Jesus is hilarious.
Okay, that’s not a sentiment you hear very often. You won’t see a Comedy Central special called “Joking with Jesus!” And too many of us have encountered humorless Christians over the years. You know the type -- tight lipped, judgmental, unsmiling, puritanical. People who view frivolity as sacrilege and humor as heresy.
But this understanding of the Christian life is incomplete. A more nuanced reading of Scripture leads us away from an attitude of holier-than-thou solemnity and Jesus himself points the way. Jesus uses humor to teach, heal, convert and, ultimately, redeem. Seriously. And he does this while modeling the fact that laughter and profundity are not mutually exclusive.
The humor of Jesus is subtle, nearly imperceptible at first glance. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, doesn’t begin with a joke to warm up the crowd. But throughout his ministry Jesus displays great wit, command of the language, a gift for irony and word plays, and impeccable timing -- all hallmarks of great comedians.
The gospels aren’t funny in the traditional sense. It’s not slapstick comedy; there are no pratfalls. They’re passion narratives, not anthologies of “The Wit and Wisdom of Jesus Christ.”
Yet when you dig a little, you start to see that Jesus had a wicked sense of humor. Which makes sense -- a master storyteller would never forsake humor as a means to reach an audience. Jesus, who spent much of his ministry breaking down barriers between people, knew that humor does exactly this. Humor disarms and unites; it sets people at ease and leaves them receptive to the speaker’s message. He understood that laughter is simply good for the soul and that humor allows us to confront the darker sides of life with grace and composure.
The examples of Jesus’ irony and wit are plentiful. Perhaps we can view the humorless Pharisees as the ultimate straight men for Jesus. Throughout the four gospels the joke, it seems, is on them. Their somber rigidity is paralyzing; their hypocrisy and self-righteousness keep them from true relationship with the divine. They are the perfect foils to Jesus’ message of love as he continually meets their scorn and contempt with quick wit and perfect timing.
The encounters with the Pharisees are full of brilliant one-liners. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21) is a perfect response dripping with irony. The blind leading the blind is, of course, a comical visual image and a pointed commentary on the religious leaders of the day (Mt 15:14). And think about the hilarious image of straining out a gnat while eating a camel (Mt 23:24). His hearers certainly chuckled at this purposefully ludicrous image. And it invariably stuck with them.
There are hosts of other wonderfully amusing moments in the gospel accounts. There is irony and humorous exaggeration, phrases that would have brought smiles to the lips of his hearers, if not full belly laughs. Explaining the efficacy of prayer he asks the Apostles, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If your son asks for an egg, will you give him a scorpion?” (Lk 11:11-12) “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:25). That’s a memorable image.
Unfortunately we lose the facial expressions and tone of voice so crucial to successful comedy. David Letterman can make us laugh with a smirk or the inflection of his voice. A manuscript of his show wouldn’t be nearly as amusing as seeing it live. So it’s a shame the gospels have been handed down to us as manuscripts and not YouTube videos.
The point here is not to place Jesus in the Comedy Hall of Fame. Rather it is to encourage us to see and hear the message of our Lord with fresh eyes and ears, to discover a new aspect of his divine brilliance and to meet him with renewed joy and laughter in our hearts. Above all, Jesus encourages us to take our faith but not ourselves too seriously.