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The Scum of the World

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Oscar Wilde once called sarcasm the lowest form of wit, which in itself may have been sarcastic, seeing as how Wilde was known for his biting irony.

The word “sarcasm” comes from a Greek term (sarkazo) meaning “to tear flesh” and refers to a cutting, often ironic remark intended to wound those who are within its range.

Readers might be surprised to find sarcasm in the Bible. There are plenty of examples. Elijah poked fun at the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs. 18:27), and Isaiah shined a light on the truth about idols, mocking the ironsmiths and carpenters who constructed idols from raw materials, burned the leftovers for fuel, and fell down to worship the work of their own hands (Is. 44:12-17). Even Jesus was known to use irony. Who could forget his saying about the man with a beam in his eye trying to help someone else who was afflicted with nothing more than a splinter? (Mt. 7:3-5).

Perhaps no one used sarcasm more than the apostle Paul. Notice how he addresses the pride of some of his converts in this excerpt from 1 Corinthians:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! (4:8).

Paul then begins to describe the sacrifices he and the other apostles had made on behalf of Christians like those in Corinth. While they had assumed a position of wisdom and strength and honor, the ones who had brought them to Christ had undergone great sacrifices and had been treated as second-class citizens. Paul ends this tirade, saying, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:14).

Sarcasm ought to be used sparingly, but in some cases it is appropriate, and Paul’s example gives us some guidelines to keep our wit in check.

1. Do not use hard words until gentler methods have been tried. Later Paul reminded the Corinthians, “… you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (4:15). This isn’t the first exchange Paul had with the Corinthians. Things had grown desperate; irony was used as a last resort.

2. Do not speak with a sharp tongue unless what you have to say is true. The Corinthians had no reason to boast, for they did not save themselves. “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asks (4:7). What he was saying was based upon eternal truths of grace, mercy, and judgment.

3. Use speech like sarcasm cautiously when it is needed to cut through stubborn attitudes like pride. Proud people are not aware of their sin. It takes sharp words to rouse them from their delusional state.

4. Never make the mistake of speaking out of pride. Paul, no doubt, blushed to speak this way. He had mentioned earlier that he was only a steward and that he would be judged by God (1 Cor. 4:1-4). He wasn’t trying to get a laugh at someone else’s expense. Sarcasm was merely a tool that he used skillfully to bring his readers back to their senses.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). So choose your words carefully.