Let’s start with a comical ophthalmological short case from Jesus’ teaching archives! The patient with the unilateral red eye is lying on the bed, anaesthetic drops instilled, waiting for the procedure. The corneal foreign body is hard to see without magnification. When the doctor approaches, the patient is horrified. “Doctor, don’t you think you should get rid of the large piece of wood in your own eye, before you try to remove my little speck?!” Jesus told a story something like this to teach a powerful lesson with a memorable image. The exaggerated contrast between the speck and the “hunk of wood’ is ridiculous and hilarious. (Matt 7:3-5) It seems typical of his teaching style..
Jesus also used humorous stories in public debate to criticise the religious leaders, similar to the way that our political cartoonists condemn public figures – with the skilled use of comical but incisive illustrations. Some of his most powerful images are recorded in Matthew Chapter 23, where Jesus condemns the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Jesus says they do not practice what they preach. They regulate the minor details of life, including tithing their kitchen herbs! But importantly, they have neglected the big issues, like justice, mercy and integrity. Jesus then gives two powerful pictures; they are like blind guides. Now that’s a joke!
The next image is to my mind the funniest of them all. “You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” In our culture he might have said it this way; “You hunt down a flea and ignore the elephant in the room!” (We are at risk of finding the impact of these verses blunted by our familiarity with the text.) (Matt 23:23-24)
Did Jesus laugh? For the disciples, this would have been an easy question to answer. They had responded to the call of the itinerant teacher and Rabbi. They were apprenticed to him full time for three years, and shared all aspects of communal life with him, day and night. They knew very well the sense of humour that we glimpse only briefly in his reported teaching. They saw him heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, calm the storm, feed huge crowds, and forgive sins. His glory was revealed to some of them on the Mount of Transfiguration. As time went on, they continually asked themselves the question, “What sort of man is this?”
They followed a man, and came to understand that he was divine! And after the resurrection, they spent their lives spreading his message, and left us records of his life.
For us the process goes in reverse. We live in a different age, in a different culture. We speak a different language. We look back through the lens of twenty centuries of Church history, with a well-developed theology of who Jesus is. We worship him as the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. We look forward to him being universally acknowledged as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. As we take communion, we remember him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, (Jn 1:29) and the Man of Sorrows, familiar with grief. (Isaiah 53:3) We acknowledge him as “the exact representation of God’s being.” (Heb 1:3) From this vantage point then we are tempted to forget that “he shared our humanity, and was made like us in every way.” (Heb 2:14-18) We understand that “Jesus wept.” (Jn 11:32-36) We may struggle to find room for the picture of a fully human Jesus laughing.
Is it possible for us to know what Jesus actually said and did? And whether he did laugh? As we seek to answer these questions, we are in our own way joining the “search for the historical Jesus.”
Many voices suggest that it is not possible to know what Jesus said, or how he lived. However, the Gospels were written by contemporaries of Jesus, based on the accounts of eye-witnesses. I was helped in my understanding of the history of the Gospels by conversations with a patient of mine. She wrote the story of her brother-in-law who was killed in the Vietnam War. She had never met him, but met the soldiers who had served with him, and survived the ambush that took his life. As she wrote his story, I saw parallels with the work of Luke, collating the stories of eye witnesses to the life of Jesus. I realized that forty years is an appropriate time to be writing stories of historical events; enough time to understand their significance, yet within the living memory of those who were there. (I have written about this in “Forty years on.” http://whatdidjesussay.com/forty-years-on/ .)
We expect biographies to concentrate on the more serious and significant events of people’s lives, rather than the everyday. I believe, however, that there are clues in the Gospels regarding Jesus’ humanity. These can help us gain a more realistic concept of the sort of spirituality to which he calls us.
Jesus was not raised in the temple from infancy, as Samuel was. He was not raised in the family of a priest, as was his cousin John the Baptist. He did not study at a theological college, but he learned the Hebrew scriptures in the home, the local synagogue, and the regular festival visits to the temple at Jerusalem. He joined in the regular community events of weddings and funerals, rejoicing with those who rejoiced, and mourning with those who mourned (as Paul later commended us to do. Rom 12:15) Thus, he learned the wisdom of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3;
There is a time for everything, and a season for everything under the sun….
A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. (Eccl 3:1-8)
After he began his public career at age 30, he preached in the synagogue in his hometown. The people said, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? We know him, his mother, his brothers and his sisters.” He was known as the boy who grew up among them, trained as a carpenter, and was the head of the family when his father died, running the business, and providing for his mother and his younger siblings. His real-life experience is shown in the down-to-earth illustrations he used. These gave his teaching credibility and moral authority, in contrast to the religious teachers. “The large crowd listened to him with delight!” Mark 12:37
When people brought children to be blessed by Jesus his disciples thought he was too busy, or too important, to have time for children. But Jesus rebuked them, saying “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mk 10:13-16) Children love to laugh, and adults find pleasure in making children laugh. Jesus knew! He was the big brother in a large family.
Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, lived an austere, severe lifestyle. He made his home in the desert, living on locusts and wild honey. His dress was quite strange. Jesus made a joke about John’s clothing. “Did you go into the desert to see the latest fashions? No, you would go to the king’s palace for that!” (Matthew 11:7-8) Jesus honoured John as among the greatest, and the message Jesus proclaimed was the same as John’s; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Mt 3:1-2; 4:17) At the same time, Jesus contrasted his own lifestyle with John’s. John restricted his diet, strictly avoided alcohol all his life, and taught his disciples to fast. People thought he was crazy! In contrast, Jesus enjoyed celebrations, and made friends with the socially unacceptable. He complained that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! (Matt 11:18, 19) In the first of the miracles recorded by John, Jesus turned water into finest quality wine when the drinks ran out at the wedding in Cana, (John 2:1-11) and according to his teaching, one of his favourite images of God’s kingdom was of a royal wedding celebration. (Matthew 22:1-14) Nobody accused Jesus of being a humourless wowser, or a colourless, puritanical killjoy.
Jesus called his disciples to serious discipleship. He told them they must carry their cross, and he led by example. When Jesus announced his plan to return to Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem, where he had so recently escaped stoning, Thomas understood the danger. Yet he said, “Let us go with him, that we may also die with him.” (Jn 11:6-16) We might observe that such costly obedience seems hardly a laughing matter!
In December 2018, Pastor Wang Yi, of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China was arrested after publicly refusing to acknowledge the Chinese Communist Party as having ultimate authority over the church. In his prepared statement, My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience, , released after his arrest, he declares his willingness to lay down his life for his allegiance to Jesus.
In a similar confrontation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was among the members of the Confessing Church who in 1935 resisted Hitler’s attempts to bring the German Protestant church under state control, and to change Christian doctrine to align with Nazi dogma. He headed an underground seminary at Finkenwalde. He was later imprisoned, and eventually hanged. In his book, Life Together, he describes how those students who chose to accept the risk of joining the illegal seminary, enjoyed an unexpected sense of light-hearted life together, with much laughter.
This reflects Jesus’ words, “Whoever loses his life for me shall find it.” (Mt 16:25) Having already laid down their lives, they were free to live “care-lessly”, (in the best sense of the word!) This paradox of freedom in costly obedience is reflected in Augustine’s prayer.
so to know Thee, that we might fully love Thee,
so to love Thee that we may fully serve Thee,
whom to serve is perfect freedom,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen
In my own journey of faith, a university student leader who was a model of practical Christianity was a huge influence in my life. He challenged us to commit to serious, disciplined, intentional study of the Scriptures, for the purpose of obeying it! He was also one of the funniest men I knew. He reminded me of Jesus.
Jesus called out the leadership of the Pharisees. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Mt 23:4) Jesus’ leadership is not like that! He came to give life in all its fullness. (Jn 10:10) Jesus calls to the weary and burdened and offers rest to those willing to take on his yoke. He says, “I am gentle, and humble. My yoke is suitable for you, and my load is not too heavy for you.” (Mt 11: 28-30)
As I review the question, “Did Jesus laugh?”, I am attracted to him afresh, and inspired to renew my allegiance to the One who shares my humanity. I still hear his call to a robust, wholesome, “whole of life” commitment, and claim his promise that he will never leave me.