The Weapon of Ridicule
And they laughed him to scorn — Luk_8:53
From Lament to Ridicule
This incident occurred in Capernaum, whither our Savior had just returned. He had scarce landed when the ruler of the synagogue besought Him that He would come and heal his daughter. Then had occurred the interruption in the crowded street, and we can picture the father’s agony at the delay, an agony that would dull down into despair when word came that the little maid was dead. So Jesus entered the house with Peter and James and John. it was very crowded and noisy and disgusting. “Weep not,” He said, “the maid is not dead, but sleepeth.” Were it not better to be quiet when a tired one sleeps? And it was then, not catching what Christ meant, nor guessing that He spoke of a sleep that here has no awakening, that they laughed Him to scorn, knowing that she was dead. One moment there was nothing heard but wailing, and the next the shrill lament was drowned in laughter. One moment there was wild beating of the breast, and the next the heaping of ridicule on Christ; and it is of ridicule, in some of its aspects and suggestions, that I wish to speak.
Jesus Was Often Assailed with Ridicule
Now the first thing which I want you to observe is how often Jesus was assailed with ridicule. Our Lord had to suffer more than bitter hatred. He had to suffer the sneering of contempt. When a man is loved, his nature expands and ripens as does a flower under the genial sunshine. When a man is hated, that very hate may brace him as the wind out of the north braced the pine. But when a man is ridiculed, only the grace of heaven can keep him courteous and reverent and tender; and Jesus Christ was ridiculed continually. “Is not this the carpenter’s Son; do we not know His brothers?” “He is the friend of publicans and sinners.” Men ridiculed His origin. Men ridiculed His actions. Men ridiculed His claims to be Messiah. Nor in all history is there such exposure of the cruelty and bestiality of ridicule as in the mocking and taunting at the cross, with its purple robe, and its reed, and crown of thorns. Think of that moment when, all forspent and bleeding, Jesus was brought out before the people; and Pilate cried to them, “Behold your king! Is not this broken dreamer like a Caesar?” That was the cruel ridicule of Rome, often to be repeated by her satirists, and it was all part of the cross which Jesus bore. It is not enough to say that Christ was hated, if you would sound the deeps of His humiliation. There is something worse than being hated, and that is being scorned; and we must never forget that in the cup, which Christ prayed in Gethsemane might pass from Him, there was this bitter ingredient of scorn.
Jesus Was Not Impervious to Ridicule
Nor should we think that because Christ was Christ He was therefore impervious to ridicule. On the contrary, just because Christ was Christ He was most keenly susceptible to its assault. It is not the coarsest but the finest natures that are most exposed to the wounding of such weapons, and in the most sensitive and tender heart scorn, like calumny, inflicts the sorest pain. When Lord Byron published his first little book of poems, and when he was covered with ridicule by the Scotch reviewers for it, he was stung into an act of swift retaliation, but there is no trace that he felt that derision deeply. But when Keats, casting his poems on the world, met with like treatment from the same reviewers, it almost, if not quite, broke his heart. Both were true poets, touched by the sacred fire, but the one was of finer fibre than the other, and it was he of the sensitive and tender heart who was like to be broken by the pitiless storm. Now think of Christ, uncoarsened by transgression, exquisite in all faculty and feeling, and you will understand how, to a soul like His, it was so bitter to be laughed to scorn. I thank God that the Savior of the world had not the steeled heart of a Roman Stoic. I thank God He was so rich in sympathy, and so perfectly compassionate and tender. But I feel that the other aspect of that beauty must have been exquisite susceptibility to pain, and not alone the pain of spear and nail, but the more cruel and deep-searching pain of ridicule.
Ridicule Most Keenly Felt by the Young
Probably it is thus we may explain why ridicule is most keenly felt when we are young. It is not at sixty, it is at one-and-twenty, that we are most afraid of being ridiculous. “He was one of those sarcastic young fellows,” says Thackeray of young Pendennis, “that did not bear a laugh at his own expense, and of all things in the world feared ridicule most” and Sir Walter Scott, speaking of the enthusiasms of his own boyhood, said, “At that time I feared ridicule more than I have ever done since.” There are many young men who could bear to be thought wicked, but I never met one who could bear to be thought ridiculous; indeed I have found them doing ridiculous things just to escape the taint of being thought so; and my point is that that temptation—for it is such—falls at its fiercest on the heart of youth, because in youth we are sensitive and eager, and not yet hardened by traffic with the world.
Christ Was Ridiculed because People Failed to Understand Him
It is notable, too, that Christ was laughed to scorn because the people failed to understand Him. It was because they had not caught tits meaning that they burst thus into derisive laughter. “The maiden,” said Jesus, “is not dead but sleeping”; and they were without imagination, and they took it literally. They had no heart for that mystic and poetic speech that calls the last closing of the eyes asleep. “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth,” He said once, “but I go to awake him out of sleep.” He thought of His friend whose spirit had departed as of one who had fallen upon the peace of slumber. So here, to the noisy mourners in Capernaum, “The maiden is not dead, but sleepeth”—and they laughed Him to scorn and covered Him with ridicule; and they did it because they could not understand.
Disciples Ridiculed at Pentecost
The same truth meets us in the story of Pentecost, as we read it in the vivid narrative of Acts. There also, on the birthday of the church, we light on ridicule, and there also it is the child of ignorance. For there came a sound as of a mighty wind, and the spirit of God fell on the little Company, and they were exalted marvelously by the gift, and went out in the glory of it to preach Christ—and the people, .blind to the source of their enthusiasm, mocked at them as though they had been drunk. “These men are filled with new wine,” they said. It was not an argument, it was a sneer. They could not comprehend what this might mean, but at any rate they could heap derision on it. So once again, on the page of Holy Scripture, that perfect mirror of the human heart, we have an instance of ridicule which sprang from an incapacity to understand.
Ridicule Is Often the Weapon of Incapacity
I therefore trust that people will appraise ridicule at its true value. It is not always the token of superior cleverness. It is far oftener the mark of incapacity. Many of us remember how, not so long ago, it was the custom to ridicule the Salvation Army. In the press, on the street, and on the stage at pantomimes, the Army was held up to derision. But no one ridicules the Salvation Army now. Men may object to its methods, but they do not laugh at it. And why? because they know it better now, and have learned how gallant and pure is its enthusiasm. It is the gradual increase of knowledge and of light that has made that ridicule impossible today. It has died a natural death, and been replaced by admiration or by argument. And if in this case, and a thousand other cases, a clearer knowledge makes ridicule ridiculous—do you not see the point I am driving at, that ridicule is the handy weapon of the ignorant? You cannot refute a sneer, said Dr. Johnson; but if you cannot refute it, at least you can despise it. A sneer is the apology for argument made by a man who does not understand. And that is why, though you find Christ Jesus angry, you never find Him ridiculing anybody, for every secret of every human heart was perfectly understood by the Redeemer.
The Ridicule of the Wise versus the Ridicule of the Ignorant
Of course I am aware that in a world like this there is a certain’ work for ridicule to do. So long as shams and pretensions are abroad, a little gentle ridicule is needed. There are some things that should never be taken seriously—they are in their nature so utterly ridiculous—and against these things no man with any humor would ever plant the great guns of his argument. A jest is sometimes the wisest of all answers, and a little raillery the best of refutations. The world owes not a little to these ready spirits who can answer a fool according to his folly. Professor Lecky tells us that in the Middle Ages the troubadours did one great service to humanity. It was a time when the minds of men were darkened by grotesque and horrible teachings about hell. No one dared argue with the mediaeval church—it might have cost a common man his life to argue—but the wandering troubadours, in their fantastic songs, poured ridicule upon these priestly horrors, and by their badinage helped on a brighter clay. So too in Spain in the sixteenth century, when the popular literature was the romance of chivalry, do you think that preaching could have weaned the people from those so vapid and unedifying books? But Cervantes, in his superb Don Quixote, turned the whole literature of romance into a jest, and brought men to their senses by a laugh. At a party, at which Charles Lamb was present, there was a gentleman who was loud in his praises of Mohammedanism. He would have all the company convinced that Mohammed was far superior to Christ. It does not appear that Lamb discussed the matter. There is certainly not a sign that he got angry. Probably he felt himself incompetent to debate the high matters in dispute. But as the company was dispersing, the gentleman lost his hat, and when Lamb was asked if he had seen it, “I thought,” said the stammering and gentle Elia, “I thought that our friend came in a turban!” That was a stroke of the most exquisite ridicule. It was answering a fool according to his folly. You may depend upon it that it would be remembered when all the arguments were quite forgotten. And so long as the world has foolish people in it, who strain at the gnat and swallow down the camel, so long will there be an office in the world for the gentle raillery of ridicule. But remember that the ridicule of genius is very different from the sneering of the world—that mockery which the world loves to cast upon every enthusiasm and aspiration. It is not because it understands so much, it is because it understands so little, so that in Capernaum, and here, it laughs to scorn.
The Danger of Only Seeing the Ridiculous Side of Things
I should like to say also to those who are tempted to see only the ridiculous side of things, that perhaps in the whole gamut of the character there is nothing quite so dangerous as that. The man who is always serious has his risks, for there is more laughter in God’s works than he imagines. The man who always argues has his risks, for there are truths too fine to be meshed in any argument. But the man who ridicules what is true and high and noble had a thousand times better never have been born into a world so strangely built as this. It is so easy to raise a laugh at things. It is so cheaply and absurdly easy. And there are men whose only claim to being superior is that they are able to win that little triumph. But I call that the most degrading of all triumphs, and that not only for the harm it does to others, but far more for the irreparable harm that it surely brings upon the man himself. Life is not worth living without some high ideal. Life is quite worthless unless we live it reverently. If there be nothing above us and beyond us, we may as well give up the struggle in despair. And the strange thing is that when we take to ridiculing all that is best and worthiest in others, by that very habit we destroy the power of believing in what is worthiest in ourselves. It was not a caprice that when Jesus Christ was ridiculed, He turned the mockers out of the miracle-chamber. That is what the Almighty always does when men and women take themselves to mocking. He shuts the door on them, so that they cannot see the miracles with which the universe is teeming, and they miss the best, because in their blind folly they have laughed the Giver of the best to scorn. Therefore I beg of you never take to ridicule. If you have started the habit, give it up. I beg of you also, never be turned by ridicule from what you know to be right and good and holy. You serve a Master who was laughed to scorn, but you also serve a Master who despised the shame, and the servant is not greater than his Lord.