26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
1 Kings 18:26-27 (ESV)
For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!
2 Corinthians 11:19 (ESV)
At its root, “sarcasm” means “the rending of flesh,” for “flesh” in Greek is sarx. Here, of course, it applies to feelings, not skin. Even so, it is a harsh practice, as anyone who has felt its sting can attest. So some believers might rush to the judgment that sarcasm has no place in Christian writing and speech. After all, following the Golden Rule, who would wish to be on the receiving end of sarcasm? So how could one be warranted in using it?
The problem with condemning sarcasm is that Elijah and Paul used it in godly fashion. The former entered into a theological duel on Mount Carmel, one in which he demonstrated the power of Yahweh over the fictitious god, Baal. When the false prophets failed to elicit fire from heaven to light their sacrifice, Elijah suggested sarcastically that maybe they needed to yell to get his attention or that perhaps he was simply away in the “bathroom.” These were not genuine suggestions; Elijah did not believe in either of them. He merely raised them to embarrass the idolaters.
In Paul’s case, the Corinthian church, which he had founded and to which he had written before, was sliding into heresy. The church had fallen under the thrall of “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13), and the people were proud that they had followed their lead “up to the next level.” Paul made fun of their folly by saying they were so sharp that they were able to work with people who enslaved, devoured, defrauded, looked down on, and battered them (2 Cor. 11:20). He then “confessed” that he was simply too weak to handle that feat (2 Cor. 11:21). It was sarcasm, pure and simple.
Of course, these verses do not encourage sarcasm, much less demand it of God’s people. Some find it constitutionally awkward, if not virtually impossible. Many are convinced that it is always unnecessary, essentially counterproductive, stylistically arrogant, and spiritually toxic. But if they dismiss it utterly, then they rebuke Elijah and Paul – an act of arrogance in its own right.
Certainly, one can overdo it. Indeed, some people trade on an excess of sarcasm, and their presence exhausts the patience and joy of all their listeners. But there is a countervailing danger: Today’s Church has drunk deeply at the well of political correctness and the cult of inviolate sensitivity. In so doing, they have stifled and disarmed prophets, condemning them for “wounding” sinners. They forget that the biblical prophets par excellence used harsh invective of many sorts to make their points. And unless the Church desires to turn its back on them, it should leave the way open for some practice of sarcasm.