Thursday, July 17, 2008


I usually don’t like to watch biblical movies, especially ones about Jesus. They seem to get more of the story wrong than right. But now and then I do watch them and sometimes something grabs me and offers me a new insight.

I remember one such movie on TV. I can’t remember much, but one scene grabbed me.

It was in the upper room the Sunday morning after the crucifixion. The disciples are cowering in fear. They’ve heard rumors, but don’t know what to make of them. Suddenly Jesus appears. The disciples back up to the wall opposite Him, their eyes wide with fear and amazement. They look like they’ve seen a ghost. (That’s right straight out of Luke’s account: 24:36,37). ”Peace,” says Jesus with His right hand raised. The camera flashes from them to Him and homes in on His face. Jesus has a smile on His face, almost a smirk. Jesus is amused!

I had read that passage dozens of times yet I’d never imagined Jesus smiling. But it seemed so natural in this scene. From then on, I started looking for a smile on Jesus’ face whenever I read the gospels.

Now the Bible never tells us that Jesus smiled or laughed and so I guess we assume He didn’t.

We’re told many times that Jesus wept or cried. He wept at His friend Lazarus’ funeral (John 11:35). The Greek word is dakruo – to shed tears, and it’s in the aorist tense. It could be translated “Jesus burst into tears.”

Luke tells us He wept over Jerusalem (19:41 – different Greek word, klaio, to wail or bewail). The lament that follows, or a similar one is recorded 3 times, each in a different context.

In fact, Isaiah, in his prophecy of the Messiah tell his readers he was “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (53:3).

We’re also told often that Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5; 10:13) and even when we’re not told He was angry, we can almost feel His anger. “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19). Usually He is angry at the unbelief of His disciples or the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

(Also see COMPASSION.)

But did Jesus have a sense of humor? I believe He did.

First of all, God does. Some examples in the Old Testament. “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22).

Abraham’s son of promise is named Isaac – “laughter” or “laughing boy” (Genesis 21:3).

According to Psalm 104:15, God gave “wine which makes man’s heart glad.” Apparently Jesus drank quite a bit of it, even though His reputation in this matter was exaggerated (Luke 7:34).

The Old Testament is filled with stories with deep ironic twists.

Jacob swindles his older brother of his birthright and blessing. Later Jacob falls in love with a beautiful woman named Rachel. He works 7 years for her hand, but on the morning after the wedding, he wakes to find he’s married to her homely older sister. When he complains to his father-in-law, he’s told (literally) ”It’s not done thus in our place to give the younger before the first born” (Genesis 29:26). Ouch!

Or the story of Samson’s parents in Judges 13. (See A SUITABLE HELPER.)

Or the catch-22 story of Micaiah the prophet in 1 Kings 22:1-28. (I’ve got to write more about this guy later.)

The stories almost seem to be told in a way that incites us to laughter. If we don’t see the humor in the Bible, it may be because we don’t expect it to be there.

But what about Jesus? I believe the aspect of His humor that comes out most in the gospels, is His use of irony, sometimes even to the point of sarcasm.

He must surely have smiled when He nicknamed His leading disciple “Peter,” Rock. Peter many times was anything but a rock. (John 1:42; Matthew 16:18).

Or when He used the epithet “dogs” on a Gentile woman, who approached Him for healing for her demon-possessed daughter. When she came back on Him, He commended her for her faith (Matthew 15:21-28).

Jesus liked camels (after all He created these ugly awkward looking beasts) and used them in His cracks at the scribes and Pharisees. “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). These religious folks were scrupulous to make certain they didn’t swallow an unclean insect, but they swallowed something much bigger.

He calls them blind guides, “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14).

Camels again, “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).

Maybe the reason we fail to see the humor of Jesus is that we have a false picture of Him, as some sort of monkish saintly person with a halo stuck on His head and we fail to see Him as a real Man, as well as completely God. (See WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?) Maybe we feel it is irreverent to look for humor in His sayings and actions.

Or perhaps it is our literalism. I have found that those who claim to take the Bible literally often have a hard time with irony and figures of speech, especially hyperbole. “Jesus must have been talking about a literal camel and a literal place called the eye of the needle,” I’ve been told.

But once we grasp the humor of Jesus, we begin to see it everywhere as we read the Gospels. We see smiles on His face and those of His hearers and friends.

A story is told about Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the late 19th century. It may be true or it may be apocryphal. Either way, I like it:

A woman approached Spurgeon after one of his sermons and complained, “Mr. Spurgeon, I think you use altogether too much humor in your preaching.”

“Oh, sister,” replied Spurgeon, “if you only knew how much I hold back!”

Bill Ball

1 comment:

Sherry Ball Schoenfeldt said...

"I have found that those who claim to take the Bible literally often have a hard time with irony and figures of speech, especially hyperbole."

A few weeks ago someone in SS did this - said that cuz Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit that he must have been the worst sinner ever cuz he said that.

I wondered if that meant that Solomon's bride really had sheep for teeth?