Sunday, March 07, 2010

did jesus laugh?

Did Jesus Laugh?

Jesus Never Laughed, or so the pamphlet said. An
adolescent boy at the time, I found myself laughing
at every little thing—too often during church
services. Reading that pamphlet I wondered,
So he never laughed? What was wrong with him?

Perhaps we’re accustomed to only thinking of
Jesus as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with
grief” (Isa 53:3). His crucifixion is certainly
no laughing matter. Or maybe the image of a
laughing Jesus offends simply because it makes
Him too human. Yet Heb 4:15 tells us that Jesus is
able to sympathize with us because He is exactly
like us (minus the sinning). God has gifted us
with a sense of humor; it stands to reason that
Jesus had one too.
Now, every culture has its own idea of what is
funny: Watch a random selection of German,
Spanish or Japanese comedy shows and
sometimes you’ll be rolling on the floor, and other
times scratching your head. Why is that funny?
First century Palestine would be no different:
It had its own comedic tradition, steeped in the
cutting irony of the Old Testament (Job, Jonah or
Ezekiel) and the over-the-top parodies of classical
Greece (Aristophanes).
Aristotle famously wrote that comedies end
with a wedding. That may be so, but the gas
that really fuels the fire of Greek comedy is
exaggeration: Take a simple gag and blow it out
of all proportion. Re-read some of Jesus’ sayings
with this in mind and you might find a chuckle or
two yourself: Your neighbor may have a speck in
his eye, but you’ve got a log. The blind are leading
the blind—right into a hole in the ground. A priest,
a Levite, and a Samaritan are walking down the
road …
Not Exactly the “A”-List
In the parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1–10),
the king throws a wedding feast in his son’s
honor. It’s the social event of the year. Servants
are dispatched carrying invitations to all the
vips. The powerful. The socially connected. The
“in” crowd. The kind of people who know how to
dress and how to act at a royal banquet.
But the glitterati—the Pharisees with their clean
robes and punctilious manners, the scribes with
their jots and tittles all in a row—simply can’t be
bothered to attend.
What’s a king to do? Fed up with those who
think they’re too good to come, he decides to
invite those who know they aren’t. He sends his
servants out to round up the the religiously and
politically incorrect. The powerless. The socially
disenfranchised. The “out” crowd. The kind of
people who hang out on the street late at night.
Imagine a royal wedding feast filled with
homeless people. Scandalous! This is a comedic
break in expectation, exaggerated to drive the
punchline home: The outsiders have become the
insiders. If you’re one of the insiders, the joke’s
on you.
I’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday …
The parable of the unforgiving debtor (Matt 18:23–
35) makes use of what comics today call the
topper or call-back. While the audience is still
laughing at the last line, you hit them again.
Imagine a slave who owes the king some money.
Make that a lot of money. Ten thousand talents,
even. We may not get the joke, but Jesus’ listeners
would have: That’s more money than the
Roman Government had! It’s as if your freshman
daughter had called up to say she’d run a little
money up on the credit card you gave her. How
much? The national debt.
Better yet, when the man is called to pay, he says,
“Give me a little more time and I will pay all”
(18:26). This is like the girl telling her father that
she “plans to get a job at Christmas” to pay off
that maxed-out credit card. What’s a king to do?
Instead of laughing the slave out of his court (or
into prison), he simply forgives the debt. She calls
the credit card company and whines a little, so
they let her off the hook. Just like that.
“Jesus lays one exaggeration
on top of another.”
Then the topper: The slave leaves and finds
someone who owes him a hundred denarii—a
few months’ wages. Not only does he demand
the money, he chokes the poor guy. That goes
beyond merely uncharitable; it’s downright cruel.
One might even say comically so. In the end, the
unjust slave gets his comeuppance, tossed in jail
until he can pay in full, which he never can.
Here, Jesus lays one exaggeration on top of
another until the audience can’t help but see how
utterly ridiculous it is to hold a ten-dollar grudge
against a neighbor when God, the gracious king,
has wiped clean a fortune’s worth of sin.
The Divine Comedy
By Aristotle’s rule of thumb, God’s plan for the
ages is a comedy, because no matter how tragic
this world may seem, it ends with a wedding (Rev
19:6–10). He has chosen for himself a bride made
of people who don’t dress or act properly—drug
dealers, prostitutes, and even a few recovering
Pharisees—former sinners all. Snubbed by the
people the world counts as important, God
spends His incredible riches on the unwashed
masses instead, inviting them to join Him in an
exquisite meal. And, one would like to think,
more than a few good laughs.

The writer of this article Samuel Lamerson is Dean of Faculty and Associate
Professor of New Testament at Knox Seminary in Fort
Lauderdale. In a former life he was a comic magician
and juggler, appearing for IBM, McDonalds and the
Nickelodeon network. (Courtesy: Bible Study Magazine)

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