Marge volunteers as an over-the-phone counselor for the church, and the congregation starts turning to Marge more than Reverend Lovejoy. Meanwhile, Homer goes on a quest to find out why his likeness is featured as the logo of a Japanese detergent company.
Reverend Lovejoy's service on "constancy" nearly sends the entire congregation to sleep. After church, Homer takes Bart and Lisa to the Springfield Dump to dispose of their old Christmas tree, where they find a box of Japanese dishwasher detergent, understood as Mr. Sparkle. The face on the box of detergent shows a remarkable resemblance to Homer, while the Japanese writing on the box says it will banish food particles to the land of wind and ghosts.
Meanwhile, Marge becomes worried with Reverend Lovejoy's lack of enthusiasm about helping people. She learns that he used to be enthusiastic about his job until Ned's endless barrage of petty problems made him into the man he is today. She then volunteers to start working for the Church as "The Listen Lady", as she listens to people's problems, while trying to help them solve them in a practical manner. Enjoying his newfound freedom at first, Reverend Lovejoy soon realizes his inadequacy when no one goes to him for advice and begins to feel depressed.
Homer, disturbed by the box of Mr. Sparkle, contacts the manufacturer on the Japanese island of Hokkaido for information. He is sent a promotional video for Mr. Sparkle, which only contains a bizarre Japanese cliche TV commercial. At the end of the video however, the mascot is shown to be a result of a joint venture between two large Japanese conglomerates, Matsumura Fishworks and Tamaribuchi Heavy Manufacturing Concern. Their mascots, a fish and light bulb, merge to form Mr. Sparkle; thus, Homer discovers the similarity was a mere coincidence.
One day, Ned Flanders calls Marge for help. Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney are hanging around outside the Leftorium, making Ned worried they will start causing trouble. Marge suggests Ned stands his ground and sends them off. Unbeknownst to him, the trio were about to leave, but when he goes and asks them to, they plan to harass him instead. Ned calls Marge again, while he is standing on a chair with the boys circling him on their motorbikes. She suggests that he "lay down the law"; when one of the boys snips the phone cord thus disconnecting, Marge quickly jumps to the conclusion Ned hung up and everything is fine.
The next morning, a distraught Maude informs Marge that Ned is missing. It then cuts to Ned, worse for wear, running for his life as the bullies are pursuing him on their motorbikes with the clear intent of beating him to a pulp. Marge soon realizes she may be partially responsible for his disappearance. Marge goes to Reverend Lovejoy for help, and the two of them track Ned to the zoo. With Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney already having abandoned their pursuit, Ned now finds himself trapped in the baboon exhibit. While the Simpson family watches from afar, Reverend Lovejoy rescues Ned on the baboon's food train, defeating several of the animals while doing so. Now that he feels useful again, Reverend Lovejoy rediscovers his passion for his job, regaling his congregation, who are hanging on to his every word while he recounts the tale of Ned's rescue.
Behind the Laughter
The authors of the book I Can't Believe It's a Bigger and Better Updated Unofficial Simpsons Guide, Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood, said: "A rare case of both storylines being worthy of full episodes in their own right, this is a cracking episode which highlights the unduly neglected Rev. Lovejoy and makes you realize Homer isn't the only one ready to kill Ned Flanders! Great stuff." In a 2000 Entertainment Weekly article, Matt Groening ranked it as his fifth favorite in the history of the show. Josh Weinstein described it as one the best of the season, as well as being one of the most underrated episodes of all time. He also described the Mr. Sparkle commercial as his all time favorite sequence.