From “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare.” Dennis storms into a welfare office with Dee. “Hi, I’m a recovery crackhead. This is my retarded sister whom I take care of. I’d like some welfare please.”
From “The Waitress is Getting Married.” Charlie ponders what to do with a wasps’ nest that he’s discovered. Charlie: “Do wasps make honey?”
Dennis: “No, wasps do not make honey.”
Charlie: “All right, well, I’m gonna check it out anyway; there could be something delicious in here that wasps do make, and I want that.”
It is a challenge to find quotes from the hit television comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia that are suitable to repeat in church. The show’s characters are self-centered ne’r-do-wells. Or, as Charlie puts it, “I am who I am,” to which Mac responds, “Yeah, let’s pretend you aren’t who you are and just try to attract a woman.”
Yet the show is superb social comedy, because it shows us an exaggerated version of ourselves. And in distinction to the epically popular Seinfeld characters, the folks in Philadelphia don’t revel in the self-indulgent narcissism. Like most of us, when they do wrong, they convince themselves that they are righting some wrong. Or, as Frank tells his daughter Dee, “Look, I didn’t go to Vietnam just to have pansies like you take my freedom away from me.” Dee responds, “You went to Vietnam in 1993 to open a sweat shop.” And Frank retorts, “And a lot of good men died in that sweatshop.”
Perhaps surprisingly, there is a gospel lesson to be learned from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The gang, as they call themselves, doesn’t do half measures: Charlie and Mac become convinced that Mac’s dad will be released from prison to seek their lives, so they fake their own deaths. The gang decides to help an immigrant family by building them a new home, but first they burn down their old one. Dee and Charlie find terribly tasty a treat that Frank tells them is human meat, and they decide to become, ultimately unsuccessful, cannibals. And when the gang thinks it’s time to date younger people, they host a high school prom. Like great comedies before them — I Love Lucy comes to mind — the show’s conceit lies in its extremes. When Dennis addresses the kids’ basketball team that he’s volunteered to coach, he tells them, “Now as long as you hurt the other kid as bad or worse than he hurts you, you will have done your job. And I’ll be proud of you.” Something’s not quite right, but it’s not a reluctance to go “whole hog.”
Most of us, most of the time, are more than content with half-measures. We live our lives as though attached to meters, which is why, if we’re honest with ourselves, we would also be saddened by Jesus’ words to the young man, the one who had striven all his life to obey the commandments. “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mk 10: 21).
Obeying the commandments with a calibrated cadence was something the young man had mastered, like folk who never miss Sunday Mass. He was close, but the Kingdom of God cannot be measured or metered. It’s about leaping, about risking one’s own self. Ultimately, as Christians would come to understand it, the Kingdom of God is about responding to God’s own gift of self in the person of Jesus. To say, “I love you” is, hopefully, to offer one’s entire self to another. If he or she responds with an apportioned, “How interesting!” Or even, “Let me consider that,” everything has already been lost. Love is not a measured matter. As the author of Wisdom puts it, comparing love of God’s wisdom to human love, “Beyond health and comeliness I loved her, and I chose to have her rather than the light, because the splendor of her never yields to sleep” (7:10).
Let’s be clear. The gang on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is rarely to be imitated. As people, they’re venal and vulgar, selfish and stupid — and of course over-sexed. But even their most ridiculous schemes have an “all-in” quality. As we laugh at them, it’s worth remembering that many of the saints were considered “holy fools” for the same reason, because their response to God was so absolute, so downright extravagant.
Heaven is for heavy-hitters. Sinner and prostitutes enter, because they storm it with their sorrow. Perhaps one day, the gang in Philadelphia will mount its own celestial campaign, but, according to the Gospel, one doesn’t march there with measured meter. One leaps. Or, as Charlie puts it, “I’m not gonna play any game in which I’m not getting annihilated.”
Wisdom 7: 7-11 Hebrews 4: 12-13 Mark 10: 17-30
Rev. Terrance W. Klein