One of the best movies about theology and religion is Monty Python's "Life of Brian." It's basically the story of a guy who is born at the same time as Jesus, and the film shows us a very turbulent time in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and the Roman Empire through
his eyes. It's possibly one of the funniest movies you'll ever see, full of fabulous satire and crazy dialogue. At one point in the movie, a crowd of devoted drones hang on Brian's every word. "You're all individuals," he shouts out to them from his window. "We're all individuals," they call back in unison. And as you're taking in the hilarity of that moment alone, a single, pathetic voice pipes up, "I'm not," and he's promptly silenced by the people around him.
You may already be imagining where I'm going with this blog post; Life of Brian offers us another poignant critique of something found in this week's Torah portion. Leviticus, chapter 24, verses 10-16, tells the story of a man who blasphemes
God. In the midst of a fight with another man, the Torah tells us he 'pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and was brought to Moses... and placed in custody until the decision of Adonai was made clear to them.' And what follows in the text is the legal precedent for not taking the Name of God in vain, and the punishments for transgressing this law. However, what is so difficult about this story is that we don't really know WHAT the guy did. What was his crime specifically, so that we can all learn from his mistakes? Was it just pronouncing God's Name? Was the problem that he did so in a non-ritual context? Or did he specifically curse God in the heat of the moment?
Life of Brian highlights this confusion for us in a fabulous scene where a man is being tried for blasphemy. In self defense, the man declares, "All I said to my wife was, 'That piece of halibut was good enough for
Jehovah.'" The crowd gasps in horror, as the man blasphemed once again in telling his story. The 'judge' in this case, standing as they all are by the side of the road, proclaims the man's offense, but in reading aloud the details of the case, he too uses the name 'Jehovah,' and someone throws a rock at the judge. An argument ensues, the judge tries to defend himself, uses 'Jehovah' one more time, and is swiftly stoned by the crowd.
Is it a crazy scene? Sure. But it's a poignant critique because we do this to ourselves. We obsess over the minutia of religion and chastise one another for supposed offenses, always eager to judge another for their wrong-doings while
ignoring our own. Even the Torah itself seems to be challenging our assumptions about legal systems - stating in verse 16 that the community should stone the blasphemer to death... and then in verse 17 (the VERY NEXT line) tells us that no one should ever kill anyone else. Huh? Blasphemy, in my opinion, is really a red herring; it's not the REAL issue we need to worry about (is it blasphemous to say that?). God isn't offended or hurt by blasphemy. God can take it, I promise you. But we can hurt ourselves, and we can hurt each other. We swear 'by God,' and then we lie. We insist we'll be honest, faithful, and reliable 'as God is my witness,' and then we betray, deceive, and injure.
Satire is indeed comedy, but it comes with a mirror. Sometimes it isn't obvious what we're meant to see in the reflection, but it isn't just the pronouncing of God's name, and it sure ain't halibut either. Maybe all of us - as individuals - need to figure out what we see. Whatever it is, let's not miss the opportunity when it's given to us. The lesson is too good, and funny, to be wasted.
Photos in this blog post: