Fools For Christ

#FoolsForChrist #HolyFools #Iurodivy #MarthasVineyard #Christianity

Sometimes, God calls his holy ones to play the fool!

1 Cor 4:9-10 We have become a spectacle to the whole world, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” 

Last weekend, we hosted my good friend Ted and his wife Val. She grew up in Soviet Russia, after the Communists had destroyed the churches and cathedrals. She told me that nonetheless, there were many people who secretly practiced the Russian Orthodox Christian religion during those dark years before the communist regime collapsed.  

There is a very unique tradition in Russian Christianity that has been preserved from the earliest days of Christendom, and it’s the tradition of the fool for Christ. The holy fool. The iurodivy, or the iurostvo, the ugly or idiotic saint.  

One of the earliest stories of a fool for Christ is St. Simeon the Holy Fool. He was a very saintly, wise, and well-read desert monk who lived near the Dead Sea in the 6th century. After 29 years of a bare bones life of prayer in the desert, God inspired him to move to the big city of Emesa, to leave his life of prayer and begin a new life of charity and service.  

But Simeon had escaped to the desert to escape the temptations of the city – why would God send him back to the city? Simeon begged God, “that all his works might remain hidden until his departure from life, so that he might escape human glory, which gives rise to arrogance and conceit.” And so, God inspired Simeon to wear the mask of foolishness– to play the fool – for Christ. 

He arrived at the gate of Emesa walking like a crab, and dragging a dead dog behind him. Everyone said, “This man is a lunatic!” On his first day of church, he extinguished all of the fine candles and threw peanuts at the clergymen. As they chased after him to run him out, he ran up to the pulpit and started throwing peanuts at the whole congregation. On his way out, he overturned the tables of pastries served for coffee hour – which they even had back in the 6th century! The pastry sellers beat him nearly to death. 

Now, what was the meaning of all this? All of a sudden, this church wasn’t looking so Christian after all. Simeon had revealed the true character of the congregation — there was no charity in the hearts of these people, and rather than “[showing] hospitality to strangers” as the Bible teaches, they were willing to beat him within an inch of his life. 

And this was just his first day! 

Simeon was intentionally provoking people – he didn’t want their admiration. He didn’t want their approval. He was working to reveal the truth of peoples’ hearts, to bring them to repentance. He wanted to work in secret – he wanted to be the last person people suspected of the wave of miraculous healings and exorcisms that began as soon as he arrived. 

There’s a great scene from the film Batman Begins, where the protagonist, Bruce Wayne, decides he needs to act outlandish when he is a civilian in order to throw people off the scent that he could actually be Batman. Just as people are beginning to wonder how this mysterious billionaire is spending his nights, he shows up to a red carpet pleasure palace with a gaggle of models and pretends to get drunk and he takes a swim in the decorative fountain in the lobby. After raising enough havoc for the paparazzi, he pompously writes a check and buys the hotel as he leaves. He seals his reputation as a bumbling, drunken, irresponsible, eccentric playboy. The last person you’d expect to be the Dark Knight! 

This is exactly what St. Simeon was doing, too. Jesus said, “Be careful not to perform your righteous acts before men to be seen by them.” (Mt. 6:1). Simeon took those words seriously. He knew men’s souls, and would often stand on street corners calling out individuals for their sins – but no one argued with him. He never tried to back up his claims, to establish his own credibility. He would just as easily destroy his own credibility by pretending to thrash about when there was a full moon, to make himself look crazier than he was. He really didn’t care about his own appearance or public credibility – he wanted to reach the secret places of peoples’ hearts. 

He didn’t just not worry about what people thought of him, he actively smeared his own reputation, like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. But the secret that Simeon was hiding wasn’t that he had a superhero alter ego – his secret was the righteous works which the Holy Spirit was working through him. He was getting out of the Spirit’s way – and they say that the sins of sinners dropped like flies whenever Simeon entered the picture. 

*** 

Another famous Christian holy fool is St. Francis of Assisi. This is a man who took the Bible so literally, that when he read the words “Call no one father, because you have only one Father in heaven,” he stripped off all of the clothes his father gave him until he was bare naked in the square, and he proclaimed he was giving his life to his True Father in front of all the people. 

St. Francis sang to animals and he preached to birds. Like Simeon, he was poor and wandered the cities. And like Simeon, he believed that actions allowed the Spirit to speak louder than words. He said, “Preach the gospel at all times – using words when necessary.” 

The fools for Christ show us that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just use words to preach the gospel. It has always been that way – 1st Thessalonians says, “our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.” This is how the fools in Christ preached, and indeed the Bible says that preaching itself is foolishness — “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.” (1 Cor 1:21) 

This foolishness of preaching didn’t begin with Christians. Long before, in Israel, God told the old Hebrew prophet Ezekiel to publicly bake bread over animal excrement as a sign against Israel. Isaiah was told to preach naked for a few years.  

Why did God require such “foolishness”? Because the hearts of the people had been hardened, and they were no longer willing to listen. So they had to be shown. They had to be caught off-guard. But why were their hearts hardened? Pride

In all of these cases, the holy fools were preaching against “the wise”. The time had long since passed for debate – have you ever been in an argument with someone who will never admit they’re wrong? That’s the kind of pride that God will send a holy fool to break through. This is what Paul was warning against when he said, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” 

In the times of the prophets and Christ, it was the pride of the Jewish religious civil authorities who so grieved the Spirit of God that he sent a holy man to play the fool; in the time of St. Simeon and St. Francis, it was the pride of the Christian religious civil authorities; and later, in Soviet Russia, it was the pride of the atheist communists who would never be convinced with words that they were grieving the Spirit of God, whose children they persecuted.  

It’s in times like these that God sends a holy man to play the fool. The holy fool, the fool for Christ, is exactly what Bruce Wayne wanted Batman to be: a psychological projection, the sum of all his enemy’s fears: a giant hideous creature of the night. And when it comes to the proud and the wise, their biggest fear is foolishness. Just as the terrifying Batman working for justice reveals that criminals are a more hideous creature of the night than a bat, so does a fool working for Christ reveal that the proud are often more foolish than a fool. 

*** 

The holy fool, the fool for Christ, is a calling for our times. They say we live in the “Information Age.” I’m sure that’s what they thought in the olden times we’ve just discussed – there’s nothing new under the sun. Data can travel faster on the internet than it ever could through a printing press – but truth travels only as fast as it ever has, through the Spirit of God into the heart of a humble, repentant person. If we look around, and listen to the ongoing conversation in our culture, it is clear as day that the Information Age is full of wise, proud talking heads with plenty of information to share – but very little truth. 

Have you ever heard someone preaching something so false, so offensive, that you felt the Spirit of God grieved within you? I turn on the television to the news channels; I log into Islanders’ Talk; I check out what some of my New York friends are preaching about on Facebook. Our world is filled with literal Devils’ Advocates, outright preaching doctrines of hatred, judgment, of ignorance – all of them think they’re wise, but they’re grieving the Spirit of God.  

When the Spirit is grieved, sometimes we need to laugh. One of my favorite comedians of all time is George Carlin. He could speak about dreadfully serious things and yet make us all laugh. Comedians play the fool. Another new one is J.P. Sears – he is able to speak out about culture and lampoon politicians and criticize popular ideologies that get most people censored and kicked off YouTube, but because his character is to play the fool, he flies under their radar. He is, in a way, bringing many people to repentance in the most basic meaning of the word, “changing people’s minds” — since he is exposing the hypocrisy of the proud and pointing out that the Emperor with the new clothes is naked! 

*** 

The most important thing about the fool for Christ is that he is always in a crowdHe never runs away and he never hides. Many people, when they see the tide of the world turning in a direction they don’t like, they run away and hide in their houses. The same is true of Christians historically – many will move to the mountains and become monks, or solitary hermits in huts.  

The fool for Christ, however, stays in the middle of the action. But he doesn’t get involved with politics; he doesn’t preach from the pulpit – well, maybe some fools for Christ do! But generally, he doesn’t do anything that would openly seem like Christian evangelism, pastoral care, or prophetic work. But wherever he goes, nonetheless, up spring the fruits thereof. 

This is a calling for all of us in these times. When you’re out in the world, don’t feel you need to posture yourself stiffly as a witness for Christ – stay limber. The fool for Christ plays the fool – he’s playful. So should we be. In a world that so intensely presumes itself wise, don’t fight fire with fire, but play the fool they think you are; in a time when people all believe they have the answers, don’t argue with answers, but raise better questions. In all these things, we are trying to stay out of God’s way – the Holy Spirit is infinitely wiser than all of us, and He will reveal all things in spite of our foolishness – or our wisdom

*** 

Remember, we are strangers in a strange land. We might not be as independent as the holy fools of old who had no families, who lived in poverty and without a home – but what we have in common with them is that this world is not our final destination and it’s not our first priority. We as Christians are in this world, but not of it; and the life we have in heaven hidden with Christ, that’s the life we are living out here on earth; and which we hope to reveal to the wise and the proud in our foolish preaching; and which we expect to continue on with when we depart this earth.  

Remember, one day, everything we have on earth will be taken from us by death.  

The holy fool in Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle tells his Soviet captor, “You can only have power over people so long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power – he’s free again.” We Christians live free because in Christ, we have overcome death, which takes everything from us – we have already died in baptism into Christ’s death, and therefore into His resurrection too — so we are free indeed. 

When we preach this resurrection, the world will think us foolish — whether we are naked or not; throwing peanuts or not; dragging a dead dog or not; whether we preach it with words or not — the world will absolutely think we are foolish because of the foolishness of preachingLean into it. Play that fool – and really play playfully. And give life to the words: “We have become a spectacle to the whole world, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ.” 

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