Due to the passage of time and cultural differences, we often miss the cutting and sometimes subversive humor employed in scripture. That’s unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is that a healthy dose of humor is a good way to combat a fallen world.
Now, let’s be clear: Jesus wasn’t a standup comedian, nor were the ancient prophets performers on “Whose Soul Is It Anyway?” Yet they were effective communicators and didn’t shy away from employing that most dangerous of weapons: the wry chuckle.
The problem for us, as one author puts it, is that we in our very serious faith don’t want to appear impious by laughing in the presence of the Divine. And there is the practical challenge for us as modern readers of English Bibles translated from Greek, which – in Jesus’ case – had themselves been translated from the spoken Aramaic. We don’t catch the play of words, hear the lilt of the voice, or simply see the smile.
Everyone in earshot got the irony when Jesus said, after viewing a Roman coin bearing the image of the Roman emperor, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” You can easily imagine Jesus smiling as he said this, and every Jew listening would have smiled along with Him. They all know this basic truth: everyone, including Caesar, was made in God’s image… and everything in creation belonged to God, even Caesar’s coins. A nicely subversive dig at the ruling elite.
Jesus’ description of the ruling class as the blind leading the blind would have received a wry and knowing laugh in an era not known for being particularly easy to navigate for the visually impaired. He would sarcastically confront hypocritical religious leaders with the cutting phrase, “Have you not read?” since, of course, their claim to authority was their learned status.
Very often Jesus was saying out loud about the country’s rulers what many quietly believed. He compared them to “vipers” and said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for Jerusalem’s political ruling class to make it into heaven.
On one of the occasions in which Jesus was about to be stoned by those rulers’ sycophants, He not only kept his wits but employed them. He asked His would-be assailants, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”
Yes, Jesus got angry – and with good reason. But more often than not, we find Jesus directing that righteous anger into loving action tinged with humor. He was the happy warrior in the battle for the souls of men.
What about you and me? There is no end to the litany of things about which to be angry – but it doesn’t mean we have to be endlessly upset. The issues facing our republic are deadly serious, but that doesn’t mean we always have to be.
I understand why the other side is a grim lot, driven as they are by greed and envy. They’re on the side of slavery and death. They know, deep in their hearts, that they best they can expect if they are successful is to be ruled over by tyrants who will destroy them last. I’d be grim, too.
We, however, should be of good cheer.
In the eternal fight, our victory over death has been secured for us by Jesus. We’re now the adopted sons and daughters of the Most High King. In this world, we get the honor of fighting to expand the promise of self-governance and extend liberty – so we might as well do so with a smile on our face.
As Ronald Reagan put it, “So, let us go forth with good cheer and stout hearts – happy warriors out to seize back a country and a world to freedom.”