Do the writers of the books and letters that make up the Bible have a sense of irony?
In the Gospel of Mark in particular, there seems to be an underlying irony in nearly every chapter.
Unfortunately, most readers approach reading the literature of the Bible differently than they do other books. Because it’s ‘special’ somehow, we treat it with a hyper-serious-HOLY-special-religious-ness… as if there is lightning just below the toner and paper (15% recycled materials) that is waiting to get us.
Ironically, that kind of special reading actually flattens the writings in the Bible in profound and tragic ways. Let’s take a look.
The Gospel of Mark wastes no time when delving into his account of the life of Jesus. It’s only chapter 2, but Jesus is already moving and shaking, calling out demons, and even healing a paralyzed man lowered into his presence on an ancient elevator (patent pending - definitely not OSHA approved).
In Mark 2, we have a story that I think the original audience would have found incredibly ironic:
While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many [tax collectors + sinners] who followed him.
When the [spiritually elite and educated theologians who were also the tribal leaders] saw [Jesus] eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples:
“Why does [Jesus] eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said to them,
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” - Mark 2:15-17
The new teacher, Jesus, is hanging out with a crowd of tax collectors (traitors who worked for the Roman government spying and bullying their own people) and sinners (all sorts of people who where not living up to the communities standards of conduct regarding sexuality, vocation, diet, holy days, gender, race, and more).
Even though this rough group of rebels and outcasts where labeled 'sinners’ by other people, they are actually very open to Jesus. All through the Gospels, they hang on his every word and action. At the same time, the 'healthy’ are seemingly incapable of seeing the true nature of Jesus even when he is standing right in front of them.
According to the 'theologian’ Merriam-Webster, irony is:
: the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny
: a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected
Both of these definitions are at play. The words 'sinner’ and 'healthy’ are used opposite of what the account seems to mean, and it is strange because the Hero (Jesus) is behaving in the opposite manner from what was expected. Zooming in:
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In other words, this is a story where the 'healthy’ are blind and the 'sinners’ can see. The arrangement in Mark highlights that these labels are ironic and do not describe the true situation at hand. Those that have chosen to follow Jesus, may not be morally perfect, but they are definitely closer than the 'healthy’ who are arrogant and blind in their self-righteousness. This is demonstrated definitively just a few verses later.
Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. - Mark 3:6
Would ’healthy’ people become so obsessed and jealous that they would murder someone? Ironically, they are rejecting the very God that they think they are defending.
Maybe Jesus’s use of 'sinner’ and 'healthy’ in this passage reveals a deeper irony that a flat reading misses altogether. Jesus is reversing the categories. In this story, good is bad and bad is good.
Those that are truly healthy, even if labeled 'sinners’, will come to him, while many labeled 'healthy’ will by their pride and hatred and judgmental hearts reveal themselves to be sinners.
Maybe the bigger point of this story is that if it happened in Jesus’s day, it probably still happens today. Even those who are very religious, ironically, often are blinded by the strange propensity for judgement, fear, and even masked hatred. As a result, we often miss out on the amazing works of grace and love that Jesus is up to in His world.
Have you ever been blinded by your 'health’?
What are you learning from 'sinners’ about God, life, and love?
Where else do you see irony in the Bible?