolishness, foolhardy, etc. It is an aversion which I learned from the pages of the Bible.

Then along comes Paul writing to the Church gathered at Corinth. "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world..." "Consider your own call...God chose what is foolish."

You can imagine my reaction when I read that. Paul is saying that God called the Corinthians, and by extension each of us, precisely because we are not wise or powerful or nobly born but because we are foolish, fools according to the standards of the world.

The Bible taught the six-year-old me not to call anyone a fool, and here is Paul saying that we all are fools. How dare he say that I am a fool.

I suspect that I am not alone in not wanting to be classified as a fool. Our culture focusses on scientific knowledge, intelligence, academic achievement and, above all, ruthless "street smarts" as the components of the wisdom required for success. We praise those who become successful through their cunning; fools are not suffered gladly.

But what is a fool?

In our time, fools are those people who for some reason or another are out of step with most of us. They act differently. They don't conform to our expectations. For instance, someone who chooses not to follow a hard-hitting business career but rather to work for a not for profit agency, might be praised to her face. But deep down most of us think she is foolish for squandering the chance to make a lot of money. Fools have very little status in our society.

In times past fools have had more status. In most traditional societies, fools are an essential institution. For an example we can look to pre-modern Europe. Up until the modern era, every ruler had his court jester--or fool. The fool's job, in pre-modern Europe and elsewhere, was to keep the ruler happy, to distract him when he fell into a foul humor, to make him laugh. Fools often gained a special closeness and intimacy with their masters and mistresses. Furthermore, they were able to exploit that intimacy and say (and get away with saying) things critical of the ruler's character or government, statements which would have gained any of their non-foolish contemporaries a place in prison at the very least. The fools' foolishness became the source of their strength and made them bold to be the critics of those in power when no one else would dare to criticize. Fools alone had the freedom to speak the truth.

So what is a fool? A fool is someone who does not act in accordance with society's expectations. A fool is someone who is free to comment on the failures of that society and of those who exercise power in it.

And that is why God has called us. God has not called us because we are wise in the way of the world; God has not called us because we are powerful; God has not called us because we are well- born. We may, in fact, be all of those things, but that's not why God wants us. God has called us because we are foolish. God has, in fact, called us to be God's fools in the world, made bold in Jesus Christ to speak and act on God's behalf in the midst of people and societies who do not recognize God's wisdom and power. God has called us to be the people whose lives point out the failures of the world's wisdom and power.

In us God takes what the world views as foolish and remakes it in order to display the wisdom and power of God. God foolishly remakes us in the image of Jesus Christ who is our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

What has God in Jesus Christ foolishly set us free to do? What will the world see when it looks at us who are God's fools? It will see women and men who live not according to the world's expectations but who, in the words of Micah, do justice, love kindness and walk humbly. It is that simple: we are God's fools who do justice, who love kindness and who walk humbly. It doesn't require wisdom or power or pride. But it will attract the attention of the world. Many will call us fools and reject us out- of-hand. But some will ask us why we act this way, why we are just, kind and humble, why we are being foolish. And we will answer, because Jesus Christ has remade us to live like him imitating his justice, his loving kindness and his humility in order that when people look at us they will see what Jesus Christ looks like. And perhaps, just perhaps, the people who hear that answer will realize that God has foolishly chosen them as well, foolishly remade them into the image of Jesus Christ so that the world will see in their transformed lives the power and wisdom and love of God.

It's not so bad being a fool after all.



Christopher Sikkema