Christians can sometimes be too serious for their own good. Rev Stephen Brooks reveals the humorous side of Jesus, and highlights some Bible passages that should cause believers to smile
Humour is an essential feature of good human nature that we don’t often associate with the Bible, and there can be little doubt that Jesus had a healthy dose of it – after all, His Father invented it! Humour can be a powerful vehicle for making important points, and the Gospels show that Jesus used it liberally. Some humour is lost in language, age or cultural translation, but most of Christ’s humour translates well if we look at it with fresh eyes. Many of the Proverbs communicate timeless wisdom with a smile and a wink.
Could it be that we’ve become so familiar with Jesus’ teaching illustrations that they fail to bring a smile? We have all read about putting a camel through the eye of a needle; straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel; men being whitewashed, full of dead men’s bones; washing the outside of a cup and leaving the grime inside; Pharisees screwing up their faces to look painfully religious… People who heard and visualised these teachings for the first time probably smiled.
If we could have been in the crowd, listening to Jesus’ colourful and humorous word pictures driving home His message, I think we would have laughed. Perhaps we need to retune our minds to approach Scripture with fresh eyes, a lightness of spirit and a new awareness to the Bible, where it says God laughs (Psalm 59:8). Many Christians have bought into the false stereotype of a Jesus who was always sorrowful, pious-appearing, and serious in speech and demeanour.
In fact, most of Jesus’ ministry is characterised by His joyful interaction with people. Jesus did not fit the pattern of what people expected a holy man to be like. The pious Pharisees accused Him and His disciples of being party animals: lots of banqueting, laughing, eating and drinking. His first miracle at a wedding wasn’t turning the party into a wake, but turning water into wine to keep the party going! Jesus lets Levi throw Him a banquet, with all Levi’s tax-collector friends invited (Luke 5:27-39). The party causes the Pharisees to criticise and talk of fasting and prayer. Jesus never compared the Kingdom of God to a religious experience in a temple, but with a party or celebration!
Jesus’ humour could be sharp and earthy at times, like when He said, “The lawyers and Pharisees are full of cr*p!” Check it out in Mark 7. Jesus is speaking openly about bowel movements; that what comes out of the body is what is unclean, and that unrepentant men are full of spiritually unclean stuff. Jesus taught in figures and parables nearly all the time, so approaching them with a pious literalism will cause us to miss His humour. The disciple Nathanael liked to tease Phillip, who came from the poor region of Nazareth: “Can anything good come from there?” When Jesus finally meets Nathanael, He has a witty response for him: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Of course, Jacob was the father of the Israelites, and his name meant ‘full of guile’ or ‘deceiver’. With a touch of sarcasm, Jesus is saying, “Well, I declare, we’ve found the first guile-less son of Jacob!”
You and I know that the speakers we most like to listen to are those who have weighty things to say, and who can say them in ways that capture our attention; reach both our intellect and emotion, and can season their words with appropriate humour. Jesus must have been a very effective, captivating speaker, yet we have nothing that He actually wrote. Nevertheless, His disciples could recall His stories, parables and teachings with such vivid clarity, I think His various uses of humour helped imbed His teachings in their minds. Good preaching is memorable. Even the grumpy John Calvin (known for burning opponents at the stake) had to admit in his Institutes of the Christian Religion III: “We are nowhere forbidden to laugh, or to be satisfied with food, or to be delighted with music or to drink wine.” Too many religious Christians are so reserved and sour, they repel people rather than draw them, having a great eye for criticism, but a dull ear for humour.
One morning, a mother came into her son’s room and said, “William, it’s Sunday. Time to get up and go to church! Get up!” From under the covers came mumbles, “I don’t want to go!” “What do you mean?” she said. “That’s silly! Now get up and get dressed and go to church!” “No!” he responded. “I’ll give you two reasons: I don’t like them and they don’t like me!” “Nonsense,” she told him. “I’ll give you two reasons to go. First, you are 42 years old and second, you are the Pastor!”
The New Jerusalem Bible translates Colossians 4:6, “Talk to them agreeably and with a flavour of wit, and try to fit your answers to the needs of each one.” Jesus died and rose again that the believer might have life in abundance, and that our joy might be full.
Rev Stephen Brooks is National Development Manager for Excell 3