Was Jesus Ever Funny?
Attentive Bible readers are aware of humor in the Bible. Who can miss the comedic undercurrent when Haman unwittingly prescribes his own recipe for public humiliation before his bitterest enemy? And are we really supposed to read Elijah’s taunts to the prophets of Baal with a straight face? (For other examples, see seven columns of discussion in Ryken, Wilhoit, Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.)
But is it proper to think of Jesus, the God-Man, as a humorous person? Did Jesus even have a sense of humor? And if so, did he ever express it? Is there any evidence of it in the Gospels? And if there is, why might we have trouble recognizing it?
The Gospel records are solemn accounts of the redemptive mission of God incarnate. Nothing should ever minimize the gravity of his mission, diminish the earnestness of his demeanor, or trivialize the weightiness of his teaching. At the same time, a foundational fact of that redemptive mission was that Christ was fully God and fully man. A logical deduction from that fact is that he possessed the full spectrum of non-sinful attributes and emotions that characterize the human personality. And one of the distinctive traits of a normal, healthy, human personality is humor.
Calvin once reflected on this: “When you think about it, it’s weird that we have a physiological response to absurdity. We laugh at nonsense. We like it. We think it’s funny. Don’t you think it’s odd that we appreciate absurdity?” (If that doesn’t sound like Calvin to you, you have to remember that he was speaking to Hobbes at the time.) The point is, humor is endemic to the human condition and personality.
No one denies that Christ experienced hunger, thirst, pain, and weariness, or that he exhibited sympathy, sorrow, displeasure, disappointment, anger, astonishment, aversion (not to say fear), love, and joy. So what about a sense of humor? If you had been one of Jesus’ original disciples, living with him and listening to him day and night for three years, would you have ever laughed in all that time?
We are not dependent on purely logical deductions to answer these questions. The Gospels record occasions when Christ displayed a keen sense of humor that is surprising only if we resist recognizing it as somehow demeaning to Jesus’ deity. I will be so bold as to suggest, however, that we demean both Jesus’ humanity and his deity by excluding such an innately human characteristic from the one who, as the God-Man, consummately personifies the imago dei.
Cultivating an ear for Jesus’ use of humor contributes to a deeper appreciation for the roundness and richness of his personality. Sometimes it can even help us interpret a passage and grasp the gist of his teaching more accurately.
Commenting on the miracle of the temple tax in the fish’s mouth, A. B. Bruce remarked that Christ performed “miracles expressive of humor, not however in levity, but in holy earnest. Such were the cursing of the fig tree; the healing of blindness by putting clay on the eyes, as a satire on the blind guides; and the present one, expressing a sense of the incongruity between the outward condition and the intrinsic dignity of the Son of God” (Training of the Twelve, 223).
I think Bruce is probably on to something. But I’m talking about a sense of humor that the Son of God expressed even more directly. But first, to avoid misunderstanding, I need to define my terms.
When I raise the question of the Lord’s sense of humor, I don’t mean a slapstick or jesting kind of humor just to make people laugh. Not that I think that kind of humor would be inappropriate for Jesus, any more than it is for us; I just do not find it displayed in the Gospels. But what I do find is evidence of an incisive and purposeful use of humor. Christ’s humor in the Gospels was always edifying in its aim. He made humor a conscious and effective part of his ministry to highlight spiritual incongruities and to illuminate spiritual truth.
Humor “suggests the ability to recognize the incongruity and absurdity inherent in life and to use them as the basis of expression in some medium” (American Heritage Dictionary). Wit “implies mental keenness, ability to discern those elements of a situation or condition that relate to what is comic, and talent for making an effective comment on them.” Irony calls attention to the “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs,” or focuses on the discrepancy between appearances and reality. Irony’s observations are frank but it does not seek to taunt or wound, and lacks the cynicism of sarcasm.
In short, the humor in the Gospels “is not of the rollicking type but the subtle and intellectual type for which the term wit is often an accurate designation” (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery). That doesn’t make it any less amusing. Wit is humor at its best.
All of this is necessary to set the stage for the discussion to follow in my next post. But I want to end this post with one example, from Elton Trueblood’s The Humor of Christ. (Disclaimer: I am well aware of Trueblood’s theological problems. He subscribed to Bultmann’s demythologization process, Schweitzer’s conclusions regarding the elusiveness of the historical Jesus, the idea that the Gospels are the product of the later Christian community, and the notion that the Gospel writers themselves contribute to “excessive sobriety” of the Gospel record. At the same time, his book is a helpful contribution largely by default; there simply aren’t that many treatments of this topic.)
Trueblood relates the event that first directed his attention to this subject. He and his wife were reading Matthew 7 in their family devotional time. When they read how Jesus said that a hypocrite was like a man with a log in his own eye trying to get a speck out his brother’s eye, their 4-year old son erupted with sudden laughter. The child instantly visualized the outlandish absurdity of Jesus’ word-picture. The innocent, spontaneous response of delight that Jesus’ words elicited from a child, uninhibited by adult sophistication, is what alerted Trueblood to the possibility of other passages that might also reflect Christ’s sense of humor.
My own awareness of Jesus’ humor began with quite a different passage. More on that and other passages next time.