This summer, as I graded papers for my online course, and during the opening weeks of this fall semester, I’ve noticed a difference in my comments. Sarcasm seems to come much more easily than it used to. Let me give you an example. In the past, when a student turned in a “research” paper that demonstrated no evidence of research, I might have said something like, “Where did you get this information?” Today, however, I might be more inclined to write, “Did you know that 42.3% of statistics are made up on the spot?” When a student presents a 500-word essay in which the issue of capital punishment or abortion is summarily “solved,” I now skip my normal, serious comment about the complexity of the issue and the varying facts and viewpoints that must be considered. No, today I’ll write something like, “Highly educated people have been arguing constantly over this topic for more than fifty years, but you put it to bed in a page and a half. Why don’t you fix world hunger next?”
Irony, and its sub-category sarcasm, can be useful tools. Irony is, essentially, the art of saying the exact opposite of what you mean, assuming that your audience will understand why you’re saying these words. In a famous example, Jonathan Swift, a seventeenth-century British writer penned “A Modest Proposal.” In this essay, Swift suggested that the best way to deal with the crushing poverty in Ireland was to sell Irish babies in the meat-markets of London. Nobody with any sense believed that Swift truly wanted to make cannibals of the English. They understood that he truly meant to demonstrate that his people were treating the Irish no better than livestock.
In verse four of today’s reading, when Amos tells the people of Israel to go and sin, he is using irony. When I read this entire passage, I can just hear the biting tone of voice that he must have used. Then, after verses four and five, he returns to a non-ironic speech. In essence, he says, “I have tried everything to get you to turn back to me.” He has tried playing with the weather and interrupting their food supply. He’s tried sending a string of prophets. He’s tried speaking literally and speaking ironically. In fact, he’s tried or will try using just about every figure of speech or object lesson that you can imagine. And still the people don’t return to their God.
I’ve recently begun to understand just how magnificently God arranges the experiences of my life in order to communicate his message to me. He’ll use a finicky car or a crashed hard drive, a song in choir rehearsal or a comment from a friend. He’ll use, most frequently, words like these from Amos. Unlike these Israelites, nearly three thousand years ago, I have the indwelling Holy Spirit. You’d think that I’d get the message loud and clear, obeying every time. But that’s not how it turns out at all. Might God, in an effort to get his point across, resort to a sarcastic tone with me or with you? No, he’d never do that!