I recently heard a sermon on laughter in the Bible. Unfortunately, the pastor used a wrong scripture story from the Old Testament for his purpose, and instead of making me laugh, it almost made me cry. He should have focused upon the humor in Jesus' teachings.
A long time ago, Harper and Row published a book by Elton Trueblood entitled "The Humor of Christ." When the book was published in 1964 (out of print today), all of us serious religious types rushed out to purchase and read it. Trueblood was one of those "must-read" guys.
Is it too much to expect Jesus to have a sense of humor? Considering all of the things we have going on these days, surely Jesus (God) must be laughing. Unfortunately, too much of the time we take one of Jesus' teachings and attempt to make it so serious that we miss its humor. Trueblood says the idea for his book began when he was reading the story in Matthew 7 about someone worrying about a speck in another person's eye when his own eye had a beam in it to his four-year-old son. His son laughed at the story. Of course, Jesus was providing a very important teaching, but Trueblood's son knew instantly that no one could have a beam in his eye. The idea was ludicrous.
It's common to use metaphors and to call opponents names, but none of them compare to the epithets Jesus used. He referred to the Pharisees as a "brood of vipers," a "white-washed tomb full of putrid and decaying flesh," and suggested that there is a time when someone should pluck out his eye and cut off his hand and throw them away. Now, I know Jesus was serious and trying to make a point, but his choice of epithets probably caused his disciples to laugh -- at least privately. (If you're not catching the humor, please lighten up; it's there. Remember Jesus had around 30 years with people before beginning his public ministry.)
Or, consider how Jesus often inserted a sly example while he was teaching something serious. His disciples were questioning him about when certain things would occur because they didn't know and were worried about the future, and Jesus said, "But know this, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would have been awake and would not have left his house to be broken into." Duh! Sounds dumb, but it's also funny. If we knew when something bad was going to happen, we would make sure we were prepared.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, recognized Jesus' humor when he read about the necessity of someone becoming like a little child in order to enter the kingdom of God. In his explanation, Kierkegaard has the child laughing because he has not yet been brainwashed. We do not go backward in our lives to become smarter (although it isn't a bad idea); we move forward, obtain a quality education and experience in order to understand and to create. Becoming like a child is foolish, so we must laugh.
Or consider Jesus' use of hyperbole. In addressing the problem of riches, he declared that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. That's impossible to even think about, so biblical interpreters often claim that Jesus surely was not talking about the eye of a sewing needle, but one of the gates in Jerusalem that was so low a camel had a difficult time going through it. So what if the "eye of the needle" wasn't the eye of a sewing needle, it really doesn't make any difference whether it's a sewing needle or a gate if a camel can't get through it. Where did Jesus come up with this idea if not to make it so preposterous his disciples could both laugh and wonder at his teachings?
Elton Trueblood lists 30 biblical examples illustrating the humor of Christ. Each of them has to do with something serious Jesus was teaching his disciples or the crowds following him, but his examples spoke clearly to their life situations and his wit allowed them to better understand his message. It's not that we should not take the Bible seriously, for we should; it's only that when Jesus says something that is both true and ludicrous we should feel free to laugh at it. Jesus must have been a good speaker and teacher for crowds to follow him. I would have loved to have been on the Mount of Beatitudes listening to him speak to me and the people who came to listen. Wouldn't you?
Oh, by the way, I can think of at least 30 things about our current election that are both serious and funny. Right now, it's probably better to laugh.
• • •
Robert Box is the former chaplain for the Bella Vista Police Department and is currently the Fire Department chaplain. Opinions expressed are those of the author.