The humour of Christ is the title of a very old book by Quaker author Elton Trueblood in which he examines in detail 30 humorous passages in the Gospels. Other books have been written that explore humour in other parts of the Bible.
A great deal of this humour of course doesn’t come through once the Bible is translated. It’s like when I preach in other countries through an interpreter; some jokes just don’t translate, and other things that I don’t think are funny become absolutely hilarious. Much of my life is like this.
In English, the humour of the Bible doesn’t always come through, Christianity (and some Christians) has become far too serious. Some church services I’ve attended over the years have been devoid of humour. Religious people so often are characterised as glum. And yet with a book that has hundreds of verses about joy and gladness and delight; and a creation that is full of colour, and flavour and beauty; should not the people who are created in the image of God reflect those same qualities?
Elton Trueblood points out in The Humour of Christ, that because of the need to explain the suffering of Jesus, the sad parts can overwhelm the happy parts. But Jesus was only the “man of sorrows” in relation to His work on the cross – and even that He endured with joy (Hebrews 12:2). In fact Jesus taught his followers that their sadness would only be for a short period of time and that his ultimate goal was for their joy to be full (read John 16:19-24).
Some may want to point out that the Bible records that “Jesus wept’ not that “Jesus laughed.” But this is mentioned because it was news, that is, an unusual event. Our newspapers don’t tell us the sun rose this morning, they don’t report on all the people who made it to work safely. The news reports unusual events – otherwise it’s not news. The Bible doesn’t record that Jesus laughed because it wasn’t news, and there’s plenty in the Bible to indicate that Jesus was a happy man.
Hebrews 1:9 teaches us “God has set you [Jesus] above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” He was a joyous man because He was filled with the Spirit and thus had the fruit of the Spirit including joy (Luke 10:21). Jesus attracted people. Children especially loved Jesus. They would climb up into his arms and he would bless them. No one is attracted to sour-faced individuals. Jesus told people to “Be of good cheer” (Mt 9:2) – surely He practiced what He preached! Jesus gave His joy to others – you have to have it to give it (John 15:11). Jesus used humour in His teachings. Statements like “take out the beam from your eye;” strain out a mosquito and swallow a camel;” and “a camel going through the eye of a needle” would all have been funny to Jesus’ hearers.
The overly serious Pharisees accused Jesus and his disciples of being gluttons and drunkards. Of course they were neither, but in the eyes of the stern religious people of the day they were guilty because they associated with people who were. The first miracle Jesus did was turning water into the best wine at a seven-day wedding feast. Unfortunately some of the Christian faith over the centuries has been about turning the wine back into water!
Jesus lets Matthew throw him a huge banquet with all of his tax-collector buddies invited (Luke 5:27-39). The happy party causes the religious leaders to criticise, complain and talk of fasting and prayer (obviously because that is more spiritual than eating with friends). Jesus responds with humour, sarcasm, a parable, and then a sigh that despite his presentation of truth they, like fools, will stick with their old ways.
Even the morose and peevish John Calvin (known for burning opponents at the stake) had to admit in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (III: 19:9): “We are nowhere forbidden to laugh, or to be satisfied with food, … or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.” Thanks John, we needed your permission!
Humour celebrates the goodness of God, the world God created, and the life God gives. It is an accepted fact of medicine that humour is good for our physical health (Proverbs 17:22) and is usually the best way of coping with the trials and disasters that come our way. If we aren’t careful we can let circumstances suck the joy right out of us. Humour can lighten the load.
Too many religious people are so serious and sour they repel people rather than attract them. Legalists have a great eye for criticism, but a dull ear for wit. Because humour requires a somewhat “playful” disposition and a willingness (at least temporarily) to suspend all seriousness, many people—especially those with strong and well-defined religious beliefs—may be reluctant to give up their trademark seriousness.
The New Jerusalem Bible translates Colossians 4:6: “Talk to them agreeably and with a flavour of wit (“seasoned with salt,” RSV), and try to fit your answers to the needs of each one.” Greek comic writers used the verb artyo, meaning “to season,” as seasoning with the salt of wit. Of course humour can get too “salty” and like other good things become degenerated. Funny need not be filthy.
When times are tough, Paul says stand firm and “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil 4:4). Humor is a key component of joy. Jesus said to stop dwelling on the evils all around and borrowing potential troubles from tomorrow (the normal daily dose is quite enough, he wryly observed), rather borrow hope and joy from seeking the Kingdom of God (see Mt 6:33-34). The Christian walk should be a joyful one and the Christian message should be communicated joyfully.
There is plenty in life to smile and laugh about. A forgiven person walks lightly upon the earth and with childlike freshness is quick to smile, quick to see and think the best of others, and easily brought to laughter. He is hopeful of the future, confident of who he is, and able to lift up and bear the burdens of others.
Our lives are made better by genuine faith and authentic humour.
Steve Buckland says, “A glad Jesus messes up many people’s theology.” I would add, “Many people could do with their theology being messed up.” So let us set aside the notion that Jesus was a humourless, grim-faced, dour, unsmiling prude. We serve a joyful savior. He was the Man of sorrows. He is now the Man of gladness. Let’s imitate Him and be the people of joy Jesus made us to be.