Jesus, That’s Not Funny!

by Donald Schell

Jesus’ best-loved parables have all been carefully interpreted over the centuries to mute their startling, unbalancing humor—but I think people love them because some ghostly laughter remains despite the preachers’ efforts to tame it and explain around it.

At St. Gregory’s liturgies we enjoy hearing a skilled reader use voice, intonation, and pause to get hearty laughs from the Gospels or other Bible readings. Our congregation enjoys the ease of natural, spontaneous laughter. But should we be laughing at the Bible? Could its authors actually have hoped their listeners would laugh?

Consider how some lines and moments might produce laughter.

The religious leaders drag before Jesus a woman who has been caught “in the very act” of adultery and demand that he pass judgment. Should she be stoned to death (as a passage in the Mosaic Law demands) or not? Jesus stalls, writing something in the dust. Then he says, “Whoever among you is without sin, cast the first stone.”

If you’re like me, to hear this line you may have to silence the leaden voice of some preacher droning on about Jesus’ sinlessness: “And who but Jesus had a right to stone this woman?” Does calling Jesus sinless have anything at all to do with this story? A theologian might focus on the significance of Jesus’ innocence much later in the Gospels, when he dies as a criminal, but in the world of Gospel stories “sinless” only says that Jesus is self-righteous and seriously no fun.

Here’s the picture the solemn preacher doesn’t want us to see: Jesus (after scribbling in the dust for a while) suddenly exclaims, “Hey, I’ve got an idea: let’s have whoever among us is without sin cast the first stone!” And isn’t that the story (not just something a reader could tease out of it): Jesus’ edgy, provocative satirizing of himself and the woman’s condemners?

Here’s another: When a blind man shouting to get Jesus’ attention won’t be silenced, Jesus has the disciples bring the man over and asks him, “So, what do you want?” If the line is delivered right—friendly and exasperated, just a bit of wise guy to it—it would have to produce laughter from disciples, from bystanders (with heightened expectations), and even from the blind man. Don’t we all know what he wants? Does Jesus expect the poor man to fill out a form? Grovel? Or is he playing with everyone and building tension (and attention) for the sheer exuberance of a miracle, so that the blind man will proclaim, “Never since the beginning of the world has anyone done something like this!”

The impishness is even clearer in the story of the lame man lowered through the roof of a peasant house packed with people, where Jesus is seated on the floor, teaching. Dirt and bugs fall from the thatch and mud roof overhead, then bits of the roof. People keep ignoring the teacher to look up. Finally Jesus has to stop when the sick man’s friends start lowering the guy on a stretcher right into the middle of the teacher’s space. Students scramble out of the way, and while the poor paralyzed man is still dangling there, Jesus glances up at the friends and says to the man, “Your sins are forgiven.”

So this time, no wild question, but out of nowhere an equally wild proclamation. Jesus is free—as a teacher must be—to be intrigued at people’s baffled responses and ready to work with whatever those responses are. He toys with the crowd. Then he heals the man, but he also poses a riddle. Is it easier, he asks, to say, “Your sins are forgiven” or “Rise, take up your bed and walk,” when the room is so crowded that there’s no walking space?

We could play in the same way with Jesus’ best-loved parables: The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Miraculous Harvest, The Talents. They all have been carefully interpreted over the centuries to mute their startling, unbalancing humor—but I think people love them because some ghostly laughter remains despite the preachers’ efforts to tame it and explain around it. What does the possibility of humor mean for Jesus’ teaching?

Holy Fools and Fearful Moralists: The Crooked Path to God

I began writing this piece to explore humor in Biblical texts. But the more I worked on it, the more I was troubled by how many Christian people have concluded that none of this could possibly be a laughing matter. I kept hearing a voice warning me, “That’s not funny!” Talking it over with Carol Hazenfield, who teaches improvisational theater, we began sketching the behavioral rules people count on to guarantee themselves a genuine church experience:

1. Dress up.
2. Slip unobtrusively into “your” seat (with attention to who to sit next to and where to sit).
3. Be quiet.
4. Stay in your seat unless directed by an usher to do otherwise.
5. Don’t laugh.
6. Stay put until the fire is safely out.

How many comic scenes in movies, plays, or literature have counted on the solemnity of church gatherings to force people to try with all their might not to laugh?

Despite the pervasive suspicion that laughter doesn’t belong in church, it’s easier to make a case for Original Silliness than for Original Sin in Genesis 3. There’s the opening scene in the garden, where the hero and heroine are naked. And don’t know it. Yet. And what a great comic villain this piece has—a stand-up serpent, worming his way up to whisper in Eve’s ear sneaky-snaky questions like, “Did God say…?” (We might at least give the author enough credit to imagine the creature hissing his Hebrew.) The domestic comedy continues with Adam hiding from God, Eve making a fashion statement in fig leaves, and the first-ever use of “The Devil made me do it!” Are we supposed to believe that the future of the human race is at stake here? Maybe the real original sin is people telling this wild old tale without laughing.

Religion is just intrinsically humorous from several points of view. What could be more preposterous than humans—who are after all just upright-walking, opposable-thumbed critters with larger-than-average brains and elaborate social systems—trying to relate to an infinite, eternal God who is entirely beyond our intellectual and social scope? And vice versa? Despite God's patient coaching, even despite our reluctant willingness to learn and follow, we typically Don't Quite Get It. Our endless pratfalls are understandably amusing to those outside God’s Fan Club, and even to ourselves.

— Betsy Porter

It is true that there’s a lot in the Bible (and in any religious tradition) that is Not Funny. I’ve offered a few stories, a quotation here and there that someone may have intended to be funny. It’s anybody’s guess whether people would have responded with a bemused smile, a quiet groan and raised eyebrows, or maybe even gasps and belly laughs. I don’t expect I’ve done that for you. The plain fact is that well-argued discourse about humor is about as funny as pornography is erotic. Same problems: too dry, too distant, too static. Humor and Eros require the unpredictability and danger of firsthand encounter with other people.

And our religious landscape has been despoiled by millennia of violence, by dry, serious concern, and by terrible suffering. Who can laugh when people are suffering?

The truthful answer is that anyone can, including sometimes even the people who suffer. But religion’s stock answer seems to be, “That’s not funny.” The news media assume that people want their religion reported in the most serious vein. The only humor we’re likely to hear in stories quoting the Vatican, the Rev. Fred Phelps, the Taliban, the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel, or mosque-burning Muslims in India might be the reporter’s ridicule—and we can expect this to be muted and cautious because the reporter knows that serious religion can turn deadly. When Salman Rushdie created a devout, wildly comic novel of how an ordinary guy (like Mohammed) might hear the voice of God, seriously religious people got angry enough to kill him. Are we afraid that laughter may fracture our fragile sense of what’s sacred?

Apart from old jokes about priests and rabbis playing golf—that is, apart from jokes about religion—is religion ever intentionally funny? It may help to step out of our own culture. Native American tradition uses the trickster and boaster stories of Coyote and Raven to teach wisdom. Chinese Buddhism takes this strain to the level of hair-raising, outrageous epic with the cycle of Monkey tales (about Monkey and his friends journeying back to India to get old Buddhist scriptures).

Sufi Islam is noted for its many comic teaching stories using fools as teachers. M. R. Ritley points us to the ancient teaching stories of Hashad the fool, memorized for generations, in which Hashad’s folly guides us on a path to God. His guidance is blundering, wrongheaded, overly enthusiastic, nave, and calculating, but ultimately it is a path to God. In a strand of Sufi teaching with a slightly different humor, Idries Shah compiled The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, another foolish teacher showing a path to God.

Like Christianity, Islam can certainly be dead serious, and both Christian and Muslim propagandists prefer compliant subjects. Straight-talking moralists don’t trust curves. Fundamentalists generally like simple, straight answers and plenty of covering for anything that might infer sexuality—or so I surmise from the Taliban, who banned kites and swathed women in a lot more than fig leaves.

So what’s the difference between a Sufi teacher and a Muslim “martyr” who detonates a bomb in a crowd of strangers? I don’t know the punch line to that one, but I do know that in Islam, as in Christianity, the mystical and teaching traditions love humor and sexual imagery for divine love. Where there is passion and longing for God, humor shows up in teaching. Great teachers love passionate learners. And in the teaching (as contrasted with the moralizing) of both faiths, bravery takes a gentler, more compassionate form. (See the story of St. Hugh, below.)

We’re talking about humor that strips us of our certainties, reveals folly, and leaves us enough off balance that we might fall into the arms of God. Because piety falls easily into folly (is religion terminally reverent?), humor is inescapably irreverent. Humor relativizes. Humor uses language to get beyond language. Humor encourages freedom. Humor inevitably addresses some boundary fear; that is, it transgresses boundaries.

One of my mantras is: “Jesus warn’t no prissy boy.” It appeals to my off-the-wall sense of humor, and it reminds me both that he likes off-the-wall people like me and that I don't have to be “nice” for him.

— Lynn Park

Humor can create an autonomous sense of group solidarity, seizing the authority to break boundaries and include “inappropriate” members in the group. Powerful leaders with simple answers don’t like such freedom or irreverence. Authoritarian leaders treasure group solidarity only on precisely their terms.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, takes us to fresh thoughts on humor in an unexpected place: the article on “Remorse” in his book Lost Icons.

Rediscovering remorse has a lot to do with the capacity of a culture to leave room for the non-heroic, to celebrate the vulnerable and even the comic.

Williams asks us to rediscover remorse so we can get to celebrating the vulnerable and the comic. Comedy isn’t our way out of suffering, it’s a human, non-heroic way through it.

[C]omedy is...acknowledging and dramatizing human involvement in a world [barely] controlled by human planning [where]... the wills and desires of others frustrate the tyrannies of any single human ego....What makes this comic rather than tragic is that characters survive; they are not wounded to death, mortally diminished....the audience is faced with a world in which the failure of control is amenable to being thought and imagined without paralyzing terror.

Can paralyzing terror be funny?

[C]omedy pushes hardest at its boundaries...where such terror is most audaciously evoked. And perhaps at those boundaries comedy is most powerful, because it doesn’t pretend that the risks are small or that the terror is a silly mistake... [because] comedy intimates finally that the uncontrollable environment can be the source of deliverance as much as of damnation....

“Deliverance as much as damnation”: how’s that for an ambiguity to make a fundamentalist scream? And no, the risks aren’t small; look at the ones Jesus took.

[I]f it damns dramatic terms, [it is] because we choose the distinctive hell of placing our own wills at the centre of things....Comedy is thus deeply inimical to fascism—though it is also deeply inimical to most kinds of planned reform....

Again we return to Jesus: a popular, storytelling teacher caught between the primordial fascism of the Roman Empire and the planned reform of the rabbinic Pharisees.

Literalism’s Unkindest Cut

Religious fundamentalists, like Williams’s fascists, mistrust irreverence. Humor can’t resist it. Under the banner of literalism, fundamentalists want to make absolutely certain that people ask the right questions and want each question to have one and only one correct answer. But the knowledge of God grows by allusion and metaphor, not literal certainties, just as our language grows. And knowledge of God—like language itself—may contain such wildness of meaning that even the clearest assertion, with a tiny shift of tone, can imply its own contradiction. So when humor resists a one-to-one, word-to-meaning correspondence, it is imitating life. And when humor reigns, literalism always feels mocked.

Life is full of traps for literalism. One emerges in a Buddhist story dramatizing the teaching that “doctrine is only a finger pointing at the moon.” I confess that the first time I heard this, I found it appalling, because respectful interreligious literalism had snagged me. I had a near-perfect “That’s not funny” experience because I was treating the story with reverence.

A teacher pointed his finger at the moon and asked his student, “What did I just do?” The enlightened answer the teacher hoped to hear, of course, was, “You’ve pointed your finger at the moon.” Had the student given the “right” answer, the teacher could have asked, “But is it the moon?” and both would have enjoyed getting it right.

What the student did, however, was take the teacher’s pointing pose, imitating gesture for gesture everything the teacher had done. Literally. So the brilliant (or exasperated?) teacher picked up a sword and whacked off the student’s finger.

I first heard this story as a neutral (humorless) narrative of radical teaching, and my first thought was that the teacher, whom we were apparently supposed to admire, was unimaginably cruel. And I wondered whether the student had bled to death.

Once I quit wondering how a good teacher could do such harm to his student, I could begin to watch the story work. I considered that Buddhists with missing index fingers are rare. Eventually I noticed the student’s brilliant move beyond language. Then I began to wonder at teachers who know exactly what they want to hear. And I’ve empathized with teachers seeking desperate means to get students or other listeners beyond their canny efforts to second-guess the right answer.

Why did I insist on being such a pious literalist in someone else’s tradition? What stopped me from hearing this as an outrageous, over-the-top teaching story? Just like the teacher, I fell into the trap of doctrine. So this frightening old Buddhist lesson offers enlightenment and joy—if we’ll take it for what it is: an absurd, sympathetic story about a teacher who, trying to free his student from literalism, reveals himself as the one more caught in doctrinal tyranny. I got stuck on the event and the imagined cruelty of the teacher, but both blocks were my own creation. Piety and literalism are bent arthritic fingers pointing at the moon and not even pointing straight. Perhaps they are unconscious strategies to protect us from the disorientation of actual learning.

The teacher we’re actually listening to isn’t someone with a sword in his hand—that sword-bearer is just a finger pointing at the moon. The teacher is the storyteller. Now when I hear that story, my fingers tingle with life and with gratitude that the storyteller lets me see how far short of the moon I am. I’m glad for my fingers but also do hear that they can point to the moon, not reach it.

Jesus’ Finger, Jesus’ Sword

In the Gospels, Jesus the teacher, like the Buddhist storyteller, defies expectations again and again. Sometimes he’s even the butt of his own jokes—as when he curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit. His disciples have to tell him (their teacher, who told them, “You know how to read the seasons”) that it’s not the season for figs. But more often his actions and parables in the Gospels are calculated to produce wide-eyed gasps and nervous laughter—or even, if we’ll go the whole way with him, startled, amazed, delighted laughter.

“If your eye offend you, pluck it out!” This saying of Jesus’ is the cryptic source of a very wise joke: “Never trust a two-eyed fundamentalist.” Literalists see plenty to take offense at, but this particular saying, they assure us, is metaphorical. In the joke, however, humor’s keen nose has caught the rotting whiff of Literalist Authority proclaiming just which parts of our texts are literal and which are not. Humor can’t pass up those embarrassing moments when literalism applies its principles and values selectively. Humorless inconsistency is the work of a comedic straight man, and humor will playfully deliver the punch line, stripping away the dishonesty.

“If your eye offend you, pluck it out!” No matter how much scholarly criticism we bring to bear, we seem intent on explaining why Jesus actually would want to put out the eye and why that’s best for all concerned. Even metaphorically it feels wrong: so we’re to put our eye out only figuratively? I think Jesus is pointing to something quite different from either the usual literal or metaphorical interpretations.

Sooner or later, aren’t we all offended by something we see? Whose eyes are never drawn to voyeurism, lurid curiosity, or satisfied witness of the sufferings of others? So what are we supposed to do with our offense: close our wicked eyes?

Metaphor tries to spiritualize the irony of the saying: “Jesus is just using a harsh image to warn us that we should cut ourselves off from all offensive seeing.” Is Jesus so inept a preacher as to provide this gut-wrenching image just so we can explain it away? Isn’t the saying rhetorically and pedagogically better as an ironic warning against our foolish efforts to insulate ourselves, to retreat into a bubble of dishonest piety from the inevitable offense of life?

Forgive, O Lord, the little jokes I play on Thee,
And I’ll forgive the great big one you played on me.

— Robert Frost
(with thanks to
John Golenski)

If we imagine Jesus delivering the words with a wicked grin, suddenly they stop the mind. Perhaps we recall that our teacher Jesus also taught, “Judge not.” Maybe we remember that he lamented so many taking offense in him. Could he be suggesting that pretensions of spiritual purity are what’s really offensive? Can we live gratefully without the anxious struggle to be spiritual? Could we see just let our eyes see life as they fall on it? Maybe what we are literally to “pluck out” is our impatient eagerness to take offense.

With so many hints that Jesus’ humor and daring playfulness shapes his stories and actions, I began to imagine the actor Roberto Benigni delivering various lines in the Gospels in the manically joyful way he plays the condemned Jew in the film Life Is Beautiful. He faces the fascist powers in a death camp and, by playing the clowning idiot, saves his son’s life. Humor doesn’t mean that nothing’s at stake. Imagining Begnini in the role of Jesus brought to life in a new way Jesus’ feasts with sinners and his “cleansing” of the Temple. I loved the idea of watching Benigni/Jesus overturn the tables of money and set the animals loose. Even with life-and-death stakes, Jesus needn’t be an angry pedant. We can read him as a real teacher, taking us places with laughter where we’d otherwise be afraid to go.

The Teachable Moment Hangs by a Thread

Here’s an old story about St. Hugh of Lincoln, a great English saint (whom we need to imagine speaking with a French accent, because he grew up in France).

As penance for Henry II’s complicity in the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, the Pope ordered the king to build and endow a new Carthusian monastery. To see that the job was done right, a monk named Hugh was sent from La Grande Chartreuse to be abbot. Hugh was known for his austerity, integrity, intelligence, and total lack of interest in rank or advancement. He took the assignment in England because his own abbot had orders from Rome and insisted.

When King Henry met Hugh, he was relieved to learn that the latter had a droll, iconoclastic wit. Henry saw immediately that Hugh wouldn’t flatter him, and they struck up a friendship, which, along with Hugh’s wit, misled the king into thinking he was dealing with a worldly pragmatist like himself.

Henry got a nasty surprise when he proudly escorted the monk to the pledged site of the new monastery. Hugh didn’t seem as pleased with progress as the king had hoped. What he saw was royal soldiers dragging peasants from their huts so royal demolition workers could level everything. Back at court, Hugh explained to the king (in front of all the nobles) that building a monastery on land the king had legally and forcibly “reclaimed” from those squatting peasants was no penance at all. Then Hugh announced that he would select a suitable piece of royal land for the new, better village the king would build for the displaced peasants.

Enraged, the king told Hugh he would do no such thing. Hugh replied quietly that if the king didn’t comply, he’d stop the monastery construction and return to La Grande Chartreuse, dispatching a messenger to Rome with news of how the king had tried to lay his penance on the backs of the poor. Then he turned his back on the king and walked out of court.

“Don’t think you can leave here like that,” Henry shouted. “I’m ordering you out of my presence. You are banished from court.”

Henry was in a state. He couldn’t give in to this monk, but he feared anything that could lead to another debacle with Rome. Briefly he tried a waiting game, but Hugh had trumped him, so the king grandly announced that he was rescinding the banishment and ordering Hugh to appear.

The nobles liked Hugh and knew they could trust him—a luxury in the dangerous intrigue of court life. They particularly liked it that Hugh could make the king laugh. So they were ready to stand and greet him at his return.

When Hugh was announced, Henry didn’t even look up. He sat on his throne, intently mending a hunting glove. Anxiously the nobles watched Hugh walk the length of the great room through deathly silence. No one dared even offer him an acknowledgment. Hugh walked straight up to the king and stood there. Henry continued to stitch the glove. Finally Hugh turned so that all could hear and in his clear, strong, preaching voice said, “I see that in my absence Your Majesty has returned to family trade of the Bastard of Falaise?”

William the Conqueror, Henry’s ancestor, was known in France as William the Bastard, because his father, the Duke of Normandy, had sired his famous offspring on a common glove maker whom he never married. By paying exaggerated attention to work his huntsman should have done for him, Henry meant to put Hugh in his place. But Hugh countered with that harsh French word for the king’s lineage.

How would the king respond to this insult? Had Hugh forgotten that the king’s anger could turn deadly? Tension deepened as the silence wore on. Then in an explosion of energy, Henry threw aside the glove, leaped to his feet, and to everyone’s relief (probably including his own) threw his arms around Hugh and shouted, “I’ve missed you, Hugh. Are you ready to oversee the building of your monastery and the new village?” A generation later, people still told the story and recalled how no one at court could stop laughing.

Humor and the Teacher

Hugh showed the courage of a great teacher. Like Jesus at the temple and with his subversive feasts, he was risking his life to do it. Henry’s other friend and priest, Thomas Becket, had made the king laugh too—and when Becket had stood up to him, Henry had him killed.

Clearly, Hugh saw teaching as the work he’d been sent to do—teaching a self-indulgent, spoiled king and his nobles to practice justice and compassion for the poor, teaching the king to keep his word, guiding a monarch from vanity to genuine honor.

And Hugh the teacher brings us to the real question—which is not whether there’s humor in the Bible. The Bible is a teaching book written by and about teachers. How could anyone ever have imagined it was devoid of humor? Have you ever known a really great teacher with no sense of humor, no ability to laugh at her/himself, no willingness to use humor to take people where serious discourse wouldn’t take them? When we think of the teachers we have loved, their particular sense of humor comes to mind quickly. Some great teachers are known for gentle, self-deprecating humor. Some use it to puncture pomposity and cant, some to shake loose their students’ thinking.

Hugh’s dangerous joke reminded the king, the court, and all of us hearing it eight hundred years later of our ordinary, shared humanity. It made solidarity with other people where pride and personal interest were denying them that solidarity. The only thing riskier than telling such a joke might be turning away from humor. So the real question is: with so much at stake—life, death, salvation itself—is there any salvation without laughter?

Donald Schell is rector at St. Gregory's Church and the author of (with Maria Schell) My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago. His essay “Rending the Veil” (about his experience coordinating the design and construction of St. Gregory’s, which won the AIA award for Best Religious Building of the Year in 1996) was published in Searching for Sacred Space, Essays on Architecture and Liturgical Design in the Episcopal Church. Donald is also an Aikido black belt and teacher.

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