by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
In June of 1990, I was well into the life of a crude, blue-collar, warehouse dock-foreman and Teamster. But my life was just beginning to take a major turn. It was a summer of reading for me, where, prior to other treasures, I first began reading the funniest book I’d ever read, Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom. Little did I know at that time, that just four years later Robert Zemeckis would have made it into a wonderfully charming movie classic.
As a child in the 1960s, I had some overwhelming struggles in school. Back then, educators hadn’t yet learned to identify my particular characteristics as “learning disabilities,” and so they didn’t really know what to do with me. Thus, teachers and other authority figures merely sorted me into the only general category they had for people like me: “stupid.” Convinced that these authority figures must know what they were talking about, I decided early on that school wasn’t worth my effort. Thus, a good foundation in the humanities slipped by me, believing such things were better suited to “smarter people.”
But, by the summer of 1990, I began to discern some nuances in my abilities, and found an awakening of sorts. The Forrest Gump book (whose protagonist was radically different from the movie) surprised me in a couple of ways. It was the first book, since elementary school, that actually made me laugh out loud, not just once or twice, but often enough that I couldn’t even count. More importantly, because of it, I discovered that there was such a thing as story archetypes, and in particular an archetype called, “The Wise Fool.” From the book’s very beginning, its narrator, Forrest-the idiot-savant, begins naming off his encounters with “idiot” characters from the pages of classical literature…from Dostoevsky’s Idiot, to King Lear’s fool, to Faulkner’s Benjie, to Boo Radley in To Kill A Mocking Bird, to Lennie in Of Mice And Men. Consequently, I commenced thereafter, to devouring a very long list of literary classics, from Cervantes, to Shakespeare, to Dumas, to Bradbury to Kesey, to Eco, trying to make up for lost time, discovering pearls of truth and wisdom previously lost to me.
The Wise Fool is a character type in stories who’s a walking contradiction…where the Fool character comes to be recognized as the one with the true insight of wisdom. The Fool’s wisdom often captures what reason fails to explain of something’s meaning or significance. Often times The Wise Fool is sometimes seen alongside the King or the Advisory Council…or as a foil to trendy cultural dispositions. The Fool cleverly speaks the truth, challenging authority with natural simplicity and innocence of heart…while softening the blow with good-natured humor. The Fool doesn’t care much what other people think, and isn’t hamstrung by life’s difficulties like other people. In the Forrest Gump movie, the sweet simpleton offers a foolishly wise counter-answer to his culture’s distorted ideas of “what love is.”
This coming Sunday’s Epistle Reading (1 Corinthians 4:9-16) St Paul reminded me of the archetype of The Wise Fool. There, in a corrective letter he wrote to a self-absorbed and fragmented parish community in Corinth, he says that he and the other Apostles “have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men…fools for Christ’s sake….”
It’s difficult to imagine Paul as a fool. He’d previously studied (as Saul) at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the most celebrated first century teachers of the Jewish Law and also a classic scholar of Hellenic/Greek philosophy and culture. Accordingly, Saul then went on to become a very respected member of Israel’s advisory council, a group of experts in Jewish Law called the Sanhedrin Council. He’d become esteemed by everyone as a Pharisee’s Pharisee.
But here, now as Paul, a transformed follower of Jesus Christ and an Apostle, he finds himself in the role of the Fool. He’s speaking about foolishness as understood by the larger, surrounding Hellenic/Greek philosophical culture. In that culture, reason was the height of wisdom. To base one’s entire life on an encounter with a mythological deity, would be silly, and stupid. To embrace a life of suffering for the sake of bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people everywhere would be unimaginably irrational. Yet, Paul’s life and actions now defy reason for these Corinthian Christians steeped in the principles and values and worldview of Hellenic/Greek culture.
Here’s the foolishness they see in the life of Paul and the other Apostles. Since preaching the Gospel of Christ was an offense, punishable by death, under both Jewish & Roman law, these Apostles walked around, essentially, as men who were “condemned to death” (v.9). The distorted Christians in Corinth thought that the Apostles were “weak” and “dishonored” (v.10) because they’d abandoned the pursuit of all the things that the culture around them valued most highly. For the sake of the Gospel, these Apostles were irrationally willing to endure hunger and thirst. They weren’t dressed as nicely as the respectable Corinthians. Sometimes they were beat up for sharing their faith. They were homeless (v.11). They endured people’s vilification. They were willing to be persecuted for the Gospel (v.12). They were willing to endure slander, and to be regarded as something that needed to be scraped off the bottom of one’s shoes (v.13). None of the respected sophists within the city of Corinth would be willing to be seen in that light. Who, in their right mind, would put up with all that? A person would have to be a stupid to endure all those indignities for the sake of the Gospel, right? But then, to top all off, St. Paul closes with a plea to the Corinthians. He says, “I urge you, imitate me” (v.16). Wow!
Consider the implications of that for a moment. Not only is Saint Paul telling the Christians in Corinth to be like him, but he’s actually telling *all* Christians to be like him in this regard. Is Paul being egotistical here? Is he full of himself? Well…he’s not even close to being full of himself. Paul is simply doing everything possible to be Christlike. He is being, as he says, a true father, in leading them (and everyone he comes in contact with) to Christ.
At the end of this Sunday’s Gospel reading, after reminding His disciples of the importance of prayer and fasting, Jesus says to them, “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.” Jesus was the ultimate Wise Fool. This archetype that we find in stories has its prototype in Christ, who is willing to be the ultimate Fool for God. As the priest proclaims in the Eucharistic prayers of the Divine Liturgy, “He delivered Himself up for the life of the world.” Out of intense love for each of us, He was the first One, willing to endure all the things Saint Paul endured to reconcile the world back to God.
How easy it is for us to get so caught up in the expectations of the world around us that we forget exactly what the Gospel calls each of us to do and to become. Christ, in the Gospels, calls us to make each and every decision during each and every day for Him. In other words, to follow Christ I need to fill up even the smallest things with Him. Choosing to fill the mundane and everyday things with pleasing God’s will should become our highest priority. Our goal in life is to become Christlike—to grow in our relationship with Him—in unity with Him, and to be like Him. For Orthodox Christians, The Fathers of the Church tell us that if we become Christlike, then we can be with Him not only now, but for all eternity. This is what salvation looks like. For us, it’s the very source of life. So, this is the goal that should be guiding our lives—to be like Christ.
Are you playing it safe, so that no one will regard you as foolish? Are you holding out on sharing your faith, under the pretense that you’re using a much more sophisticated, long-game approach that will appeal to the rational sensibilities of the people around you? Or, are you willing to take up your cross and be like Christ, Gumping the faith? Are you willing to be the Christlike foil to trendy cultural dispositions in the people around you? Are you willing to become, in your workplace and to your neighbors, the one who offers a foolishly wise counter-answer to this culture’s distorted ideas of “what love is”? Are you willing to become, with Saint Paul, a “fool for Christ”? May it be blessed!