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franciscan - May 2000

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2000

The humour of Jesus

by Sister Rosemary CHN

‘Ordinary people used to enjoy listening to him.’ (Matt 12.37) After yet another turgid exposition of the teaching of Jesus, one begins to wonder why. A commonplace of preaching tells us, “We read in the Gospel that Jesus wept, but we do not read that he laughed.” However, could such a dour figure as that win the rapt attention of the crowds, and the enduring loyalty of his disciples?

Jesus was by every evidence a master storyteller. Telling tales to a passing crowd in the open air requires a riveting technique: entertain, or the audience disappears. But we may fail to recognise the humour in these stories because it is so unlike classic English wit: this is not the humour of the delicate understatement, but of ludicrous exaggeration.

When we picture the person with the plank in his eye offering to remove the speck from someone else’s (Matt 7.3), the disproportion is expressed in a particularly visual way. This is a cartoon in words.

The teachers of the law (Matt 23.24) strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. Most commentators seem able to grasp that this is a joke, but they make much heavier weather of the camel going through the eye of a needle (Matt 19.24). They are much happier to explain that the eye of the needle in question is actually a gate in the wall of Jerusalem. (Could this be because they have an interest in seeing the rich person’s entrance into the kingdom of heaven as just tricky and difficult, rather than totally impossible?)
So we do not need to worry about how the unforgiving servant (Matt 18.24) came to owe a sum of a size more appropriate to a national debt. Nor need we speculate what kind of genetic modification produced the grain of wheat that brought forth a hundredfold (Matt 13.8); this isn’t a treatise on agriculture.

To this world of unrestrained over-statement belong the enormous quantities of wine produced at the wedding at Cana (John 2;6), which so embarrassed my teetotal grandfather, and the twelve baskets full of scraps left over from the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6.43). These are not stories about efficient catering, but about the exuberant prodigality of creation, as celebrated in Psalm 104, in God’s answer to Job and Ecclesiasticus 42-43.

The successes of the importunate widow (Luke 18.5) and the friend knocking at the door at midnight (Luke 11.8) are not – in spite of commentators’ furrowed brows – solemn allegories teaching us that God is like an unjust judge or a harassed neighbour. They are graphic illustrations, which the hearers will remember, of what it is like truly to desire something, and to entreat with all one’s strength to receive it: a miniature manual of prayer.

A large category of the humour of Jesus is the deflation of pomposity. This observant onlooker has watched children at play and learned the language of their games (Matt 11.16): his response to them is sympathetic, but he could not have endeared himself to the adults whose attitudes he compared to theirs.

Sometimes we see simply the picture of the self-important person shown up as ridiculous: who can forget the self-congratulation of the Pharisee in the temple (Luke 18.11) or the pen-picture of the self-advertising hypocrites (Matt 6.5)? Sometimes the ridicule has a sharper edge, as in Luke 12.39-40, when the teachers of the law not only show off their own piety but also devour widows’ houses. This is not just a laughing matter.

There is a certain mordant humour too in the way that the rich man (Luke 16.24), even in the midst of the torments of the damned, assumes that the poor beggar will still be available to run errands for him: “Send Lazarus to cool my tongue….to take a message to my brothers…” Some people never learn.

In the story of the guest at the banquet who gets above himself and is forced to take the lowest place (Luke 14.9), we have a verbal banana-skin joke, except that it is not so cruel since the injury is simply to the person’s pride, and he will be better off without it.
One category of traditional rough folk-humour which is strikingly absent from the recorded words of Jesus is the mockery of the disabled or the disadvantaged. Perhaps this is why the laughter of Jesus is not mentioned, since the laughter which does appear in the Gospels is of this cruel kind: the mourners in the house of Jairus laugh him to scorn (Luke 8.53), and most painful of all is the jeering to which he is subjected while on the cross.

In contrast, when Jesus encounters people who are already weighed down by circumstances, his response is to champion and encourage them. His targets are the proud and the powerful; lessons which come again and again, are, ‘The last shall be first and the first last,’ and ‘Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ People’s pomposity is undermined, not their dignity and self-respect.

There seems to be an exception to this in the meeting with the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7.26). She comes to him in great distress, and he reacts to her plea with (it appears) a crude racial/religious sneer. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” However, she feels herself not crushed but challenged, and sends back a spirited answer to which he responds with a joyous “Touché!” Had she read him correctly? Did he mean it from the first to be a battle of wits?
When Jesus speaks to the crowds, his humour is broad and exaggerated, like the gestures of an actor in a large theatre. His interaction with those closest to him is different. So much can be left unsaid, and so much of the interpretation depends on our estimate of his tone of voice.

The banter of close friendship peeps through his renaming of the fiery Zebedee boys ‘Sons of Thunder’. Out of the same relationship comes the inspiration to name the impulsive, foot-in-mouth, accident-prone Simon ‘Rock’. Not that these names are simply a matter of fun; they are one-word sermons delivered with a light touch, reminding the bearers of their besetting faults, serving in the one case to restrain, in the other to steady, correcting them without destroying their self-respect and spontaneity.
Friends can be robustly rude to each other without being emotionally destructive. It sheds a different, and more plausible, light on the relationship between Jesus and the disciples if the exclamation in Mark 9.19 – “How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” – is read as affectionate exasperation rather than soul-searing condemnation.

The same relationship lies behind the hugely misunderstood scene with the sisters at Bethany (Luke 10.38). How much competition and mutual resentment between the successors of Martha and Mary – whether self-identified or categorised by others – has found its focus here. The key to the interpretation of this passage lies in the fact that Jesus had, and retained, a warm friendship with both sisters. Valuing one of them at the expense of the other is not the point. Opening up a wider field of possibilities is.

It is easy to see why the humour of Jesus is often missed – not only because it is alien in character, but because we inevitably read the Gospels with hindsight (as indeed they were written), and the shadows of the Passion fall only too clearly across the page. But still, we should not let the Man of Sorrows entirely eclipse for us that earlier Jesus who was fun to be with, and could be the life and soul of the party. §

Sister Rosemary is a member of the Community of the Holy Name in Derby; she is a non-stipendiary curate and her other interests include adult education, spirituality and feminist theology.


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