Theology in 3D

Was Jesus Ever Funny? (Part 2)

Layton Talbert | June 7, 2019
New Testament

No one gets into the kingdom of God without becoming like a little child (Luke 18:17). The illustration that ended my previous post suggests that no one gets Jesus’ use of humor without becoming like a little child. That doesn’t imply that the humor is infantile, but that we can become so familiar with certain passages and so sophisticated in our interpretation that we miss the point because we fail to see the laugh-worthy wit that Jesus often built into his teaching to animate his point.

When Jesus—quite unnecessarily—painted a hyperbolic word-picture of a hypocrite as a man trying to remove a small twig from his brother’s eye while oblivious to the log jammed through his own eye (Matt 7:3-5), the image is not supposed to strike us as “startling” or “grotesque” (as one interpreter puts it) but as bizarre bordering on hilarious. Walter Liefeld gets it: Jesus’ “humorous illustration . . . hits the mark with force” because his “humor makes the point vividly” (“Luke,” EBC, 895). It is humor in the service of serious truth. Any teacher worth his dry board eraser understands that principle.

It was Luke 7:24-26 that first caught me off-guard one day. Mind you, I was a serious-minded, seminary-trained student of Scripture. But that day I wasn’t just reading black words on a white page; I was standing among the crowd beside the Jordan, listening to Jesus. That was when his deliberately facetious description of John the Baptist—no, his two facetious descriptions!—snuck up on me. Suddenly I heard a muffled chuckling from the crowd, looked around, and realized people were grinning! I couldn’t be positive, but I thought I detected a suppressed smile playing about the corners of Jesus’ mouth.

John the Baptist as a spineless, flimsy, namby-pamby reed quivering at the slightest breeze? A soft, self-indulgent cream-puff mincing around in lavishly expensive clothing? Are we talking about the guy in camel hair and leather? Anyone who’d ever seen John or heard him preach instantly recognized the absurdity. These images were as ridiculously and intentionally unlike John as possible. Downright laughable! I can no longer read this passage without seeing some in the crowd laughing out loud and thinking, “Now that’s funny!”

Jesus knew as well as his audience the unflinching courage and moral boldness of John, not to mention the proverbially ascetic simplic­ity and self-denial of his lifestyle. “Mark the satire of it,” remarks Morgan. “Those familiar with John would know no reed was he, no effeminate dilettante” (Parables and Metaphors, 36). Morgan also points to an additionally witty word-play: the consonantal inversion from kalamos (reed) to malakos (soft). But the bulk of the intentional humor resides in Jesus’ farcical caricatures of John.

Again, what is so fascinating is that it was so unnecessary. Jesus could have made his sober point about John in 7:26 without the clearly tongue-in-cheek remarks of 7:24b-25. (One interpreter suggests that Jesus’ words here might be ironic. You think?) But you can see the effectiveness of the Lord’s strategy. The facetious depictions actually accentuate the real John. The very absurdity of the rhetorical questions underscores and highlights and draws stars around John’s more-than-a-prophet status, far more effectively than if Jesus had only spoken verse 26.

A. B. Bruce points to the adversative alla (“but what went you out to see?”) and effectively captures Jesus’ subtle shift from facetious ploy to sober point: “why then, seriously, went ye out?” (EGT, I:172). The Word was a master speaker who recognized the value of humor, rightly used, as a tool of effective communication.

I’ll mention one more example. Again, you have to slip on your sandals, mingle with the disciples, and actually see and hear Jesus telling this very serious parable in Luke 18:9-14. On the surface it’s about prayer, but underneath it’s really about true religion and justifying faith. Into this dead-earnest illustration Jesus slips a surprising kind of humor. He actually imitates a fictional Pharisee’s prayer by putting words in his mouth. Did Jesus’ hearers find his impersonation of the Pharisee’s pious hypocrisy an amusingly accurate depiction of a Pharisaical atti­tude?

The terms “imitate” and “impersonate” are liable to be misconstrued, but I don’t know any better words to use. I do not mean to imply that Jesus mimicked a tone for his fictional Pharisee (as we sometimes do). Maybe, but I suspect not. Jesus was not a sarcastic stand-up comic. Still, it’s significant that Jesus chooses to intone the Pharisee’s personal pride in being unlike other “common” people — extortioners, unjust, adulterers; yet these were the very sins for which Jesus repeatedly indicted the Pharisees. But the ultimate irony comes in the words, “nor even as this publican”; between the two of them, it was the publican who “went down to his house justified.” Be careful what you wish for.

If there is a single person within the pages of the Bible that we can consider to be a humorist it is without doubt Jesus. There is a subtle, playful quality to his mind that is unmistakable and that emerges most clearly if we take the time to distill his humorous sayings from the seriousness that also pervades his words. Jesus was a master of wordplay, irony and satire, often with an element of humor intermixed. . . . Either to underemphasize [his] humor or to overemphasize it distorts the Bible. Although the Bible is a predominantly serious book, one of its points of humanity is its humor.

Ryken, Wilhoit, & Longman, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery

Granted, not everyone laughs at the same things. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and humor is in the ear of the behearer. To some degree, humor is relative. But I have come across numerous passages that seem to me to evidence Jesus’ use of humor in teaching. Interestingly (and unsurprisingly), all of them so far are in Luke and most of them are only in Luke (a few have parallels in Matthew). This distinctive emphasis on this undercurrent of Jesus’ personality fills out Luke’s unique presentation of the full-orbed and approachable humanity of Christ. If John the Baptist was an Elijah, Jesus was an Elisha.

But that’s a subject for another post.

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