One of the challenges I faced during my seminary years was trying to share funny stories about my experiences with Marc. For three years, every Thursday night, Marc and I would go out to eat and share what had happened during my three days in the classroom and two nights in the dorm. As long as I was telling him about papers I’d written or research I was doing or lectures I’d heard, everything was fine. But whenever I’d try to tell him about a funny incident in the dorm or a hilarious comment made by a class mate or a hysterical joke told by a professor, he would just smile politely. It was as though I was speaking a foreign language. And in a way, I was. The humor in the stories sprang from the seminary culture, the theological vocabulary, and the perspective shared by the students. Unfortunately, all that got lost in translation when I tried to share it with Marc, who wasn’t in on any of that. He listened carefully to my stories, and my explanations of why they were so funny, but he just couldn’t quite grasp the humor in them. The culture and language barriers just got in the way.
This is the position we find ourselves in when we encounter humor in Scripture. The Bible has some very funny passages in it—lots of them, in fact. And Jesus was very adept at using humor to make his points. But there are lots of barriers that stand in our way of getting Jesus’ jokes. And that’s unfortunate, because humor shared between friends adds richness to the relationship. It signals that we know each other well—that we have shared experiences that bind us together. It helps create and strengthen a sense of belonging. Recognizing Jesus’ humor, and mirroring it in our relationships with others, is a way of drawing closer to Christ and of building up the kingdom of God.
So what keeps us from getting Jesus’ jokes? There is literally the problem of things getting lost in translation. Puns in Greek and Hebrew just don’t sound “punny” in English. Words that carried multiple meanings and rich imagery for ancient listeners are watered down by the time they get to us. It’s a blessing that we can read the Bible in our own language, but we also miss a lot of the richness of the original languages and, with it, Jesus’ humorous side.
Then there’s the cultural barrier. When we read Scripture, we are like visitors to a foreign country. We don’t know the customs well enough to know when or why they’re being made fun of. We don’t know who is fair game for poking fun at. We don’t know the ancient world well enough to put what we read into context, so we don’t get it when Jesus turns that world upside down in a humorous way.
In addition to the language and cultural barriers, there are two other important reasons why we don’t easily identify Jesus’ humor in Scripture. First of all, we are so familiar with Jesus’ words and the stories he told, that we jump straight to their deeper meaning without ever enjoying the stories just as stories. In fact, it seems almost sacrilegious to laugh at the stories by and about Jesus. So, we totally ignore their entertainment value for their instructional value. But Jesus’ listeners would have appreciated both. They would have laughed at the funny situations he described—the surprise endings and exaggerations, the sly observations, and the ridiculous characters. And then when they were done laughing, they would either have listened carefully to Jesus’ words of explanation, or they would have gone home thinking about the double meaning Jesus had so expertly built into his stories.
The second reason is that the gospel writers had a serious purpose for writing. Their purpose was to demonstrate who and what Jesus was (and, as we know, still is). They had to present Jesus’ teachings in ways that were useful to their communities, and they had to explain how the Messiah of God could suffer and die. They wrote Jesus’ story according to the literary styles of the day, which focused on the hero’s wisdom and admirable deeds, not his wit. The gospel writers focused on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, the salvation he offers to the world, and the Passion story—topics which are anything but humorous. So, we read the Gospel stories with the same sense of seriousness as they were written in. But, Jesus understood that humor has the ability to accomplish what dead seriousness cannot. So, Jesus used humor to both teach and to build relationships with those he loved and came to serve.
Used well, humor like Jesus’ has much to offer us. It can open us up to some truth about ourselves. It can give us a much-needed dose of humility. Humor reminds us that we should not take ourselves too seriously. As Margaret Silf, the author of many books on prayer, observes, “When we take ourselves too seriously, we are at the risk of taking other things, including God, too lightly.” The message that has been entrusted to us is a serious one, but humor reminds us that, as individuals, we are pretty leaky vessels. It also reminds us of our limitations as the Church—a human institution—and brings us back to our fundamental need to rely on God.
Humor like Jesus’ can release tension in a productive way, and it can function as a sign of hope. When we make fun of our difficult circumstances, we reject their power over us. Through humor, we say to ourselves, and the world, that our frustration and pain will not have the last word, and we can look past them to life outside their borders.
Jesus often told humorous stories that invited his listeners to place ourselves in that story and see if it applies to us. This annoyed the Pharisees, who could often be heard asking, “Is he talking about us?” My Dad used to say to my brothers and me (usually after one of us complained that we had been scolded unfairly), “If the shoe fits, wear it.” In Luke 12, Jesus tells a story that allows his listeners to try on the shoe to see if it fits.
Some brothers were squabbling over the family inheritance, and one brother demanded that Jesu settle the disagreement. Jesus declined to do that, but he warned the crowd around him, including the disciples, against greed and the pitfalls of defining ourselves by what we have. Then he tells his story about the smug, self-satisfied farmer who learns the hard way that all his stuff means nothing in the end. It’s a funny story. With the ancient listeners, we can picture this pompous, arrogant man strutting around his piles of belongings and afterwards stretching out in the ancient equivalent of his La-Z-Boy, with a beer and a fat cigar. We can picture him looking mighty surprised when God shows up.
In this story, Jesus tickles his listeners with a surprise ending—a reversal of expectations. The rich man doesn’t get richer as usually happens in this world; he ends up the poorest of them all. Without naming names, Jesus points out the foolishness of worrying about earthly wealth rather than divine riches. And each of us can place ourselves in that story, trying on the shoe to see if it fits, exchanging it for a better one if necessary.
Jesus knew that humor can speak truth to power. Humor like Jesus’ can confront the powers-that-be with the experiences of those who are under their thumbs. That’s why news parodies and political cartoons are so popular today. They point out the absurdities in our public life and the posturing of public officials. They deflate the self-important and allow the voiceless to get a word in edgewise. They force us to consider our society from a different angle. Jesus wasn’t afraid to confront the elite in language that was direct and truthful but also funny with its exaggerated comparisons.
We find a story of this kind in our reading from Matthew 23. But, it’s one of those stories where cultural barriers may prevent us from seeing the humor in it. Jesus’ words to the Pharisees sound pretty harsh to our ears, but to Jesus’ listeners, this would have been an entertaining verbal duel between worthy opponents which followed all the rules of civil public discourse of the time.
Jesus starts out acknowledging the Pharisees’ tithing of mint, dill, and cumin. There’s nothing wrong with that. But then he slyly makes his point that there are weightier things to give, and the Pharisees have completely neglected these. Picture a balance scale where the Pharisees have dutifully placed their tithes of herbs and spices on one side. If you use herbs and spices in your cooking, you know that a tenth of even a very large amount will not weigh very much; the Pharisees’ tithes will hardly tip the scale. Then Jesus comes along and puts justice and mercy and faith on the other side. All of a sudden, the Pharisees’ careful tithing, of which they are so proud, looks pretty insignificant.
Jesus gives another example, using the Pharisees’ reputation for making sure everyone followed the laws down to the tiniest detail. “You blind guides!” he says. “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” Imagine the Pharisees holding two cups of water. They carefully pour one through a mesh to strain out a tiny, nearly invisible gnat. But they don’t even see the camel floating in the second cup, and they gulp it down, hoof, hair, and hump. With a funny image, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of scrupulously avoiding small infractions of the law while pointedly ignoring the more damning sins in their lives.
Finally, Jesus goes after their desire that everyone will notice how holy they are: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisees! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.” Picture the fastidious Pharisees carefully cleaning every speck of dirt from the outside of their dishes (which everyone can see), but eating and drinking from cups full of scummy rings and plates coated with grease they didn’t even see. They make sure they go through all the right public motions so they appear to be faithful, but their hearts aren’t in the right place. We can imagine the people in the crowd nodding their heads at what everyone knew to be true of these religious muckety-mucks, but couldn’t say anything about. Jesus knew that humor can speak truth to and about the powerful.
Jesus also knew that shared humor can be a tie that binds us together in relationships. When we can laugh at ourselves together, we mirror the grace that God shows us every day. Affectionate nicknames are an example of this, and Jesus used those, too. Our passage from Mark 3 mentions some of them. Of course, we are familiar with Jesus giving Simon the name of Peter, “The Rock.” Typically, we think of that nickname as referring to Peter’s future role as the rock on which the church would be built. But a rock can also be a blunt instrument, which is kind of descriptive of Peter’s personality. Could it be that Jesus was engaging in a little play on words here, gently ribbing Peter for his less-than-subtle ways?
The same with the brothers James and John. Mark tells us that Jesus named them Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder). The Aramaic word for thunder suggests that these two might have had quite a temper. But some scholars suggest that “Thunder” may not be a nickname for the boys at all, but rather for their mother—that she was “Thunder” and her boys were the Sons of Thunder! After all, she was the one whom Matthew tells us cornered Jesus and demanded that her sons be seated at Jesus’ right and left hands in his kingdom. Maybe Jesus’ nickname for James and John was his humorous way of commiserating with them over the challenges of having a “helicopter parent.” These kinds of “inside jokes” show the kind of relationship Jesus had with those who followed him.
Jesus used humor in wonderful ways to engage with those around him. But, humor is a double-edged sword. Humor can tear down as well as build up. It can hurt as well as heal. It can exclude rather than include. Malicious humor is a form of theft—of someone’s good name, of their dignity, and of their well-being. It does not respect the target as a person created in the image of God. But good humor is modeled on Jesus’ humor, and Jesus’ humor always springs from a great love—for God, for God’s kingdom, and most of all for each of God’s children. Our humor must spring from that same kind of love.
Good humor—Christ-like humor—reflects the relationship we have with Jesus and serves to deepen that relationship. We often think of our relationship with Jesus as a friendship, and what close and enduring friendship doesn’t include humor? We can have that in our relationship with Jesus. We can share what we think is funny with God in prayer. We can invite Jesus into the situations we find ourselves in, and with him find the humor that makes them bearable.
St. Teresa of Avila included humor in her relationship with God. One day, when she was riding a donkey to one of her convents, she was knocked off the donkey into the mud. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she also injured her leg. “Lord,” she said, “Why would you let this happen to me?” She heard a response from the Lord in prayer: “That’s how I treat all my friends.” Teresa replied, “And that is why you have so few of them!” Teresa understood that friendship with God includes playfulness and humor.
If you’ve never thought about humor being part of your relationship with Jesus, I invite you to start. Ask yourself, “What affectionate nickname might Jesus might call me by—a name that shows how well he knows me and how much he loves me?” Each day, think of a funny story you can share with Jesus in prayer—something that made you laugh, especially if it made you laugh at yourself. If you’ve had a hard day, share that with Jesus, and ask him to help you find the humor that makes it more bearable. Don’t be afraid to rib Jesus a little—to treat him as a dear friend who delights in your good-natured teasing. As my Dad always told me when I was being teased by my brothers (often), “You only tease the ones you love.” I think Jesus would enjoy being teased a little by the ones he loves, and who love him.
Humor that is truly good is a gift from God, demonstrated in the life of Jesus. It is a gift by which we can confront the powers of the world. It is a gift we can use to build up God’s kingdom by showing our affection and respect for our brothers and sisters. It can heal and help; it can teach us and bind us together. Most importantly, when we recognize Jesus’ humor and share a laugh with him, our relationship with him deepens. As we grow in our friendship with our very funny Savior, our earthly lives will be blessed by the humor of heaven. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young