By Craig Canfield
“Once there was a little girl who always laughed and grinned
and made fun of everyone, of all her blood and kin,
and once when there was company and old folks was there,
she mocked them and she shocked them, and said she didn’t care.
And just as she turned on her heels to go and run and hide,
there was two great big black things a-standing by her side.
They snatched her through the ceiling ’fore she knew what she’s about,
and the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!”
Did any of you go to bed as children having the poems of James Whitcomb Riley read to you? Well, for those of you who did, you might recall what was just read from the poem “Little Orphan Annie.”
So what has this to do with the major themes from our Bible readings of this week? Everything.
It is not that our little girl lost cannot be found, it is that she is on a bad road. “Scoffers” or, depending on your translation, “the scornful,” is something we encounter in our reading from the First Psalm this Sunday. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of the scoffers.”
“Sit in the seat of the scoffers.” Now here is a word we don’t encounter every day. Would that the actual adult scoffer be as absent as the number of times we come across that word. Perhaps the substitution of synonyms would ring more clearly to our ears – words such as “mockers,” or “deriders,” or “those who treat others or God with contempt or ridicule.”
If, on the other hand, we are reading verses from our Bible every day, then we will definitely come across the word “scoffer.” Countless times. The Bible is full of references to the scoffers. There is “scoffing at the Lord’s prophets,” and verses such as “All your enemies open their mouths wide against you: they scoff and gnash their teeth.” Then there are the scoffers that “will come in the last days.”
The readings today from Psalms, John and Acts are crucial in fostering a change of attitude not only among the mockers, but among those who are attacked by the mockers and the traditional ways in which people have learned to deal with their attackers. In these readings we are not only led away from the road of the scoffer, with their goblins of separation and alienation, but we are led away from the customary road of revengeful reaction to the scoffers. We are led toward the path of forgiveness.
Given that much has been made recently of the connection between psychology and spirituality, why not look at what psychologists have to say about the corrosive effect scoffers might have on others, the effect on people when they are mocked or negated, and of the effect such treatment has on our souls?
The word “therapist” is taken from the Greek word therapia, which means “soul server” – so helping the soul to expand, to reach God, is something that, if we do not limit ourselves to the pursuit of secular therapy, ought to be the work of therapists as well as clergy.
In the book The Politics of Experience, Erving Goffman is quoted as saying, “There seems to be no agent more effective than another person in bringing oneself alive, or by a glance, a gesture, or a remark, shriveling up the reality in which one is lodged.”
The mocker is the blocker. He is the one, in comedies, called the blocking agent – the one who prevents the success of the hero’s action. But in the act of the soul’s journey toward salvation, this is no joke, no laughing matter. The scoffer is the adversary, the one who interferes, the one who stands in the way.
Other psychologists have written about how the words of the mocker can put one back into the acorn from which the soul is supposed to emerge as an oak tree, back in the cocoon from which the soul is supposed to morph into a butterfly. Many reclusive and traumatized people inhabit these shells, these prisons of isolation. Sometimes strong forces are needed to shake up the rigidity of such confinement. But we are looking at two forces: a loving force that is coaxing one to grow, and another that is thwarting all growth. Few realize the effect that scoffing or mocking can have on someone.
Mocking is betrayal that leads to alienation and separation; alienation of the mocker from what is mocked, whether it is man or God, and alienation of the one who is mocked, who may get caught up in a spiral of hatred and revenge toward the mocker.
Our gospel reading for today gives examples of Jesus’ way and the way he advocates for his disciples, and hence, the way for us to avoid such a negative spiral. In the passage from John, Jesus warns his disciples that because he has set them apart by truth, others will hate them. It is illuminating to see how, although aware of the hatred that comes from the world toward himself and toward his disciples, nevertheless, Jesus’ response is the opposite of scoffing. It is the choice of forgiveness.
If we can stop revengeful responses to the scoffers, take up our own crosses of moving beyond our egos, then we can employ Jesus’ healing energies to learn the way of forgiveness.
Referring to Judas, Jesus said, “I guarded them, and not one of them was lost, except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” Note the mildness of the language. Jesus does not issue a harsh condemnation, judgment or ridicule Judas, even after Judas’ act of betrayal.
Forgive the betrayer, forgive the murdering Roman soldiers. Forgive, forgive, forgive. Yes, forgive 70 times. That is the way, the highway, the road.
Hopefully the “old folks” in the James Whitcomb Riley poem with which we started our sermon were old enough and wisdom-filled enough to have arrived at the conclusion that scoffing, with its attendant belittlement and betrayal, might be met with forgiveness, by recognizing in the injustice of the other a real call for love. Hopefully the same can be said for us.
— Craig Canfield is a psychotherapist with a focus on the links between psychotherapy and spirituality, particularly dealing with the Biblical text.