Jesus Was Funnier Than We Think
By James Martin, S.J.
March 12, 2012
Why do church services seem so devoid of humor?
Why are religious people so often (fairly) characterized as gloomy?
In short, when, why and how were joy, humor and laughter removed from religion?
There are several theories about why humor may not be valued as it should be in religious circles. But ultimately, joy, humor and laughter are spiritual gifts that we ignore at our own peril.
Much of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry were about joy. But as the Quaker author Elton Trueblood points out in The Humor of Christ, because of the need to explain the suffering of Jesus, the sad parts can overwhelm the happy parts. The Gospel of John admits, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book.” In other words, the absence of many stories about Jesus joking or laughing is not proof that they did not occur. Most likely, Jesus laughed. To deny this is to turn Jesus into a wooden stick.
Let’s look at one distinctive feature of His ministry, what scholars call “table fellowship,” that is, dining with friends. Jesus frequently called together His disciples, His followers and often strangers to dine with him. It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture these as joyful events—just think of enjoyable dinner parties and celebrations in your own life, full of laughter and good cheer, everyone delighting in one another’s company. There is a reason that one enduring image of heaven is a banquet. Maureen O’Connell, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University, says, “At my house, we often laugh ourselves sick around the dinner table. Isn’t this the point of dinner parties?”
The Gospels reveal Jesus as a man with a palpable sense of joy and even playfulness. You can catch glimpses of this in His interactions with the men, women and children of His time as well as in many of the parables.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a good storyteller who doesn’t know the value of humor. Jesus probably knew that He had to “grab” His listeners. His stories were often sharp and provocative. After all, He was an itinerant preacher and so needed to attract His listeners quickly through a funny story, a clever parable or a humorous aside. Also, the constant themes of His preaching—love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; forgive someone seventy times seven times; the kingdom of God is at hand—were so ridiculous, so incongruous, that they may at first have seemed humorous to listeners.
A sense of humor
Jesus also embraces others with a sense of humor. In the beginning of the Gospel of John, for example, comes the remarkable story of Nathaniel, who has been told by His friends that the Messiah is from Nazareth.
Nathaniel responds, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
This is a joke about how insignificant the city was. Nazareth was a backwater town where only a few families lived.
Nathaniel’s humor doesn’t bother Jesus at all. In fact, it seems to delight him. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” says Jesus. In other words, here is someone I can trust. Nathaniel then becomes one of the apostles. Jesus’ welcoming of Nathaniel into His circle is perhaps the clearest indication that He had a sense of humor. (Other than the other men He chose as apostles.)
When I imagine Jesus, it is not simply as a person who heals the sick, raises the dead, stills the storm and preaches the good news. It’s also as a man of great goodwill and compassion, with a zest for life, someone unafraid of controversy, free to be who He knows Himself to be and brimming with generous good humor. Full of high spirits. Playful. Even fun.
Let me be more provocative and suggest that thinking about Jesus without a sense of humor may be close to heresy.
In the early church (and this is a simplification of a devilishly complex history), two camps sprang up. On the one side were those who believed that Jesus only appeared to be human. Those groups are generally called Docetists, from the Greek word dokein, meaning “to appear.” On the other were the Adoptionists, who believed that Jesus was simply a human being, not divine at all, merely the “adopted” son of God.
Frankly, I think that more than a few contemporary Christians are still “closet Docetists.” That is, although they buy into the idea of Jesus’ humanity, they are still inclined to think of Him as God simply pretending, or playacting, at being human. But if we accept the idea of Him as a human being, we must accept all human attributes for him—laughing as well as suffering.
To put it another way: What kind of a person has zero sense of humor? That’s a robot, not a person. Yet that’s the kind of one-sided image that many Christians have of Jesus. It shows up both in books and sermons and in artwork. And it has an effect on the way Christians live their lives.
Jesus must have been a clever, witty and even funny man. His humor nearly leaps off the page in some of His highly original parables in His zippy asides to the Roman authorities, in His tart replies to the scribes and the Pharisees and even in His off-the-cuff remarks. If we look at His human side, it’s hard to imagine someone being able to put up with the often spectacularly obtuse disciples without a sense of humor. If we look at His divine side, it’s hard to imagine God not smiling at some of the absurdities of the world.
So let us set aside the notion that Jesus was a humorless, grim-faced, dour, unsmiling prude. Let’s begin to recover His humor and, in the process, His full humanity.
Adapted from BETWEEN HEAVEN AND MIRTH by James Martin, S.J. Copyright © 2011 by James Martin, S.J. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.