A TCA reader once asked: "Do we have any examples of humor in the Bible? Did Jesus have a sense of humor? Or what about the saints? When I look at pictures of them, especially those with stern or otherworldly faces, I sometimes wonder."
The answer to all these questions, it seems to me, is an enthusiastic yes. Let's take the questions one at a time, and allow them to help us examine the relations between humor and faith.
Anyone who travels internationally, or who has friends from various countries, eventually discovers that what one culture finds hilarious may leave another totally cold.
Americans, for example, often find jokes told by Germans to be too understated, too subtle. Germans, on the other hand, often fail to appreciate American slapstick humor.
For this reason, the humor of the ancient Near Eastern cultures in which the biblical books were written may not leave us in stitches. But if we understand it, it should at least crack a smile on our 21st-century Western faces.
A close reading of Scripture suggests that these ancient texts sometimes confront us with an incongruity -- something that is inappropriate or out of place, something that doesn't fit the way it should. And those who have studied what makes us laugh agree: Such incongruity is a characteristic that's fundamental to most forms of humor.
Irony and hyperbole (exaggeration) are especially prominent aspects of this kind of humor in the Bible.
For example, we may not laugh aloud when we read the story in the Book of Genesis about how Abraham bargained with God to spare the city of Sodom (see Gn 18:17-33), but the humorous incongruity of the situation is unmistakable.
Here we find the almighty Creator of the universe haggling with a mere mortal, as if they were a couple of street-savvy merchants in a roadside bazaar. Sly old Abe keeps upping the ante, and in the end, the mere mortal walks away with the bargain!
Or think of the scene in the Book of Numbers where the pagan prophet Balaam receives a divine rebuke from his pack animal (see Nm 22:21-35).
Not only is there an element of slapstick here when the donkey starts talking; the story is also full of laughable irony: The normally dumb critter speaks like a man, while the man, in turn, acts stubbornly asinine!
This kind of humor is healthy and even healing when we allow it to remind us that sometimes we too act like Abraham or Balaam. Rather than simply laughing at them, we learn to laugh at ourselves.
It strips us of our pretenses and cleanses us of our pride. It helps us see ourselves more clearly.
Jesus and Humor
Now, the second question: Did Jesus have a sense of humor?
Who can imagine that Our Lord never laughed and played, though the Gospels never talk about it? After all, both laughter and play are human universals.
If we're convinced that the Church teaches truly when she teaches that Christ was fully human -- He was like us in all things except sin -- then how could we doubt that He engaged in these most human of activities?
The Gospel writers apparently had their own reasons for not speaking explicitly of Jesus' smiles and laughter. But if we look carefully, we can see Our Lord's mirth in some of His sayings they have reported, though it's no doubt a subtle humor.
In fact, the humor of Jesus provides the classic example of how laughter can uncover pretense or sham, thus cleansing our vision of the world and of ourselves.
Most of His barbs were directed at Pharisees and other religious leaders who had deceived themselves into thinking that they had earned themselves a ticket to the throne of heaven. If any of them were ever able, by God's grace, to let Christ's humor have its intended effect, then no doubt they discovered through His words how inverted their perceptions truly were.
Jesus' jests about the hypocrites of His day focus on the incongruity of their self-righteousness and their pride. The humor appears most sharply when we try to imagine such people literally taking part in the activities Our Lord described.
The image of a blind man leading another blind man, and both falling into a ditch (see Lk 6:39), reminds us of bumbling episodes from slapstick television comedies -- "The Three Stooges," for example, come to mind.
A similar picture is evoked by His words about the hypocrites who blow loud trumpets to announce the jingling of their little pennies in the collection plate (see Mt 6:2-4).
Then there's Mark 4:21, where Jesus speaks of folks trying to hide their lamps under a bed. When you keep in mind that the lamps had open flames, and the beds were probably straw, then you get a comic scene in which a sleepy dullard wakes up to the smell of something burning, only to realize that it's his own pajamas!
Or how about Our Lord's words in Matthew 23:25-26, which calls to mind images of primly dressed diners eating from spotless dishes -- filled with rotting garbage!
Surely we can laugh at the absurdity of a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle (see Mt 19:23-24), of an eye doctor busy using tweezers on a patient while a log is sticking out of his own eye (7:3-4), of a gnat-free Pharisee with a camel's hoof stuck between his teeth (23:24).
We laugh, but the laughter is redemptive (as Jesus intended it to be) only when we place ourselves alongside the Pharisees and see our own pretensions made the butt of Our Lord's jokes.
To be a corrective for vision, humor must go beyond mere scorn of another person's shortcomings to a recognition of our common predicament.
When it does, it prods us to re-examine ourselves, convicts us of our need for salvation, and allows us to seek God's rescue from ourselves, to cultivate hope that He can transform us and heal the incongruities.
When it doesn't do these things -- when, instead, our humor is itself self-righteous, and leads us to mock or look down on others -- then humor only indulges the vice of presumption.
A Gospel of Humor
All this leads us to a broader and deeper issue: Is there a way in which the Gospel itself could be said to have a humorous aspect?
The comical remarks of Our Lord, though certainly significant in themselves, point beyond themselves to a more profound reality. In a sense, the entire Gospel is permeated with the liberating vision of humor.
The human dilemma is, after all, a paradox, an incongruity resulting from the Fall. As the psalmist says, we are mortals who flourish and fade like the grass (see Ps 103:15). Nevertheless, as Ecclesiastes ob-serves, we have a sense of eternity planted in our hearts that makes us hope for immortality (3:11).
As St. Paul told the Romans, we have the universal moral law written on our hearts (see Rom 2:14-15). Yet we all sin and fall short of even our own moral standards, not to say the glory of God (3:23).
In short, we crawl on earth, but we hope for heaven. So how do we reconcile these terrible contradictions of our existence?
The resolution of the paradox comes in the good news that God is God and we are beloved dust.
If we're willing to listen, then far above the mud in which we wallow, from beyond the skies for which we reach, we'll hear a cosmic tumult. And though it comes to shake the earth like thunder, it won't be thunder. It will be the sound of laughter.
From His throne, the Lord of the galaxies looks down at the earth. There, He beholds the specks of dust claiming lordship of their lives and of the earth itself. Not surprisingly, the absurdity of our pretense breaks the divine Countenance into mirth, and as the psalmist tells us, "The One enthroned in heaven laughs" (Ps 2:4).
If we're willing to lay aside our pretenses, that heavenly laughter can cleanse us and awaken us to repentance. It will quake our faulty foundations, tumble us from lofty and dangerous places, and rip away our masks.
In His great faithfulness, Our Lord follows His chastening with a promise of redemption.
In the depths of our repentance, when we have at last realized that we cannot save ourselves, we hear again the sound of laughter. No blast like thunder comes this time, but rather the still, small voice of God comes gently laughing. And to our amazement, it's the crystal laughter of a Child.
A Child! Could it possibly be that God himself should crawl upon His footstool and cry to be fed? Priests, we had expected; prophets, we had anticipated; but who would have thought that God himself would come in the flesh?
The deepest and broadest "joke" of history -- the Great Incongruity of all the ages -- grips us in awesome wonder. And we can only laugh with delight at the utter unpredictability of God.
The Joke Continues
Yet the surprise of the Incarnation has much more humor in store, for it blossoms into a Gospel of what seems to be scandalous inappropriateness. The joke has just begun!
The King of Kings is born in a stable. The Holy One of Israel is befriended by prostitutes. The Lord of Lords is acclaimed as He rides on a dusty old donkey.
He shocks the self-righteous people of His day with His startling behavior, proving what St. Paul would later observe:
"Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom" (1 Cor 1:20,25).
Of course, the mighty and the proud may have scoffed at the scandal of the Gospel. But the joke was on them.
For the Son of God has come to crash the world's pompous masquerade ball -- and His prank won't be complete until He's stolen away every last one of our disguises. TCA
Could the saints be funny?
Do we need further evidence that the life of Christ had its humor? If so, then we need only look at those who, down through the ages, have imitated Him most closely: the saints.
In their lives, we fill out the portrait, so to speak, of divine life. The kinds of things Jesus did that the four Evangelists passed over in silence we can find echoed in the more detailed accounts of the saints' biographers. And despite so many long-faced saint portraits, we do find many times in their lives a rollicking sense of humor.
Examples abound. From the early centuries of the Church, we might recall the martyr St. Lawrence. Because he refused to renounce his faith in Christ, Roman imperial officials ordered him to be roasted alive, slowly, on a red-hot griddle. At one point as he roasted, he reportedly said to his torturers: "You can turn me over now. I'm done on this side!"
Or what about the great 16th-century mystical writer and reformer St. Teresa of Avila? What a quick wit shines through her writings. One day, when she was on her way to perform her administrative duties at one of the religious communities she supervised, the donkey she was riding on stumbled as he forded a stream. She was thrown into the muddy water.
As she picked herself up and wiped off the mud, she was heard to say with a sigh, "Lord, if this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them!"
Some of the saints, such as St. Thomas More, delighted in playing practical jokes. Thomas once told, for example, of how he "medicated" the food of distinguished guests at his table just for fun. With what kind of surprises he "medicated" the food, we can only speculate with glee. Perhaps hot pepper -- or some kind of purgative?
Like St. Lawrence, even in the face of a martyr's death, Thomas clowned around with his executioners.
Weary and stumbling from long ill-treatment, and with his hands tied behind his back, he feared that he might not be able to negotiate the shaky steps up to the scaffold to be beheaded. So he turned to the lieutenant beside him and quipped, "I pray you, see me safely up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself!"
Once he had laid his head on the block, he asked the executioner to wait while he moved aside his beard, which had grown long and scraggly during his imprisonment.
After all, he observed dryly, his beard had never committed any treason!
Is it any wonder that this man's household included a live-in professional jester and a pet monkey?
Paul Thigpen, Ph.D., is editor of The Catholic Answer and professor of Sacred Theology at Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville, Ga.