”Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding.” — Elton Trueblood
Jesus is teaching in a synagogue one Sabbath and sees a woman bent over with a crippling disease. Naturally, he calls her up to the front to heal her and, inevitably, the president of the synagogue snorts in disgust: “There are six working-days: come and be cured on one of them, and not on the Sabbath.” Make an appointment, lady. But Jesus rounds on the leader and the congregation. You hypocrites! he says, heatedly. You’ll feed and water your donkeys and oxen on the Sabbath, but you’re upset when I heal a daughter of Abraham, bound this way for eighteen years? Really? “At these words all his opponents were covered with confusion, while the mass of the people were delighted at all the wonderful things he was doing (Luke 13:10-17, NEB).”
Allowing for humor in Jesus’ words does not undercut the seriousness with which he addresses our fears and doubts. In fact, in his use of exaggeration, irony and paradox, he underscores his unfailing purpose to reach us, despite our tunnel vision and our sometimes humorless rigidity.
The presumption that one’s salvation is deadly serious, with no need or possibility for humor, is so engrained in the Christian psyche that the suggestion of an alternative is almost blasphemous. Yet, in an age in which churches compete for brand recognition, and Christ is a buddy, and worshippers in the pew recruit their prayer-warrior friends, humor about our condition as homo religiosus is essential.
Somehow, we’ve concluded that everything attributed to Jesus must be taken at face value, with no nuances, shades of meaning or inflections. Any recorded dialogue loses a lot in translation; all the nonverbal cues such as gestures and facial expressions fall away, and we have only the culturally conditioned meaning of the words as translated. We don’t see the raised eyebrow, the faint grin at the corners of the mouth, the glint in the eye, or the expressiveness of the hands. We miss the inflections in the voice, the emphasis on certain words—“But I tell you”—even the pauses for effect in the timing of a skilled speaker.
Elton Trueblood’s little book, The Humour of Christ, notes that this characteristic of Christ is little remarked upon by theologians and Biblical interpreters. “Full recognition of Christ’s humor has been surprisingly rare,” he says.1 Most of the nineteenth-century writers of the lives of Christ paid no attention to his humor, portraying him as serious from dawn to dusk, his every word portentous and grave. What little we know of the personality of Jesus comes through his interactions with his disciples, with those he healed, and in his confrontations with religious authorities. His parables, his dialogues, his arguments, all give us some idea of what it would have been like to be his friend, but again we’re overawed by the two thousand centuries of Jesusology that sacrifices imaginative intimacy for sovereign power.
Basic communication theory tells us that it takes two to dialogue, that most of what we remember from an encounter with another person is nonverbal and visual, and that much can be understood of that person by attention to how his message is delivered. We do not see the wit and humor of Jesus because we aren’t attuned to it and we find another explanation for it when we can’t avoid it.
Some of the sayings of Jesus and the parables he tells are, in the best of lights, more than startling. I have begun to look more closely at them as statements of exaggeration and paradox, irony and wit. Once you allow for the possibility that Jesus had a sense of humor, and that he was a master rhetorician, using all the tools available to him in persuasion and argument, some of these statements begin to make more sense.
Trueblood asserts that, “Of all the mistakes which we make in regard to the humor of Christ, perhaps the worst mistake is our failure, or our unwillingness, to recognize that Christ used deliberately preposterous statements to get His point across (Trueblood 44-45).” Jesus stuns his disciples and those standing around by proclaiming, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25).” Because they take him literally and because being rich was equated with being blessed by God, the disciples are astonished. “Then who can be saved?” they ask, looking in bewilderment at one another. Mark adds this telling detail: “Jesus looked them in the face,”— “and said, ‘For men it is impossible, but not for God; to God everything is possible (Mark 10:27, NEB).”
Jesus states this categorically, with no qualifiers, right after the story of a rich man who turns away in regret because he cannot divest himself of all his wealth. With a straight face he gives us this exaggerated image to emphasize the difficulty involved. The humor is in the size of this image, the outrageousness of trying to jam a camel (one hump or two?) through such a tiny opening. All these centuries later it still resounds in eye and ear and imagination, whereas a long discourse on wealth distribution would glaze the eyes of the most ardent disciple. Yet, some commentators have made the torturous claim that Jesus was referring to a gate in the Jerusalem wall so narrow and low that a camel without its load could squeeze through only if the poor creature got down on its knees and scrabbled its way forward. Like that would ever happen. Like any camel owner would be so foolish as to try.
“What we require, for Christ’s kind of humor,” says Trueblood, “are two ingredients, surprise and inevitability. There is a connection which we do not expect, but which, nevertheless, seems absolutely valid when once it is presented (Trueblood 48).”
Don’t throw pearls to swine, Jesus advises his disciples. Some people are impervious to the truth. The delightful absurdity of this action—who would do such a thing?—makes the point with a smile and a laugh that softens the imperative not to waste one’s time with the stubbornly obtuse.
Paradox is at the heart of humor. Kierkegaard understood that where there is life there is paradox, but he also knew that where there is paradox, there is humor. A paradox is a contradiction with a secret affinity for connection. When we see the connection, despite the contradiction, there is the laughter of surprise and delight. Who knew?
Don’t imagine that I’m trying to get rid of the Law and the prophets, says Jesus. “I tell you, unless you show yourselves far better men than the Pharisees and doctors of the law, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5: 18, 20, NEB).” Maybe that’s a low bar to clear from the distance of two thousand years, but for his audience it must have seemed a feat of Olympic proportions.
Hypocrisy is the besetting sin of human beings, especially of those who claim to be pure, and Jesus takes aim at the hypocrisy of the priests and Pharisees. The rigidity of the Pharisees was cause for laughter among the common people, who could puncture pomposity from thirty yards with a singular barb of humor. Yet, even at his most scathing, Jesus’ wit is meant to be cleansing, a catharsis that can lead to redemption if we can see ourselves as we are and laugh about it.
Most often Jesus employs irony, “a holding up to public view of either vice or folly, but without a note of bitterness or the attempt to harm (Trueblood 53).” Irony, thanks to Socrates, is deeply embedded in our Western way of thinking. When Jesus uses it to get at the truth in an indirect way, its effect is immediate. “Can grapes be picked from briars,” he asks, “or figs from thistles (Matt. 7:16, NEB)?” The question answers itself in our response.
Listen, says Jesus, when you do something good for someone, be quiet about it, and “do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets.” Don’t be tooting your own horn “as the hypocrites do in synagogue and in the streets.” And then the sly touch of irony: “I tell you this: they have their reward already (Matt. 6:2,3 NEB).” Status isn’t hard to come by; there are always people around who are impressed by braggarts. But that’s all the reward they’re going to get—and it’s fleeting and ephemeral.
But for sheer chutzpah, it’s hard to beat the story of the Unjust Steward in Luke 16. Luke is the only Synoptic writer who uses the story, probably derived from a source Matthew did not have access to. Or maybe Matthew skipped it just to be on the safe side.
The story concerns a foreman or steward who is in charge of running his master’s business concerns. When he cooks the books to hide his own unethical practices and the master calls him on it, he fears he’ll soon be spending more time with his family, so he does a two-for-one ingratiating act to get himself off the hook with his boss and to cultivate the goodwill of the debtors. When they come to pay up, he offers them a discount and a quick payment, no questions asked. Some is better than none, he reasons.
“And the master applauded the dishonest bailiff for acting so astutely. For the worldly are more astute than the other-worldly in dealing with their own kind (Luke 16:8, NEB).”
Who do we identify with here? The master is no shining city on a hill, the steward is, well, we know what he’s like, and the debtors lurch toward compromise. Is the master supposed to be God? Is Jesus the steward? Are we supposed to be the steward?
It’s true that all the players in this story are “men of the world.” They’re not evil, twisted characters, they just have ethical Alzheimer’s disease, an inability to recognize moral precepts and responsibilities and to act on them with will. If you called them on it, they’d be shocked that you’d raised a fuss. The advantage was theirs for the taking. “That makes me smart,” they’d say. “And that makes you a loser.”
Christ seems to be saying that if you’re going all in on this, don’t be half-hearted. “Sin boldly,” to echo Luther. The way to get respect from the grifter set is to steal the whole bank, not just rob from the bank, to use Trueblood’s metaphor. Not only that, such behavior will be rewarded! “I say to you, use your worldly wealth to win friends for yourselves, so that . . . you may be received into an eternal home (Luke 16:9).”
All of this would be unconscionable except Jesus segues directly into verses diametrically opposed to this narrative banter. If you’ve been untrustworthy with other people’s money, you can’t be trusted to handle your own, he says. “You cannot serve God and Money (Luke 16:13, NEB).”
What are we to make of this? This is unequivocal, whereas the story is all about compromise. A story this extreme with a punchline that definitive can only be seen as a vivid lesson in moral integrity. Interpreters pretzel themselves trying to assign roles for each character in the narrative. But the only hypothesis that makes sense is that Jesus used the shock value of unscrupulous behavior to make an unforgettable point: Our moral (or immoral) behavior shapes our character and our character determines our behavior. Therefore, be faithful in the small matters so you can be trusted in the large ones.
Jesus’ humor is not only seen in his public dialogues; it comes through in his private conversations with his disciples. Up in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is. And Simon, suddenly grasping the truth, blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Got it in one! says Jesus. That was revealed to you by my heavenly Father (Matt 16:13-16, NEB).
And then Jesus weaves a most delicious—and tender—irony: “You are Peter, the Rock,” he says triumphantly. The most mercurial, the most impetuous of the disciples is now Rocky, the one stable enough to anchor the community of the future, the one most to be trusted. Five minutes later, Jesus turns on him and calls him Satan. You’re a stumbling-block, he argues, for thinking like a man rather than like God. The camaraderie between them survives this whiplash. But Simon did become a rock, and in years to come, although he was bound and led where he did not want to go, as Jesus had prophesied, he went with courage, faithful to the end.
Ironically, the man rose to meet the nickname. The truth, rightly divined, gave the freedom to evolve.
- Trueblood, Elton. The Humour of Christ. London: Dartman, 1963, 23. ↩