“The presence of laughter and the comedic imagination is one of the greatest gifts that God has given us, and Jesus certainly made use of it.”
How comedic are the sayings of Jesus? Are any of the things that Jesus says meant to be funny or comedic in the Hebrew or Greek sense of the word?
To answer this question we must first decide exactly what constitutes the comedic. After all, the Church has been reading these sayings for these many years and very few people have been laughing in church (and most of those who have been were usually escorted out by the ushers).
Why should anyone think there is anything comedic in any of the sayings of Jesus?
Did Jesus laugh?
Wasn’t Jesus a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? Isn’t Jesus sad in all of his paintings? Wasn’t he described in “The Epistle of Lentulus to the Roman Senate” as having “cheeks without spot or wrinkle, beautiful with a lovely red; his nose and mouth formed with exquisite symmetry; his beard, of a color suitable to his hair reaching below his chin and parted in the middle like a fork; his eyes bright blue; clear and serene. No man has seen him laugh.”
In spite of the fact that this epistle was known to be fraudulent by the middle ages, I remember from my youth a fundamentalist tract with the headline “Jesus Never Laughed.” The first thought of a young adolescent boy who found lots of things to laugh at in the church service was “What was wrong with him?” (And this was long before I knew about Ode to a Louse.)
Unfortunately, there are many in the Church who feel the same way that the writer of the tract did. To have Jesus laughing is to make him somehow too human, too manlike, too much like one of us. Yet the presence of laughter and the comedic imagination is one of the greatest gifts that God has given us, and Jesus certainly made use of it.
Think of the well-known saying about a camel going through the eye of the needle (Luke 18). Forget anything that you have heard about that being a special gate or any such nonsense. The disciples understood the impossibility of an actual camel going through an actual needle’s eye because they asked Jesus, “How is this possible?” This is a funny image and no doubt would have provoked laughter among the disciples the first time that they heard it. It will still provoke laughs among children who have not been taught that Jesus certainly never would have joked.
“It is easier for a sheet of plywood to get through the cat door than for a rich man to get to heaven.”
Humor in Scripture
The parable of the unthankful servant in Matthew 18 is another example of humor through overstatement. Jesus begins his story by stating that there was a man who owed ten-thousand talents. This was more money than the Roman government had at the time. It was impossible for an individual person to have owed that much. It is akin to me saying to you that I know a person who has charged up the national debt on their credit card.
The humor goes even deeper, though. When faced with this debt, the servant falls down on his face and begs the king for … a little more time. Think about it: if you owed the national debt, a little more time is not going to help you. A lot more time is not going to help you. The reversal of the story comes when the king forgives the man of this great debt and sends him away free and clear.
The point that Jesus is making is that this man is hopeless and helpless, and, were it not for the grace of the king, he would be, along with his family, sold off into slavery. The humor of the story helps to remind us of a very serious point. That point is that we all owe more than we can pay. Debt in the Gospel of Matthew is a metaphor for sin. Jesus tells this story that starts out funny but ends up tragic to remind us all that without his grace our lives would be tragic rather than comedic. This wise use of comedy allows the presentation of a difficult lesson to be more easily received.
Aristotle, in his Poetics, teaches that virtually all comedies end in a wedding. The joyful comedy of wedding stories is scattered all through the Scriptures. The Christian looks forward to the greatest wedding reception of all, the wedding celebration of the Lamb spoken of in Revelation 19. The Lamb of God who was made flesh has taken our lives, so full of the tragic, and turned them into wonders of the comedic. We seek that city where Jesus turns tears into joy and pain into pleasure. It is what J. R. R. Tolkien called (in a term he coined) a “eucatastrophe” by which he meant a “good catastrophe,” an event in which every bad thing in the world was made right.
If Jesus laughed, if he used the comedic when he taught, if he brought laughter to others through the use of true comedy, we have cause to ask ourselves, “How often and how deeply do we truly feel the sense of that day coming when the Lord will make all of the bad things right?” That is true comedy; and it comes only from a resurrected Lord.
Dr. Sam Lamerson is president and professor of New Testament at Knox Theological Seminary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.