On several occasions recently, I’ve heard someone say that Jesus didn’t make jokes. Each time it happened, I had this feeling that there was something important about this strange idea (which many people seem to hold) that for some reason Jesus didn’t have a sense of humor. It took me a while to figure out what it was, but I think I understand now.
I’ll explain but first I need to deal this notion that Jesus was a total stiff. And let’s start with this: throughout the New Testament, its writers describe how crowds of people flocked to hear Jesus teaching. And while the reports of his miracles must have been at least part of his appeal, do we really believe that these crowds would have sat through hours of Jesus’s teaching if he wasn’t entertaining?
Yes, he had profound things to say, but his profundity was often wrapped in irony and thrown like daggers at the hypocrisy of the religious establishment. It’s the stuff of today’s late night talk shows only we end up missing the joke, because we don’t understand the context, and because we expect the Bible to be tirelessly serious. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Parable of the Tenants and the Landowner (Matthew 21:33-41), the Parable of the Lowest Seat at the Banquet (Luke 14:7-11)—these are all examples of Jesus’s biting social commentary and are all stories in which the religious elite are the butt of the joke.
There are also many interpersonal moments when Jesus is clearly making light of a situation or sharing an inside joke with a friend. When the wine runs out at the wedding in Cana, his mother tells the host of the feast, “Do whatever he says,” expecting that her son will miraculously fix the problem. Jesus replies, “Dear woman, why do you involve me? It’s not my time.” But then, despite his protest, he goes ahead and performs the miracle. Clearly, his comment to his mother is spoken with a knowing wink, because it is in this highly symbolic moment when he performs his first public miracle. There’s a lot more that I could say about what happened at Cana and what it means in its Biblical context, but my point is a simple one: if Jesus wasn’t joking, his response to his mother is incomprehensible.
I could give many more examples. At one point, Jesus insists to his brothers (who are trying to set him up) that he is not going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:3-10), but then, he turns around and goes. This is Jesus speaking tongue-in-cheek. And when, in a moment of Sherlockian prescience, Jesus tells Nathanael all about him at their first meeting, Nathanael is amazed (John 1:47-50). Jesus says, “You will certainly see greater things than this!” Come on, there’s at least a little sarcasm here!
Okay, I think we have this established that Jesus made jokes and had a sense of humor. Now let’s talk about why it matters. It matters because it speaks to the way most of us approach God.
The reason we don’t imagine that Jesus was a dynamic human being, who poked fun at his critics, laughed with his friends, and doled out biting social commentary, is because we like to think of Jesus (and God) as both stale and static. Because as long as Jesus is capable of nothing more than bland statements, as long as he is simple and straight-forward, he is under our thumb. As long as God can be boiled down to a set of precepts, we can imagine that we are the ones who hold the keys to the kingdom.
This is why practically every systematic theology is a variation on the same theme: here’s what you have to do to please God and guarantee entrance to heaven. Reformed theology says, all you have to do is believe. Catholic theology says, the important thing is that you’re a part of the church. Liberation theology says, the good guys are the ones who are fighting for the oppressed. In many forms of evangelicalism, the key to salvation is a prayer of repentance, built upon another form of salvation theology. (On my route to church, I pass a billboard with a phone number you can call, if you want to be sure to you’re going to heaven. It’s 855-something something). No matter the version, though, all of these approaches have this in common: certainty and control. All forms of systematic theological, played out, are a means of dictating terms to God—terms that Jesus refuted (he was big on refuting theologies and other forms of self-righteousness).
I don’t like making apologies, but I will say this: I embrace the concept of salvation through faith, and I believe in the vital significance of the church. I fully accept that God calls us to stand up for the marginalized, and I believe our relationship with God should be built on the act of repentance. But I don’t believe that any of these truths can be turned into a magic formula to which God is beholden. The same Jesus who said, “The work of God is to believe the one he sent,” also said, “It is the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven will enter the kingdom of God.” So which one is it? It’s both. And I would also say that the Bible repeatedly describes God’s judgment as an examination of the heart. How do we codify that? Of course, we can’t.
What we want, if we’re really honest, is a two-dimensional God, static and still. But if you’re a person who believes in a Creator-God--in a being who composed the great symphony of the universe--and you’re willing to take a step back, you can see how crazy it is to think of God this way. The God of the universe does not accept the rules we lay out for him. Turns out, he’s quite a bit bigger than that.