- Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
- Psalm 84:1-7
- 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
- Luke 18: 9-14
You can find all of the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation by following by clicking here.
I hung up the phone and took a deep breath. I wiped the tear forming in the corner of my eye and took another deep breath as my roommate wandered into the room.
“I never thought that much unhappiness could make a person laugh so hard,” they said.
“You gotta laugh…” I began.
“Or you’ll just cry,” my roommate intoned, “You say that almost every time you’re on the phone with your mother. Is it a family motto or something?”
“It’s my survival.”
It’s sort of tied to this thing the Germans have a word for: Schadenfreude.
Typically, this word describes the gleeful pleasure a person gets from the misfortune of another; it can also be the embarrassed joy one feels upon hearing about another person’s trouble or failure.
My family uses it in great effect with our intimate family stories. We laugh at each other’s pain for one very good reason. Which I will come back to.
But, there’s this thing happening in our culture that has begun to disturb me and caused me to really think about why society is almost obsessed with laughing at the other’s pain.
Have you ever noticed how much humanity loves to laugh at the misfortune of others? The success of ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’, ‘Just For Laughs Gags’, and even the ‘Darwin Awards’ seems to indicate the truth of this matter. You only have to spend a few moments online to see the hundreds of ways in which we can laugh at the hilarious results of someone else’s mistakes: videos, memes, photos…. you name it, it exists.
These sources are so prevalent and the demand so high that a writer from a well-known ‘humour in misfortune’ provider, BuzzFeed, wrote an article entitled: “Everyone on the Internet is an Actual Person” (July 30, 2014). In it, the writer encourages readers to really think about the things that they post. All those people who have misspelled tattoos, awkward family photos, who are just beginning to share their various talents with the world wide web, or who have made bad choices in the preparation and execution of daredevil stunts are just that: people.
The danger in the quantity of all the America’s Funniest Videos and the webpage memes and cellphone videos is that they create these seemingly distant and anonymous venues, and allow us to fall into the sinful tendency of self-righteous judging. The anonymity argument also stands for the increase of online bullying.
We all have experience being built up by the number of nice things that others have said to us – online or in person. But, I am fairly confident that we have also all had the experience of being judged, and even worse, being the one who has passed judgement on trivial surface matters with no consideration to the humanity of the ones we have judged.
The thing about schadenfreude outside of the intimate familial or friendship circle is that people are inclined to find joy in other people’s pain as a means to ease or escape their own pain. It enables them to say: “God, I thank you that I am not like those people….” – perhaps filling a void of self-esteem and value at the expense of the misery of the other.
Take for example today’s gospel reading. Today’s Pharisee prays: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ (Luke 18:11b-12), and it’s not that hard to imagine him sneering, chuckling, laughing self-righteously at the misery and misfortune of the tax collector in the Temple whose sins were so great that he could never come close to the righteousness of a Pharisee.
If I were honest, I would admit to you that I have laughed and scoffed at the Pharisees, like this one, who Jesus outwits, outthinks, outdoes time and time again. The Pharisees have become the butt-end of some social justice joke. And I think we, as the church, have laughed and revelled in that, unaware that in the church of Jesus Christ we are just as guilty of self-righteously praying: “God, we thank you that we’re not like everyone else – hypocrites, bullies, those judgy-types – or even like this Pharisee. We come to church each week. We know better – we shouldn’t laugh at the misfortune and pain.”
We are as guilty of being the Pharisee in this parable as we are charged to be like the tax collector.
In my experience, laughter at misfortune is never that cut and dry. God created us to laugh, and laughter is a wonderful gift. Yet, for some reason, misfortune and pain can often make us laugh.
Laughing at something doesn’t always mean that it’s funny.
“You gotta laugh, or you’ll just cry.” Laughter can be this bubbling up from the deep well of emotions. A pressure release, if you will. And the single reason why my family and I laugh so hard and deeply at our own misery.
I suppose that might be the difference.
This kind of laughter at misfortune isn’t the typical schadenfreude. It doesn’t rely on boosting our own morale on the suffering and pain of the other. It relies on the boosting of our own morale on our ability as a community to buoy one another in love, laughter, and the spirit of resilience. And to recognize ourselves in both the Pharisee and the tax collector of Jesus’ parable.
We continue to strive to live as God has challenged and charged us, knowing that God has forgiven us and has promised us eternal life. But. We cling to those promises because we know that we continue to sin time after time, again and again. We are not perfect. We’re certainly not ‘either or.’ The situation of being ‘both and’ is kinda funny in its own way.
I think sometimes Jesus’ parables help us to see the comedy in life, even if it gets a little dark in places. They certainly seem to be in place to tear down the distinctions and divisions we continue to insist on placing on one another.
My family and I can laugh until tears fall freely because we have somehow (I think it’s God’s doing) made it through the tough things, time and time again. Even when the next difficult situation arrives in the midst of our journey, and causes no end of stress, we laugh because it brings us together, it makes the pain tolerance become greater, and it promotes and creates the space we need to breathe in the midst of all the hurt and fear.
I think that space is needed in order to see and hear God. As Jeremiah puts it:
“We look for peace,
but nothing good comes of it;
for a time of healing,
only to be terrorized.” (Jeremiah 14:19b, CEB)
“Yet you are in our midst, Lord;
we are called by your name.
Don’t give up on us.” (Jeremiah 14:9b, CEB)
The space that breaks out of the darkness and misfortune of our lives when we laugh reminds us of what God sees when God looks at us: just people.
May that stick in our minds the next time we are quick to judge the others or ourselves and say: “Thank you God, that I am not like them….”
God sees neither Pharisee or tax collector. Just two people, going up to the Temple to pray.
Let us pray,
God of overflowing grace, thank you for seeing each of us as we really are. Your created people. Forgive us for shallow thankfulness, for passing by the ones in need, for laughing at the other’s misfortune, for being quick to judge those around us. Encourage us to laugh when we find ourselves surrounded with darkness, and provide your light to us through those who share love and laughter with us. Help us to remember that no matter where we are or what we are going through, you are in the midst of it with us. Amen.
- David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 18:9-14.” Preach This Week. Working Preacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2967
- Nathan W. Pyle. “Everyone on the Internet is an Actual Person.” BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeed.com/nathanwpyle/everyone-on-the-internet-is-an-actual-person?utm_term=.pmxAA01Mxe#.ebG66NxJYB
- Sundays and Seasons Lectionary Resources. http://www.sundaysandseasons.com
This week’s image is a detail from a painting entitled “cmex,” which means laugh in Russian. It was painted by Filipp Malyavin in 1898. You can find out more about this artist here, and more about the painting here. The image is public domain, and is edited for the purpose of this blog.