Through the years, I’ve seen a lot of Christians look down on others for their sense of humor, particularly when it is expressed in homily or in any other “spiritual” context. I am not sure how that works, since I believe that all of life is holy. It’s hard to imagine Jesus telling a joke. Yet humor is distinctly human. And Jesus was fully human.
To investigate the concept of Jesus and humor further, I am reading an older book by Elton Trueblood called, The Humor of Christ (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1964). At first, I was skeptical of what Trueblood might say concerning Jesus’ humor, but he does an excellent job of explaining humor and then demonstrating it. Trueblood begins by defining humor and illustrating it from literature in general.
You may think it strange that he’d have to explain humor, but if you’ve ever been in a different cultural situation, you know that without familiarity with that culture, you need an interpreter just to explain the jokes. For example, someone may tell the joke about Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton getting to heaven standing before God. He goes on and tell you how God asked each of them what they believed. Gore said he believed in being a good steward of the earth, and thus crusaded against global warming. God said, “Sit on my right hand.” Bill said he believe in grace, and trusted that God would forgive him for his sins. God said, “Sit on my left hand.” Hillary said, “I believe you’re in my chair.” Poor theology aside, without familiarity with the cultural issues (Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth; Bill’s sin with Monica; and Hillary’s ambitious nature), this joke would be lost. Two-thousand years from now, no one will get it. That’s why Trueblood takes time to teach his reader what humor is and how it is presented in Jesus’ words.
In the midst of this, Trueblood makes this observation:
It is important to understand that the evident purpose in Christ’s humor is to clarify and increase understanding rather than to hurt. Perhaps some hurt is inevitable, especially when, as we shall see more fully in Chapter IV, human pride is rendered ridiculous, but the clear aim is something other than harm. Irony, which we shall consider in Chapter III, sometimes moves over into sarcasm, but the sarcastic thrust is not the major actor. Most of Christ’s humor belongs to what Meridith calls, “The laughter of comedy.” It is not satire which “is a blow in the back or the face,” but “is impersonal and of unrivaled politeness, nearer a smile — often no more than a smile.” The satirist may work on a “storage of bile,” but this seems utterly absent in the humor preserve in the Gospels. The attack may be strong when the object is the Pharisaic spirit, but it is not an attack upon an individual Pharisee. (Trueblood, p. 51).
I had a buddy who hated puns. As I came to know him more, I realized that because he was such a logical and literal thinker that puns often went over his head. When I met his siblings, I saw that they tended to chuckle at his inability to catch these little jokes. His disdain for puns was not because he felt they were stupid, but because he had, himself, been hurt emotionally by his own family in this area.
Is it possible that some people object to humor in a “spiritual context” because of the pain they have experienced in the past. Are they simply trying to keep their spiritual life free from such pain? If this is the case, we might be tempted to place a forced sobriety on church gatherings.
Nah. We can’t do that.
The Bible reminds us that humor is downright medicinal (Proverbs 17:22). And humor is such a powerful communication tool that Jesus himself employed it in regularly — even when he preached. To abandon it would be a disservice to the Message and the masses who need to hear it.
I guess that humor, like any other powerful tool, needs to be used carefully. You can be sure that’s what Jesus did.