The Humor of Jesus
A gambler died. The funeral was well attended by his professional friends. In the eulogy, the minister said: “Spike is not dead; he only sleeps.”
From the rear of the chapel a man shouted: “I got a hundred that says he’s dead.”
Religion is a rich target for humor and provides grist for the best of jokes. Yet we don’t often associate humor with the Bible, the source of our religion.
Because humor is such a fundamental aspect of the good inhuman nature, there can be little doubt that Jesus had a healthy dose of it. Humor can be a powerful vehicle for making important points and the Gospels show Jesus used it liberally. Some humor or wit is, of course, lost in language, age, or cultural translation—especially puns and plays on words. But most of Christ’s humor translates well if we look at it with fresh eyes.
A little four-year old was being read to by his dad from the seventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Dad was reading along quite seriously when his son began to snicker and then broke out laughing. The boy laughed because he saw in his mind the preposterous picture of a man with a big beam in his eye trying to find a speck in another person’s eye. The little fellow understood perfectly that the human eye is not large enough to have a beam in it and the idea struck him as ludicrously funny. His dad, so familiar with the passage, failed to respond to humor in an unexpected place.
Is it because we’ve become so familiar with Jesus’ teaching illustrations that they fail to bring a smile? We have all read about putting a camel through the eye of a needle, straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel, men being whitewashed tombs full of rot, washing the outside of a cup and leaving the crud inside, Pharisees screwing up their faces to look painfully religious. People who heard them for the first time probably smiled. Picture a guy greedily chomping down a smelly camel, hoofs, humps and all—with the camels’ big fat lips and yellow teeth hanging from the idiots’ mouth!
If we could have been in the crowd listening to Jesus’ colorful, outrageously incongruous, and humorous word pictures powering home his message, I think we would have laughed. But these are now quiet words on a worn, marked-up Bible page and have become like street signs we pass every day on the way to work, no longer noticed or read; they become so extremely familiar that the words become like old coins in which the edges have been worn smooth and the engravings have become almost indistinguishable.
Perhaps we need to reset our minds to approach Scripture with fresh eyes, a lightness of spirit, a new alertness to detail, and a savvy of human nature on display in all the settings of real people Scripture presents. I think we would catch more of what we have previously missed.
The Bible is full of irony, wit, double entendre, paradox, epigrams, incongruity, hyperbole, absurdity, verbal subtleties, indirection, clever turns of phrases, and pungency of speech. The Bible says God laughs (Ps 59:8) and we can be sure that the Son in his image did as well. Many have bought into the false stereotype of a Jesus who was always sorrowful, pious appearing, mild in manner, endlessly patient, grave in speech and serious almost to the point of dourness. In fact, he lost his patience when put past his limit when tolerance ceased to be a virtue (Mt 17:17; Lk 13:6-9); and there was nothing mild about his teaching which at times excited listeners to want to kill him.
While his last weeks of ministry reflected his sorrowful anticipation of suffering and leaving his friends and family, the rest of his ministry is characterized by his joyful interaction with people. The pious Pharisees accused him and his disciples of being party animals—lots of banqueting, laughing, eating and drinking. His first miracle at a wedding wasn’t turning the party into a wake, but pouring kegs of new wine into it to keep it going. Do we suppose Jesus and his fellows were invited because they were wet blankets sure to dampen or sour the festivities?
Jesus lets Levi throw him a huge banquet with all Levi’s tax-collector buddies invited (Lk 5 27-39). The happy party causes the Pharisees to criticize, posture and talk of fasting and prayer. Jesus responds with humor, sarcasm, a parable, and then a sigh that despite his presentation of truth they, like fools, will stick with their old ways.
Jesus’ humor could be sharp and earthy at times like when he said, and this is a Westby paraphrase, “the lawyers and Pharisees are full of crap!” Check out the setting in Mark 7. Jesus is speaking openly of the fact of evacuation and that what come out of the body after eating is what is unclean. Unrepentant men are full of spiritually unclean stuff that comes out of them like bowel movements. Jesus taught in figures and parables nearly all the time and approaching them with a prosy literalism misses his sly or wry humor.
Nathanael liked to rib Phillip over his being taken in by Jesus saying, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” When Jesus finally meets Nathanael he has a come back for him: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Of course, Jacob was the father of the Israelites and his name meant “full of guile” or “deceiver.” With a touch of sarcasm Jesus is saying, “Well, I declare, we’ve found the first guile-less son of Jacob!”
Picture the setting for Jesus’ quick repartee with the Syrophoenician woman who interrupted his meal (Mk 7 24-30). He blends ethnic humor and a playful challenge to this gentile kneeling at his feet. She rolls with his humor (yes, humor can be present amid serious matters), and as we say today, “she flipped it back at him.” Jesus must have smiled as he immediately granted her request.
Nearing the end of his ministry, Jesus renamed Simon with a nickname which would translate today to “Rocky.” At the time it was like nicknaming a fat guy, “slim.” You could see the disciples smiling. The event took place at Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:13-20) and Peter was then anything but a “Rock” Just moments after Peter’s profound insight that Jesus is “the Christ” he proceeds to rebuke Jesus on another matter forcing Jesus to now call “Rocky” “Satan” for becoming an adversary. Peter would, in spite of his bravado, later prove himself both a coward and a liar—a flip-flopper and anything but a steady “Rock.” Nevertheless, what seemed a humorous, incongruous nickname, became for Peter in the days following a renaming to live up to and a critical role to assume in the nascent church. With God’s help he did live up to his name and became the rock Jesus knew he could. There was purpose to Jesus’ wit.
In his book, The Humor of Christ, Dr. Elton Trueblood examines in detail thirty humorous passages in the Synoptic Gospels. I had looked for this old book for years finally finding a copy and giving two messages on the topic over the Virtual Church network. There are a several other books and scholarly articles on biblical humor, but his focuses just on Christ.
You and I know that the speakers we most like to listen to are those who have weighty things to say and can say them in ways that rivet our attention, reach both our intellect and emotion, and can season their words with appropriate humor. Jesus must have been a very effective, captivating speaker yet we have nothing that he actually wrote. Nevertheless, his disciples could recall his stories, parables, and teachings with such vivid clarity they could reconstruct his message from memory. Amazing. And I think his various uses of humor helped imbed his teachings in their minds. Good preaching is memorable.
Even the morose and peevish John Calvin (known for burning opponents at the stake) had to admit in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (III: 19:9): “We are nowhere forbidden to laugh, or to be satisfied with food, …or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.” Thanks Calvin, we needed your permission
Humor celebrates the goodness of God, the world God created, and the life God gives. It is an accepted fact of medicine that humor is good for our physical health and is usually the best way in coping with the trials and disasters that come our way. A guy feeling frustrated over his family’s financial troubles joked that “it seems the only ones who can make a deposit on a new car are the pigeons.” If we aren’t careful we can let circumstances suck the joy right out of us. Humor can lighten the load.
Too many religious folk are so sober and sour they repel people rather than draw them. Legalists have a great eye for criticism, but a dull ear for wit. Because humor requires a somewhat “playful” disposition and a willingness (at least temporarily) to suspend all seriousness, many people—especially those with strong and well-defined religious beliefs—may be reluctant to give up their trademark seriousness.
The New Jerusalem Bible translates Colossians 4:6: “Talk to them agreeably and with a flavor of wit (“seasoned with salt,” RSV), and try to fit your answers to the needs of each one.” Greek comic writers used the verb artyo, meaning “to season,” as seasoning with the salt of wit. Of course humor can get too “salty” and like other good things become degenerated. Funny need not be filthy.
When times are tough, Paul says stand firm and “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil 4:4). Humor is a key component of joy. Jesus said to stop dwelling on the evils all around and borrowing potential troubles from tomorrow (the normal daily dose is quite enough, he wryly observed), rather borrow hope and joy from seeking the Kingdom of God (see Mt 6:33-34). The Christian walk should be a joyful one.
There is plenty in life to smile and laugh about. A forgiven man walks lightly upon the earth and with childlike freshness is quick to smile, quick to see and think the best of others, and easily brought to laughter. He is hopeful of the future, confident of who he is, and able to lift up and bear the burdens of others.
Our lives are made better by genuine religion and genuine humor. In the teaching of the great Rabbi from Nazareth, the two forms are conjoined.