Yoked By a Fool
In one of his least beloved plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, William Shakespeare opens with a disagreement between two friends: Valentine and Proteus. Valentine is about to embark on a trip and wishes his friend Proteus to come with, but Proteus has fallen in love with Julia, and doesn’t want to risk being away from her. Valentine, in his disappointment, chides his friend:
Love is your master, for he masters you:
And he that is so yoked by a fool,
Methinks, should not be chronicled for wise.
This can hardly be the first poetic expression of the idea that being in love – romantic love – makes one do silly and ill-advised things. Such a theme is commonplace throughout art and I daresay it is reflected in human experience, as well. You may take that as an invitation to cast your memory back onto the most foolhardy thing you’ve ever done in the name of love. But the irrational quality of love is not limited to the romantic sort, and today’s collision between the celebration of Easter in the Western Christian church and the secular holiday of April Fool’s Day invites us to consider this. For the central character of Easter, teacher Jesus, was a fool.
I do not mean this in a pejorative sense that he lacked knowledge or made poor choices. I mean that Jesus played the archetypical character of a fool quite often: he lampooned his critics and pointed out contradictions in the society he was a part of with a cool, dry wit. Consider: he routinely asked stupid questions. In one passage in the Gospels, Jesus asked to be shown a coin and then asked who’s face and inscription is to be found there. This was a crucial step in a larger trick – the people Jesus was talking to had come to him hoping to get him to speak out against the taxes levied by the Roman Empire – which would have led swiftly to his arrest by the Roman authorities. Jesus instead managed to catch the questioners in a similar trap. With his famous line, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s,” Jesus left the holier-than-thou crowd unable to respond. For the Roman’s – who had all the power – held that everything belonged to Caesar, and the Jews – whom Jesus, and his questioners, and nearly everyone else listening-in them were – maintained that everything belonged to God. But that initial question – who’s face is on that coin? – is just about as silly as if I asked you to show me a one dollar bill and then to tell me who’s portrait was on it. This was Jesus essentially playing Colombo – the old television detective who keeps asking obvious questions under the pretense that he’s forgetful and incompetent, until he suddenly catches the culprit in a net of logic they can’t escape from.
In addition to asking stupid questions, the teacher presented in the Gospels also had the habit of giving out dumb answers. When asked, “Which is the most important commandment,” Jesus is said to have said, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus didn’t just make that up on his own, nor was he just quoting an obscure passage from the Hebrew scriptures. He was reciting from the opening lines of the Shema – the prayer which is named for it’s first word in Hebrew, which means, ‘hear.’ In Jesus’ time any adult male Jew would have been expected to recite that prayer at least twice each day. He was basically saying, “What’s the most important commandment? The one we recite all the time, Einstein.” I added the ‘Einstein’ part, but it was basically implied – his answer made the questioner look foolish, and helped to draw the attention of those listening to Jesus’ follow-up: that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. That was a pre-existing commandment, but it’s not in the Shema. Repeating something rote and obvious made way for an addition which was novel and innovative.
The teacher Jesus also exemplified and was an advocate for the type of love that defies expectations and drives us to attempt unexpected things. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel According to John, the story is told of Jesus healing a man who had been blind from birth, so that he could see again. A comedy of errors then results: first, almost no one the man once knew recognizes him, because he’d always been blind, so someone who could see couldn’t be him, even if they looked just like him. Then yet another group of Jesus-skeptics interrogates the no-longer-blind man. They demand he point the way to the person who healed him; he can’t, because he never actually saw the healer in the first place. The interrogators think the whole story must be made up, and demand to interview the man’s parents and ask them if he is their son who was born blind, and how they can explain that he can see. They confirm his is their formerly-blind son, but shrug off the second question offering a response that can be loosely translated as, “We don’t know how this happened – we weren’t there – but he’s an adult. Why aren’t you just asking him?” So the interrogators again turn to the original man and ask him to explain himself. He reminds them that he’s already told them the story once and asks why they want to hear him tell it again. He theorizes that this must be because they want to become Jesus’ disciples. This is roughly equivalent to someone telling you that because you keep complaining about some enemy you have at school or at work, it must be because you really like them. Of course, that makes the interrogators angrier. At the end of all this, Jesus shows up again and makes a pronouncement: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” The skeptics recognize that he has basically just given them the rhetorical backhand and come back with, basically, “Who you callin’ blind?” Jesus coolly replies that if they were blind, they’d have an excuse for not recognizing the miracle; since they insist that they’re not, they’ve lost the excuse.
In the immortal words of DJ Khaled, “Congratulations: you played yourself.”
Now, Jesus is not alone in this role of fool-as-spiritual teacher. This is a theme that winds its way across centuries and spiritual traditions. It is said that Hillel, a Jewish teacher who died when Jesus would have still been a child, was asked to explain the whole of Jewish teaching while standing on one foot. He responded by shifting to one foot and simply declaring, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. The rest is commentary; go and learn it.”
In another story, from the Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his family) asked the members of his community for donations to support their efforts and to provide for the needs of the poor among them. Abu Bakr, one of the early Muslims who would one day become the first Caliph – the first leader of the community following the prophet’s death – donated everything that he had. He was left so poor that he and his wife had only one cloth between them to wear, and had to take turns going out of the house. Eventually, a friend borrowed another cloth on Abu Bakr’s behalf. It didn’t provide enough…coverage, so he supplemented it with some palm leaves and left his house to pray. Abu Bakr’s ridiculous outfit was given a touching affirmation when a vision came to Muhammad that at that moment, all the angels in heaven were dressed just as his friend Abu Bakr was, in order to honor someone so loyal, generous, and faithful.
To love a partner, or a friend, or to love the truth, or to love justice, is to be yoked to a fool. It causes us to appear irrational, whenever and wherever callousness and indifference have become common enough to be considered rational. Love demands that we do hard, strange things sometimes – that we make fools of ourselves. And thank heaven for the gentle mercy of that foolishness.