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Need a Laugh? Read the New Testament. Really.

Zacheus in a tree

William Hole-CC

Howard Kainz - published on 06/29/15

Jesus' witticisms and playfulness reveal his humanity

The Muhammad Cartoon contest in Garland, Texas on May 3, was advertized as an exercise in free speech; and indeed it was, although it drew some hefty criticism. Even evangelist Franklin Graham, who considers Islam an evil religion, thought that Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, the organizers of the contest, went to unnecessary extremes.

I agree with Graham, who pointed out that Christians should not be involved in mocking another’s religion. But my more basic reason for disappointment in the contest is that there is nothing funny in the cartoons. This lack is understandable, if you read the Qur’an or the Hadith, and look for humorous incidents. They don’t exist. And Islamists today are not jesting but dead serious – so serious about their absolute right to supremacy that they unintentionally invite satire or cartooning similar to today’s genre of political cartooning/lampooning.

But in the New Testament, in contrast, there are situations or incidents that are just a bit humorous, and, if I were a cartoonist, might give me some inspiration to draw cartoons that would be tasteful and certainly non-blasphemous. A few examples follow:

The mother of James and John in Mt. 20:20 becomes the “Jewish-mother” stereotype, requesting special consideration for her sons in Jesus’ kingdom – namely, that they should sit next to him, one on  his left, and the other at his right hand! Jesus uses this as a “teachable moment” to clarify the nature of his “kingdom”; but the other ten Apostles (Mk. 10:41), completely unimpressed, grumble about the chutzpah of their colleagues.

When the Gentile woman in Mk. 7:25 pleads with Jesus to exorcize her daughter, and Jesus responds with a rejoinder about “not giving bread to the children before the dogs,” the woman, not to be outdone, reminds Jesus that even the dogs get the scraps. Jesus, in submitting to her request, congratulates her for her repartee – “For this saying, go thy way.” Something like, “that’s a good one!”

When the news came about the death of Lazarus (Jn. 11-13), how is a disciple supposed to construe the Master’s strange comment? “Our friend Lazarus is asleep,” says Jesus. A diplomatic response is called for: “Lord, if he is sleeping, he shall do well.” Voila! the first Christian press secretaries and spin doctors.

When Jesus is transfigured before the Apostles (Lk. 9:33), standing next to Moses and Elias, poor Peter is absolutely lost for words, and all he can come up with is: “Master, let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, one for Moses, and one for Elias.” And what exactly is that supposed to do? This is the same man who put his clothes on to jump out of the boat and go to Jesus (Jn. 21:7).

Jesus in the Temple, and surveying those present (Lk. 18:10-13) with his disciples, praises a Publican who does not “feel very good about himself,” in contrast to a nearby Pharisee, piously congratulating himself, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers….” The Lord engages in a classical puncturing of an inflated ego!
Jesus, apparently disagreeing with the contemporary mantra, “you can be whatever you want to be,” poses a rhetorical question (Mt. 6:26): Who, even with great concentrated thought, can add one cubit (21-17 inches) to their height? Please step forward.

To a man asking Jesus to mediate a dispute about an inheritance with his brother (Lk. 12: 13-15), Jesus responds, “Man, who has appointed me judge?” One can almost hear a sigh of exasperation coming from the One who came to be not a justice of the peace, but the Prince of Peace, the Messiah.

In John’s Gospel (21: 18-24), after the Resurrection, hearing Jesus’ prediction about the type of death he would endure, Peter wonders aloud, “but what about John?” Jesus: “What does it matter to you if John lives until my Second Coming?,” i.e. don’t be a busybody. In turn, John feels it necessary to combat the rumor that he, the Beloved Disciple, would not die. No, no, Jesus did not say that; you are twisting his words.

St. Paul, whose forte was writing, but freely admits his speech and physical presence were undistinguished (1Cor. 14:9, 2Cor. 11:6), preaches a multi-hour Sunday sermon just before departing for Jerusalem (Acts 20:7-9). A young man in the congregation, Eutychus, fell asleep sitting on a window sill, and fell three storeys to his death. Paul takes a short break, goes down to check the youth, says he’s OK, and then continues to preach until dawn. Perhaps an indirect comment on long-winded preachers (the five-minute homily didn’t come until later).

Jesus, surrounded like many of us by dietary zealots supremely conscious of proper eating habits (Mt. 15:11-17), reminds his hearers that what goes into our mouth just goes into the latrine. We should really worry about the quality of the words coming out of our mouths.

Was Jesus embarrassed by the woman who cried out from the crowd, “Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck” (Lk. 11:27)?  In any case, his response changed the subject and taught a lesson: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

When the parents of the boy born blind were asked by the authorities whether this was their son, and how he was cured (Jn. 8:18-21) – certainly this man, Jesus, had not “opened his eyes”! – they replied, “ask him: he is of age, let him speak for himself.” Avoiding the “politically incorrect,” even in New Testament times.

In Lk. 19:2-4, Zacheus, who was “low of stature,” became a posterboy for “height-challenged” persons  – climbing a sycamore tree to see Jesus passing by. And Jesus rewarded his gumption: “Zacheus, hurry and come down; for today I must abide in your house.”

When Jesus complimented Nathanael for his guilelessness (Jn. 1:47-49), and Nathanael wondered how Jesus knew about him, Jesus (with divine 20-20 vision) answered that he had seen him under a fig tree, causing Nathanael to blurt out, “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God”! And Jesus – drolly? – expresses astonishment that this was enough to make him a believer.

Paul, makes a mild crack about ecclesiastical VIPs (Gal. 2:2-6) who were “thought to be important” – especially James, Peter, and John, who “seemed to be pillars.” But when push comes to shove, he dutifully goes to visit them anyway, to get proper authorization for his mission.

You wouldn’t read the New Testament for a laugh-a-minute experience. But maybe, just maybe, we read it with a little too much solemnity when its irony and playfulness are trying to bring out the humanness of the God-man and the rest of us.

Howard Kainzis emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent publications include Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), Five Metaphysical Paradoxes (The 2006 Marquette Aquinas Lecture), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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