The Humor of Christ

Luke 6:39-42, Matthew 15:21-28, 23:23-26, April 27, 2014

More than ten years ago I saw a film called “The Gospel of Mark.” A single actor, Alec McCowen re-enacts Mark’s gospel in the King James Bible. On the stage with him there is only a table and a chair. Prior to the performance, before he got into character, he said that people often ask him who wrote his script. He explains that it’s widely available, in fact, you can find the script he uses in virtually any hotel room!

As I watched this film and it really is a remarkable [sorry about the pun] performance, I found something really funny that I’d never noticed before. In the 6th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus feeds 5,000 men with 5 loaves and 2 fish. When everyone has eaten his fill, the disciples gather up 12 baskets of broken pieces. It’s a miracle! Less than two chapters later, another great crowd without anything to eat gathers around Jesus. Jesus says, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.” His disciples replied, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” He answered “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.”

The look on McCowen’s face when he asks in Jesus’ voice, “How many loaves do you have?” is priceless. He doesn’t add a word to the text, but he is bemused and kind, that the disciples seem to have forgotten than a few days or weeks before, they had faced a similar situation—with a bigger crowd—and Jesus had provided food for everyone.

McCowen’s face is completely blank he speaks for the disciples saying, “Seven.” He gets maximum humorous effect out of this passage that had never struck me as funny before. You’ve heard me say that I think Jesus took the twelve densest people in first century Palestine to be his disciples, so we can see ourselves in their roles. When we watched old episodes of the Andy Griffith show for Lenten study a few years ago, I really came to believe that Barney Fife was modeled on the disciples. Really, I believe there’s some truth to this, that if people who walked at Jesus’ side and saw his perform healings and miracles, and still didn’t get what he was doing, still didn’t recognize that he was the Son of the Living God—who among us could ever think that following Jesus, so far removed in time and distance, would be easy?

Humor is a funny thing, especially when it comes to the Bible. It’s really difficult to define humor. And senses of humor differ. What I find funny, other people do not. And because of the reverence that we bring to the Bible, we often do not spot the humor that is there.

Written English does not have a punctuation mark that indicates irony, satire or sarcasm. I’ve heard that other languages do. If such a mark existed and appeared in the Gospels it would be easy to find and interpret the humorous things that Jesus is recorded as having said. In spoken English we indicate sarcasm with a tone of voice and irony with a wink or a small smile. And when we’re talking we can always ask, “Are you kidding?” We don’t get to the do that with the Bible. And nowhere does it say, “Jesus confronted the Pharisees with a twinkle in his eye as he called them a brood of vipers.” This is a long way of saying that we cannot be certain that we’re correct when we read a specific saying of Jesus humorously. And I am not about to suggest that Jesus was the first stand up comedian—though such a designation would certainly be in harmony with his Jewish heritage. I do think that at least some of the things Jesus is recorded in the gospels as having said, he said for humorous effect. Finding humor—or even looking for it as we read the gospels gives us as readers, and as followers of Jesus, additional insights into what the Bible says.

Nowhere in scripture does it say “Jesus laughed.” More than twenty years ago I pointed this out to someone who answered, “Yeah, and it doesn’t ever say he went to the bathroom either, but I ain’t buyin’ that!” Obviously, scripture cannot contain every little detail, lots of information is left out—by necessity. Sometimes we simply have to say, “The text is silent.” Which is one is taught to say, “I dunno” at the University of Chicago.

I can think of three reasons why it is difficult for us to see Christ’s humor. First, as I said before we bring such gravitas to scripture. We expect to find such profound truths in the Bible that we invest its stories with all kinds of solemnity, which probably was not present in the everyday conversations Jesus had with ordinary people.

Second, some of Jesus’ best one-liners are so familiar that we just don’t understand that originally they were real zingers. For example, Jesus said, “Don’t give what is holy to dogs and do not throw your pearls before swine.” [Matthew 7:6] Of course, no one is going to give jewelry to pigs, in the same way Jesus tells his disciples that some people just aren’t ready to receive his pearls of good news. And Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?” It was this passage that prompted Elton Trueblood to write The Humor of Christ. His four year old son heard that passage and started to laugh, because he had a visual picture of a log in someone’s eye. That’s funny! But it’s also so familiar to us that the exaggeration has lost its humorous power. Jesus uses a similar level of exaggeration when he says to the Pharisees “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” Imagine sitting at high tea, daintily lifting a tea cup to your lips—with a camel sitting there! Now the exaggeration and humor are there to make a strong, biting point—that the Pharisees are hypocrites, that they are more concerned about being holy than in being kind. That law is more important to them than justice, but note that Jesus uses exaggeration for comedic effect in making this point.

The third reason that we often do not spot Jesus’ humor is because humor is often cruel. In fact, if you analyze nearly everything you laugh at, you will find that from at least one point of view, what you’re laughing at isn’t funny. And it’s often painful. Take the classic example of finding your car keys in the refrigerator. You’ve all done that, right? C’mon, help me out here. Well, after the wave of relief at finding your keys and laughing at yourself for being so silly, it’s kind of aggravating and you’re late because you spent ten minutes looking for your keys and, well, it isn’t all that funny.

The final gospel lesson is an example of laughter that is a little cruel. And we need to read this passage with great care and sensitivity. It is one of very few passages in which there is genuine dialog between Jesus and someone else. At first glance, it appears to show a Jesus who is very different from the one we have come to know elsewhere in the Gospels. In other passages Jesus is conspicuous in noticing women and listening to them. In this passage he ignores the woman, apparently because she is from a different ethnic group. Then he calls her people “dogs” which was every bit as offensive then as it is to us now. It appears in the end that the woman has defeated Jesus in a battle of wits, and Jesus grants the woman’s request as a reward for her clever response. So in this story we see that our Lord and Savior is a bigot, a male chauvinist and not especially witty. Is that the Jesus you picture when you hear “Christ is risen”?

What we miss in any written word are the inflections, the raised eyebrow, the gleam in the eye. This is especially true with email I find. It’s just so in-your-face that many people add little emoticons to soften—even humanize—what seems like such a stark message.

A more faithful reading of this text is to see it as “satirical banter.” Jesus calls attention to the fact that his disciples only want him to heal their own kind, but Jesus conspires with the woman to show the disciples—and us—something larger. Imagine Jesus as starting from a position saying, “My disciples think of you people as dogs, but I know differently.” See, he was poking fun, not at the woman, but at the prejudice of his disciples. And the woman’s response shows that she was playing along with Jesus and in the end her daughter was healed as she’d hoped. Not as a reward for being quick-witted, but so Jesus could shock his disciples into seeing something new. To shock them into recognizing their common humanity with someone that they had been raised to stay separate from.

I do not believe that the point of the story is that the little girl was healed. The point is that Jesus’ power is available to all who ask. We may often be tempted to limit how God is present in the world. We often limit ourselves in the same way. But here Jesus, with a smile and wink, turns our conventions upside down. Here he says this is good news for everyone.

I know that I’ve had to add details to the story that are not there. I have even introduced a premise—that is that from the start Jesus is trying to make a point to his disciples—that is not really there in the text. But I do find this interpretation a strong one, because it shows a gentler Jesus than the one that at first reading appears to harsh—he called the woman a “dog,” and that’s thisclose to a particular vulgarity that I choose not to use during worship.

This reading also suggests that Jesus has a playful side, not only is he skilled at repartee with religious leaders, but he can have fun with ordinary people, and poke fun at conventions that he is transcending and confronting in everyday life.

Humor has the power to help us see things from new perspectives, and also help us to hear the truth about ourselves that might be painful if we heard it directly. Certainly Jesus saw the positive ways that humor can communicate. It was another strategy he used to help people to see and experience the truth of God’s gracious love for all people.

Emily Dickinson wrote “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” and “Truth must dazzle gradually, lest every man be blind.” Jesus’ use of humor was another way that he could tell us the truth, but more importantly, another way that people like us, and the disciples and Barney Fife, could hear it. Christ is risen.