It is a sobering, heart-rending scene. To have someone laugh at you - not with you, but at you - hurts, causes pain not unlike that of physical attack; indeed, oftentimes it is far worse. And yet, here it happens. The Son of God, Savior of the world, is the object of people's ridicule.
He had come to the home of a young girl who had died. It was when he went to her and said she was only sleeping that they laughed. The King James Version preserves the sharpness of the ridicule even more, for there we are told "they laughed him to scorn."
This incident reported in Matthew 9 may have been one of the first times people laughed at our Lord, but it was not the last. For on the day we call Good Friday they laughed with even more belligerence.
"Ah, ha, if thou art the Son of God, come down from that Cross."
"Physician, heal thyself."
"He saved others,; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" (Luke 23:35 RSV).
And so they laughed and mocked him as he writhed in agony on the cross, but their laughter had a hollow ring to it, for it cam from their own emptiness, their ignorance and smallness.
Laughter is often anything but what it appears to be. It is often a cover for our own sense of inadequacy. We laugh at those greater and bolder than we because we have no other way to stand before them. We laugh because they have the vision, the idea, the faith that we don't have. We laugh because before such a one we feel our own poverty of spirit and mind. People laughed at Henry Ford; the Wrights were laughed at because they had the idea the people can fly. And people laughed at the Son of Man because as they stood in opposition before him, they felt the poverty of their own spirits most of all.
They laughed because he exposed their threadbare souls. As they clung to their old ways, to their legalism, their positions of station and prestige for the purpose of impressing others, they saw how artificial it all was when the light of his presence was cast over it. When they saw the freedom he exhibited before God, when they saw God is not a tyrant but the loving Father, they turned away; their notion of God was of one who was more concerned about protocol and procedure than people. For them, God was not a loving Father but a stern judge, looking for slip-ups and mistakes, more ready to punish than to forgive.
The God of Jesus brought the breeze of freedom, of joy, of love, of peace, of celebration. It was too much for them, but since they had no way to deny it, they laughed at him.
Today the world still laughs at him. The demands of his teachings are so extreme as to be funny to many. "Turn the other cheek" - we make a joke of it, don't we, because it seems so far-fetched and ridiculous. Who among us will take it seriously?
And what of his words about forgiveness? Peter had asked him how many times he should forgive another - seven was what Peter suggested in an attempt to be magnanimous. But Jesus said, "Not seven, but seventy times seven." Forgive without limit!
And we chuckle for how preposterous it is. In its generous moments the world allows a second chance, but not a third or a fourth chance, let alone endless opportunities. Such a thing won't work, so we laugh.
And then there is the idea we ought to love our enemies. The standard of the world is we ought to try to love our family and friends. If we do that, we think we do well. But Jesus turns it all around by asking if we only love whose who love us, what have we gained. So love your enemies, he says. And we think, 'That obnoxious neighbor down the street, the boisterous poor demanding their rights - love them? He must be crazy!' And so, we join those who laugh at him. And yet, does our laughter not provide a greater indictment of ourselves than it does of him?
It has been said that laughter and tears come from the same place in the human soul. We ourselves know that experience of laughing until we cry. Their laughter, then, indicted them even as it intended to scorn him. For you see, more often than not, those who manage to laugh at another are themselves the wretched ones. When a child snickers at a crippled person, it is the child whom we most pity. When we laugh at anyone with a disability or infirmity of any kind, our laughter is more like tears for ourselves, tears that we are so blind as to miss our own pathetic state in such a moment.
We stand then before the cross and the suffering Lord as people in need of forgiveness, forgiveness for our blindness and hardness of heart. But we stand also before him as a people in desperate need of him and his ways.
It may be that as we move closely toward the edge of nuclear disaster; it may be as we wade through one international debacle after another, as we survive the flare-up of one more hot spot, that we, and other people of the world, will begin to see the need for the life and ways of our Lord.
It may be that after we have confronted the emptiness within ourselves often enough, we'll hear his voice and respond to his call. It may be that after all these things; we will bow humbly before the cross.
That is, after all, what this day is about. Through the discovery of love so great that he would die on the cross, our Lord is showing us the need to be loving and forgiving with one another, and to do those things that might bring on the laughter of many but life for those who have the courage to so love.