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The word basar (preach) in, for example, Isaiah 61 carries a strong
implication of, if not exactly humor, then cheerfulness.
The word means "to be fresh, i.e. full (rosy, fig. cheerful; to annnounce (glad news) ... bear, carry, preach, tell good tidings."
Where is there humor in the Bible?
It is filled with humor – usually wry Jewish witticisms, hyperbole and idiom! "You can tame every animal on earth, but not the tongue," says James. "Yeah, yeah," says Micaiah to King Ahab, "You'll win the battle for sure." (I Kings 22). "I don't want to twist your arm, but hey, you owe me on this one," (Paul to Philemon). [Loose paraphrases]
Many of the Proverbs communicate timeless wisdom with a smile and a wink. God invented humor! So surely we would expect Jesus to use it. And He does, frequently. Many of the parables are intrinsically amusing cameos. They were surely not delivered as deadpan monologues, but in the style of the story-teller with voices and gestures to match (and much two-way banter) – and with very likely from time to time the involvement of children or other listeners as props. This method of communication was very near to street theater!
"Full recognition of Christ's humor has been surprisingly rare. In many of the standard efforts to write the Life of Christ there is no mention of humour at all and, when there is any, it is usually confined to a hint or two." [Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ]
"Jesus was always had snappy oneliners ready for the occasion, such as, 'Let the dead bury their dead,' and 'The poor you always have with you.' It's how you tell them! Try these prefaced with a heavy shrug and 'Oy Vay'." [Adrian Williams]
"Jesus has a particular eye for the ironical and paradoxical. He gave His disciples nicknames: Peter the Rock who was big on words, but a coward when it mattered; James and John, hotheads, were 'Sons of Thunder'. He told stories about judges who gave justice only after being pestered repeatedly, businessmen who amassed riches only to die the next day, and about priests too precious to help a man who had been beaten up. He talked about people who gave stones in the place of bread, and saw the speck in the eye of another but ignored the log in their own eye. He talked about the blind leading the blind. He called the holy men of his day whitewashed walls." [Rev Peter Weatherby]
"Many of His comments would have had the audience laughing incontrollably, while at the same time making a deep point. The pictures of 'blind Pharisees straining at a gnat but swallowing a camel' (Matt 23:24) is hilarious. Similarly it is reckoned that shpherds were the butt of Galilean society's jokes, and so the one about the shepherd leaving the 99 to search for just one, would have also raised a laugh." [George Newton]
"How often there was a twinkle in the eye of Jesus! His humor shines through
his words. For instance, Jesus once pictured the religious legalists of his
day. He said they were like a man who polished the outside of his drinking
cup, but forgot to clean the inside. "You are like a person," said Jesus,
"who picks a fly out of his drink and then swallows a camel" (Matthew 23:24).
Jesus made his point by a humorous exaggeration. He used the same kind of
humor when he said, "It is much harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom
of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle" (Mark 10:25).
There must have been a twinkle in his eye when he talked about the fault-finder:
"Why do you notice the little piece of sawdust that is in your brother's
eye, but you don't notice the big piece of wood that is in your own eye?"
The humor of Jesus show us the quickness of his mind and the playfulness of his outlook. Long before Mary Poppins, Jesus knew that a "spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." How much we need the humor of Jesus today! We get deadly serious about his words and miss the humor in them. Jesus talked about the necessity of communicating his message. He made this point by an absurd picture: "Does anyone bring a lamp home and put it under a washtub or beneath the bed? Don't you put it up on a table or on the mantel?" (Mark 4:21).
Jesus did not fit the pattern of what people expected a holy man to be like. Luke reported: "By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently" (Luke 15:1). The religion scholars were not pleased and growled, "He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends" (Luke 15:2). Jesus' cousin, John, had followers who fasted all the time. Jesus and his followers had a reputation for eating and drinking. Again, Jesus reached for a humorous image to portray his contemporaries. He said about them: "They're like spoiled children complaining to their parents, 'We wanted to skip rope and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk but you were always too busy.' John the Baptist came fasting and you called him crazy. The Son of Man (Jesus' favorite term for himself) came feasting and you called him a lush" (Luke 7:31-34).
There is much whimsical word-play and punning, particularly in the Old Testament in the naming of people and places. Bible footnotes often explain these meanings.
"Jesus never compared the Kingdom of God to a religious experience in a temple, but with a party or celebration!" says church growth consultant Andrew Jones.
Books and Internet Sources on Biblical Humor
Surprisingly little has been written (either online or in print) about the use of humor in the Bible, or its value in Christian communication and evangelism. Although humor is now used much more in the church than in past times, there may not be a wide appreciation that it is in fact a key to good communication, that we have a biblical mandate to use it, and that the Bible is full of humor. There are only a handful of books on this subject!
Serve Him with Mirth by Leslie B Flynn, 1960
A classic, now available as a free e-book (in PDF, DOC, RTF, MS E-book and HTML formats). It is a thorough and focused survey from a conservative evangelical viewpoint. Plug the title into your favorite search engine.
500 Clean Jokes and Humorous Stories: And How to Tell Them
R & L Wright, Barbour Publishers, Ohio, ISBN 1-57748-244-1, $2.97
Much more than a joke book, this explains the value and purpose of humor, and how to use it in public speaking. Furthermore, although written by Christians it positions itself as a book for non-Christians, and only partway through the book do the authors begin to include sensitive and accessible comments about their faith.
The Humor of Christ, by Elton Trueblood, 1964, (out of print)
Another classic on the topic. He only covers humor in the ministry of Jesus, and from a looser theological viewpoint than Flynn; nevertheless the book offers some valuable insights. It is helpful in understanding Jesus' use of irony: things which would otherwise be hard to interpret.
The Humor of Jesus by Henri Cormier, 1977
Alba House, New York, ISBN 0-8189-0356-2, $5.95
A refreshing and insightful look into the ways Jesus used humor throughout his ministry. Cormier's background is not only a that of a French-Canadian born in 1909 – of whose generation we might expect a more formal religious viewpoint – but also a life-long Catholic priest. His gentle treatment of the subject is thoroughly biblical and a pleasure to read.
The Humor of Jesus by Earl F Palmer, 2001
Regent College Publishing, ISBN 1-57383-180-8
Throws further light on the types of humor which Jesus used.
And God Created Laughter by Conrad Hyers, 1987
John Knox Press, ISBN 0-8042-1653-3
Focuses on the essentially comic nature of much that happens in the Bible.
There are only a few commentators who cover these issues online:
Steve Bilynskyj | Dr Swiney | Stuart Robertson | Mike McDonald | Hershey Friedman | Charles Henderson | John Myers.
If you know of other books or Web sites on this subject, please
© 2004 web-evangelism.com. Excerpts used by permission.