An Irish priest was driving along on country roads. He was stopped by the Police. The Police Officer smells alcohol on the priest, and notices a bottle lying beside him, and says to the driver, “Have you been drinking?” The priest replies, “Only water.” The police officer says, “Well how come I can smell wine?” The priest looks at the bottle in amazement and says, “Good Lord! He’s done it again!”
It’s an Irish joke. And it works because of the stereotype that the Irish are not so bright and not so educated and not so sophisticated as other folks, as us. You don’t hear Irish joke so much now because people realised that they were racist, reinforcing an image of the Irish that is untrue and unhelpful. At one level, ethnic jokes are about telling ourselves that we are better than people from Ireland or Poland or that other country that we’re not altogether comfortable with.
The joke about the Irish priest was published by the Irish Mirror just before Christmas. It is different when people tell jokes against themselves. I laughed out loud when I read it, because it is a good religious joke, and very appropriate for epiphany because it refers to the story of Jesus changing the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, which is one of the essential stories of the revelation of Jesus in the season of epiphany. But it stops being funny when you try to analyse it!
Though ethnic jokes are less common now, racism is still alive and thriving. A woman rang me recently to ask where she could pass on some goods that her family collect take them to pass on to asylum seekers and refugees or she could contact the Community Project. She preferred the stuff to go to the Community Project. It was clear to me that she didn’t want her stuff to go to foreigners. The conversation left me feeling really sad because of her racism.
There was an appalling story of racism in the news this week. President Trump was at a meeting of lawmakers on Thursday to talk about immigration reform. He wondered aloud about why the United States kept taking people in from ‘shithole’ countries. Sorry for using that word, but I am just quoting the President of the United States, the Leader of the Free World. And if you felt offended by me saying that word, just think how offended the people of the African nations, Haiti and El Salvador feel! The President has been roundly condemned by the United Nations, and US diplomats all over the world have been summoned to receive reproach.
In the Gospel reading, Nathanael comes out with a one-liner Galilee joke. Galilee was in the north, well away from Jerusalem, the political and religious centre of the Jewish world. People from Galilee were regarded as slower, not so connected, not so with-it. And Nazareth in particular was a small village in the stick, a nowhere place. When Philip goes to find Nathanael to tell him that they have found the Messiah and he comes from Nazareth, he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And the implication is that nothing interesting or valuable or noteworthy could come from Nazareth, of all places!
Philip tells Nathanael, “Come and see!” And Nathanael goes with Philip to meet Jesus. When Jesus meets him, he offers a compliment, he says that Philip is a genuine guy, what you see is what you get, he doesn’t say one thing and mean another. Nathanael is surprised and says, “how do you know me?” He clearly accepts Jesus’ assessment of him. Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In other words, he had supernatural insight – he could see beyond the normal sightline, and he could see into peoples’ hearts. And if he knew where Philip was and what kind of a person he was, Jesus would also know about Philip’s disparaging comment.
Philip is impressed. He calls Jesus “rabbi”, “Son of God”, “King of Israel”. He started with a racist stereotype and an insult, and when he looked again, he moved on to amazement and wonder and appreciation.
Everybody is prejudiced to some extent. We all make snap judgements about other people, and they are not always right, especially when our snap judgements are based on the stereotypes we carry about people from certain countries or races or whatever. When Philip looked beyond his prejudice, he found the Son of God, he found a teacher he could trust, he found where his heart really lay.
Nazareth was, in Donald Trump’s terms, a “shithole” place. 200-400 people lived there in small stone houses and left their rubbish in the alley-ways between the houses. That’s where Jesus came from. That’s where God comes from. And when we welcome the people who come from those places that Donald Trump despises, we welcome Jesus. Trump doesn’t want them in his country; he wants to keep them out. He wants to reform the immigration laws so that he can keep these people out.
Emmanuel Mensah joined the US army a year ago and worked in the National Guard. He was home for Christmas, when a fire broke out in the apartment block in the Bronx in New York where he lived. Emmanuel Mensah rescued a number of people from the fire. He went back into the burning building to bring out more people, but was overcome and died himself, one of 13 people who died in the conflagration. He has been posthumously awarded the Soldiers Medal and the New York State Medal for Valor. This hero had emigrated to the US from Ghana, one of Trump’s shithole African countries.