There’s nothing worse than a humorless Christian. You know the type -- tight lipped, judgmental, unsmiling, Puritanical. Someone who views frivolity as sacrilege and humor as heresy. Perhaps you've even met the type -- online or in person.
But this understanding of the Christian life is incomplete. A more nuanced reading of Scripture leads us irrevocably away from this attitude of holier-than-thou solemnity. Jesus uses humor to teach, heal, convert and, ultimately, redeem. 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.” But then the story of our salvation, the death and resurrection of our Lord, is serious business.
Which is precisely why Jesus made his message so accessible. Parables, with their use of common language and commentary on everyday situations, spoke directly to people. And so, while Jesus’ messages held the keys to salvation, they were couched in language people could understand and relate to.
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.
Jesus recognized that humor is as equal a part of the human condition as suffering and joy. It is integral to the human condition, and Jesus embodied this just as much as he embodied forgiveness, compassion and hope. Jesus had a wonderfully vibrant sense of humor, but it wasn't employed merely to “get laughs.” It is humor that seeks to inform and convert. Even when the humor is directed at a certain group, such as the Pharisees, it is still a humor born of love and compassion. Jesus mocks the self-righteous even while calling them to open their eyes, repent and see.
Jesus exposes our human foibles not to embarrass or condemn but to illuminate and transform. When we take ourselves too seriously, we commit perhaps humanity’s greatest sin: trusting in ourselves rather than God. Jesus shows us the absurd consequences that invariably result.
The examples of Jesus’ irony and wit are plentiful. Take, for instance, his relationship with Peter. Naming this impetuous, overly eager apostle “the rock” is amusing. You can almost envision the sly smile as Jesus says, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” Time after time, Peter was anything but a rock in difficult situations. The irony must not have been lost on the other disciples. And yet, it indeed was upon this “rock” that the Church was built. With Jesus, the line between the deadly serious business of faith and the human attempt to live out this faith blurs. And, because there is some of Peter in all of us, it becomes untenable to take ourselves too seriously.
Which is precisely Jesus’ point. 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 and their hypocrisy and self-righteousness keep them from true relationship with the divine. They are the perfect foils to Jesus’ message of love as Jesus 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. What fool would place a lamp “under a bushel basket or under a bed and not on the lampstand?” (Mk 4:21)
It is a bit odd that within the Church the humor of Jesus is so roundly ignored. Maybe we're afraid to laugh in the presence of the divine. We tend to shy away from visions of our Lord smiling and joking and engaging us in laughter. Yet there is great evidence that Jesus desires this important piece of our humanity to shine forth. Laughter is simply good for the soul and it allows us to confront the darker sides of life with grace and composure. Since God created humor, it makes sense that Jesus would use humor to communicate with humanity. Without humor, life would be unbearable. Humor is used as a means to deal with the burdens of life. It makes light the yoke of sin, death, and human frailty.
One obstacle may be that Jesus’ mastery of words is literally lost in translation. Our Scripture is a translation of the Greek, which is a translation of Jesus’ own Aramaic. Without knowledge of Jesus’ native tongue, certain wordplays are simply lost to us. For instance, an added layer of Matthew 23:24 is that the Aramaic word for gnat is galma and the word for camel is gamla. We are deaf to this aspect of the exchange.
We also lose the facial expressions and tone of voice so crucial to successful comedy. David Letterman can make us laugh with a simple facial expression or the inflection of his voice. A manuscript of his show wouldn't be nearly as amusing as seeing it live. And unfortunately the gospels have been handed down to us as manuscripts, 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. May we continue to take our ministry seriously but not ourselves.