“O the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers.” (Psalm 1:1)
An older version uses the evocative phrase: “the company of mockers.” Isn’t that an insightful and damning descrption of the society we inhabit? In our culture, we celebrate the smart put-down and the acid retort. It’s fun to sneer or deride, since it implicitly puts you above the one you are, quite literally, “putting down.”
Further, a little gentle mockery replaces serious engagement with the ideas of one you are deriding. It’s far easier to make a joke about someone than to offer the respect implicit in genuine debate. Simply put, we seek to elevate our own status by scorning that which we dislike or disbelieve.It’s far easier to discredit someone than to consider what they say.
This superficial scoffing is the very bread and butter of Facebook, (for example) where oneliners replace all discussion, and the process of thinking-together is lost in the ping-pong banter of sniping from entrenched positions. TV shows thrive on this stuff. Political ads are particularly adept at scorn, since scorn allows one to put down an opponent without engaging the opponent in a serious way.
In the New Living Translation, the last phrase of Psalm 1:1 asserts that those who do not “join in with mockers” will experience joy. Joy is the opposite of banter! Other translations replace “mockers” with “disrespectful” (CEB), “scoffers” (ESV, NRSV), or “scornful” (KJV). The Message paraphrases, “How well God must like you…you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.” Beneath all those translations lies the Hebrew word letzim. This word, which appears only here in the Psalms, is common in Proverbs. There we learn that the letzim are foolish (1:22), unwilling to accept correction (9:7), proud, haughty, and arrogant (21:24).
Psalm 1 does not say that we should have no dealings with mockers. Literally, it says that we will be blessed if we do not “sit in the seat of mockers” or “dwell in the dwelling of mockers.” This reminds us that the company we keep will have a powerful influence on our behaviour. Hang out with scoffers, and it’s likely that you’ll become one yourself.
In “Christ Carrying the Cross’, painted c 1500 AD (Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent), Hieronymus Bosch seems to be making that very point.
In this dark, flat and compacted image, Christ shoulders his cross for his stumbling procession to Calvary. He makes his way through a dense throng of seventeen figures who fill the frame with snarling features and weird hats! Most are oblivious to his suffering, with two possible exceptions. Simon of Cyrene, the man forced to help Jesus with his load and whose upwards-tilted face is almost obscured as he lifts the beam of the cross with both hands, and Saint Veronica, the only woman in the picture, who looks down at the veil she has just given Christ to wipe his face; and which now bears his imprint.But both do not see Christ. One sees the task given to him and the other sees the treasure given to her.
Also -a point of great interest- Jesus is not the only one being abused. Opposite Simon and Veronica in the painting — and presumably representing opposing states of grace, too — are Christ’s two companions-to-be in death. In the bottom right-hand corner, with a grimace of defiance, is the bad thief. In the top right-hand corner, accepting of his fate, is the good thief. Each of the three condemned men has a cluster of contorted faces around him sneering at him on the way to execution. The point is that Bosch is considering not just the mocking of Christ but the idea of mockery itself.
Bosch’s mockers are a motley collection of soldiers, monks and merchants, exactly the sort of people the arrtist would have seen about him every day. Indeed, the fact that they are wearing contemporary clothing underscores Bosch’s point: This is not “a historical portrayal” of a Biblical scene, but a trenchant social comment.
In a linked painting, ‘Christ Mocked’ in the National Gallery, Christ’s adversaries are recognisable, so naturalistic in fact that they might well be portraits. But in the Ghent version he has turned them into cartoon gargoyles and nightmarish monsters.
This is what mockery does to people, (he seems to suggest); it removes their humanity to reveal the beast beneath. This is the inside-view of the company of mockers.
The uncomfortable but inescapable message of ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’, which in its graphic condensing of space makes the viewer a participant, is that we are the mockers, too. The 16th-century Spanish writer José de Sigüenza noted that: ‘The difference between the work of Bosch and that of other painters lies in the fact that the others depict man as he appears on the outside. Only Bosch dared to paint him the way he is on the inside.’
The painting may be a distorting mirror but it is a mirror nonetheless.
And Jesus is entirely seperate. He is weary and pained, but he has shut his eyes to the squalid uproar around him. He reacts neither in fear or defiance, but maintains a concentrated silence.
Perhaps that is all we are able to do, sometimes, when the wave of mockery sweeps all in its path and the noise of it fills our minds. Don’t give it space, or voice.“O the joys of those who do not…” join in with the catcalling and the retailing of gossipy half-truths. On the contrary,
“Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
whatever they do prospers.”