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Other Articles By Louie Crew:
Loving Those on the Religious Right
Loving someone does not mean that we expect to convert them. We know that lesson full well when others put our conversion to their point of view as a condition for their loving us; but the same goes for us: we are called by Christ to love unconditionally.
Let Us Now Praise Caustic Christians
Let us now praise caustic Christians,
the champions of justice in all generations,
through whom God has restored the flow of mercy.
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Did Jesus Laugh?
MR. ZUSS: God
never laughs! In the whole Bible!
-- J. B.
Zuss is patently wrong. The Hebrew scriptures record the laughter of God no fewer
than seven times on at least six occasions.Consistently it is indignant laughter
them to scorn") at those who are evil -- at Sennacherib of Assyria (2 Kings 19:21;
Isaiah 37:22), at unrepentant sinners (Proverbs 1: 26), at those plotting against
the just (Psalms
37:13), or at the vain kings of the earth (Psalm 2:4). Admittedly, the spectacle
of the Almighty laughing at lesser creations hardly strikes some of us mortals
as comic. Like Job,
we cynically see ourselves as righteous victims of a supernatural joke, believing
"mocks at the calamity of the innocent" (Job 9:23).Yet in the divine comedy it
is our own
posturing of innocence and righteousness that is ludicrous.
Zuss's error is but a symptom of a widespread theological aberration: he misconceives
God as a humorless taskmaster out of touch with the wells of good nature and
It is perverse to receive the Gospel as bad news, as a revelation of man's evil
rather than a
celebration of God's good. Those who search to support this misconception
trouble finding support, particularly in the Hebrew scriptures." Even
in laughter the heart
is sad, and the end of joy is grief" (Proverbs 14:13). "I said of
laughter, 'It is mad,' and
of pleasure, 'What use is it?'" (Ecclesiastes 2:2). "Sorrow
is better than laughter, for
by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad." (Ecclesiastes 7:3). In
the Christian scriptures they have to dig harder, but anyone can find a sad-faced
Jesus if the mind is set
to do so. After all, every schoolboy knows the shortest verse of the
Bible; and with it, the hard of heart, as if by some form of hocus pocus, can
nullify or diminish Jesus' overarching
mission of grace, joy and redemption.
Some modern Christians have trouble hearing the laughter of Jesus because the
religious Establishment frequently portrays Jesus in the service of stern authoritarianism.
authoritarian Jesus constrasts starkly and ironically with the Jesus of scriputure.
In the bible Jesus treats authoritarians as enemies. Legalist Christians today
are out of touch
with Jesus the boisterous rule-breaker. Jesus storms the temple (John 2:13-17),
turning over the tables of the money-changers. We are meant to delight in the
sound of the money "poured
out" and in the sound ofthe "whip of chords" Jesus used to drive the vendors
To enjoy the Jesus of scripture, we need to appreciate sarcasm, puns, enigmas
and paradoxes -- all part of Jesus' arsenal, coming as he did from the doubly
persecuted minority of Jew
an independent prophet. Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, visited Jesus, "by night," as
if to avoid embarrassment. Jesus embarrassed another prominent person by indulging
prostitute and allowing her to bathe his feet with precious oils bought with
her earnings. From a Third World point of view, such scenes are richly humorous,
full of high spirits,
acceptance, and welcome. They show Jesus as warm, personal, and sensual.
When the Establishment criticized Jesus for breaking the Sabbath rules, he affirmed
that rules should serve people, not people the rules. Note the muffled laughter
Jesus answers his accusers, especially as he cuts through their intellectual
know all scripture: "Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry?" (Matthew
Jesus jokes about the rich:"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of
than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23). If we identify
with the rich man, the remark is splenetic. Yet the original audience were mainly
poor, and they had just
witnessed a young man with "great possessions" exposed for not really being so
perfect as he wanted to think himself. The poor in every age are used to the
who withdraw when they
realize that to gain life they will have to lose it.
Jesus is the original jive artists, the crafty maker of small talk to keep those
in power structure at bay. Even when brought in as a prophet on display at the
homes of the powerful, he does not cut himself off from his kind of people,
the poor. He talks to both
groups at once. At times this rhetorical gymnastic renders symptoms of paranoia
.Paranoia is sometimes the healthy response of a rebel who is in the presence
of real enemies. Jesus'
humor becomes private, in-group, especially when he is aware that spies are trying
"Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?" But he perceived their
and said to them, "Show me a coin.Whose likeness and inscription has it?" They
"Caesar's." He said to them, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,
and to God
the things that are God's." And they were not able in the presence of the people
him by what he said, but marveling at his answer they were silent." (Luke 20:22-26)
Jesus' answer is really a non-answer: the new terms are ambiguous. He has not
really identified "the things that are Caesar's." The spies (and we) still have
no way of knowing whether tribute to Caesar is right or wrong. If they think
it is right to pay
taxes, that is only their interpretation. Although for centuries preachers have
used this episode to justify the Church's historical deference to the State,
the passage remains
equivocal. Jesus has possibly referred only to this one coin. We, like his original
hearers, cannot be sure. Such are the games jive artists play when they are
One thing we can be sure of, however: Jesus has confounded his enemies.
"And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him by what he
He has won a respite by the wit of obfuscation. Those who have watched
Mister Charlie try to get unequivocal answers out of debtor Blacks talking on
stoops in the ghetto are familiar with skillful equivocation as an important
ruse of the oppressed.
Jesus times some of his most startling theological insights to detonate after
a delay. Witness the episode when the Sadducees tried to trip up Jesus in a
tedious argument about the
resurrection, in which they did not believe (Matthew 22). Jesus goes along with
of the question initially: "You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures
power of God" (verse 29). Yet his follow-up is fresh theological matter not in
scriptures: "For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage,
like angels in heaven" (verse 30). While the Sadducees sweat out their failing
memories to discover the allusion, which is really a smoke-screen, Jesus shifts
ground, seeming to leave
the terms of the question altogether: "And as for the resurrection of the dead,
have you not read what was said to you by God, 'I am the God of Abraham, and
the God of Isaac, and the God
of Jacob'? " (verses 31 and 32). Jesus seems to digress. What have Abraham, Jacob
to do with the resurrection? Then comes the punch line: "God is not God of the
dead, but of
the living" (verse 32). Quibbling about the resurrection (future) or the past
misses the essence of religious revelation, namely, God reveals God's self always
in the now.
Jesus uses a verbal trap to expose the verbal trap of his enemies, uses a reference
to a Biblical rhetorical mode to reveal God's means of relation to all people
in any time. The
wit and the dodginessis incisive and subtly comic.
Jesus does not take just occasional pot shots: insider-humor is part of the comprehensive
strategy of the parables:
Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?"And
answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of
heaven, but to them it has not been given ... This is why I speak to them in
they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." (Matthew
Jesus' verbal pyrotechniques are of many sorts .He relishes farce, as
in his extended
metaphor: "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but you do
not notice the
log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me take
the speck out
of your eye," when there is the log in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3-5. He wields
sarcasm, as in "And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites,
for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly,
I say to you, they
have their reward" (Matthew 6:16). His final slice suggests that the only reward
they will get is their current reputation, that they pray not to God but for
Obscured in the English version is the added humor of the pun on "disfigure" in
Greek, "disfiguring" oneself to make a "figure" or grand appearance.
Jesus exploits hyperbole and name-calling, as in "You blind guides,
out a gnat and swallowing a camel!"(Matthew 23:24) and in "you are like whitewashed
tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's
bones and all
uncleanness"(Matthew 23:27). This color contrast appeals to darker Semitic folks;
Pharisaic cleanliness takes on a vicious reassociation, from 'white as pure'
'white a ghostly, deadly.'
Jesus is good company among friends as well, as was vividly brought home to me in a Greek
class in the 1950s when a fellow student, a puritanical preacher, struggled to translate the
story of the first miracle, that great practical joke Jesus pulled by making super-strong
wine from water at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2).
"Water to grape juice,"offered the student, eyeing the professor. There was silence.All
stared at an RSV crib of verse 10, in which the ruler of the feast complains: "Everyone
serves the good wine first; and when they people have drunk freely, then the
poor wine; but
you have kept the good wine until now."
"Does grape juice get rated 'good' and 'poor'?" the professor teased. "Is not
oinos ('wine') the same Xenophon uses when noting how the men of Cyrus
every time they overindulge?"
"B, B, But ..." the student stuttered.
"I think I get your point," the professor interrupted. "You would like to think
that the God
of the universe would not spike the punch."
"Right!" the student replied.
"There is only one thing wrong with your position," the professor said, "namely you are
putting yourself in a position to tell God what God can and cannot do."
Somber expectations of holy writ take much way from the good fun in the Gospels.
dullness, the story of the calming of the storm is frightening: "'Save, Lord;
perishing.' And he said to them, 'Why are you afraid, you of little faith?'" (Matthew
8:25-26). An authoritarian sees this text much as one might view a parent coming
to the bedroom to rebuke a frightened child for his belief in goblins.
But the authoritarian fails to see another kind of parent, one who is not annoyed
but lovingly blows away the goblins, acting out the child's need for a hero,
respecting the childness of the child. The text says that Jesus "rebuked the
sea," not the disciples.
Even on solemn occasions, Jesus jests. He institutes the Church with a pun: "And
you, you are Peter [Greek Petros] and on this rock [Greek petra]
I will build
my Church" (Matthew 16:18). Note the inuendo that many intend when they nickname
"Rock" or "Rockie." Similarly, when Jesus calls fishermen as disciples he does
word play: "I will make you become fishers of men" (Mark 1:17).
Before revealing to the woman at the well the
place where really God dwells, Jesus teases her. He knows all about her promiscuity,
provokes her to talk about herself openly, warmly.
Fine mixtures of humor and seriousness are integral to the Good News.
At the heart of Jesus' humor is paradox. Nowhere is paradox more explicit than
Beatitudes (Matthew 5), which celebrate a happiness (blessedness) begot
of poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, etc. Happiness in a sick society is
enjoyed not by espousing the
values of that society, but by countering those values and moving into a new,
strange dimension. Our culture does not educate us to see the humor, even the
laughter in paradox.
A Zen master would understand. Perhaps the greatest laugh of all is the confident,
laugh in the face of adversity.
The resurrection presents sublimist laughter, laughter at death itself. As St.
interpreted it: "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"
(I Corinthians 15:55). The Passion, as rich as it is, is not Jesus' final statement.
angel at the tomb ispart of the conspiracy of surprise and joy: "Woman, why are
weeping?" (John 20:15). The angel knows the answer to the question but teases
dramatically. (Indeed all modern European secular drama stems directly from this
scene, the Quem
Later Jesus withholds his identity from those who walked to Emmaus after the
until "he was at table with them. And heir eyes were opened and they recognized
him; and he
vanished out of their sight" (Luke 24:30-31). Jesus humorously indulges Thomas
"Put your finger here and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in
my side" (John
20:27). Thomas does not have to touch, but believes on the evidence of the familiar
The angels announced to the shepherds: "I bring you good news of great joy which
to all the people" (Luke 2:10). Again and again the Gospels are punctuated with
the crowds' amazement, with rejoicing. It is difficult
to imagine a healing or a feeding of the multitude without good spirits and laughter.
Such events are not dreary, but exciting. Jesus is not lugubrious, but joyful,
joy-making. He purges the world of grim sickness, poverty and wickedness. He
all things new.
Seen in the original perspective of the Gospels, Jesus laughed.
Crew is the founder of Integrity: The Lesbigay Justice Ministry of
the Episcopal Church. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2003 by Louie Crew
© 1973 by Lutheran Forum
First appeared in Lutheran Forum 7.2 (1973): 22-24
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