Considering Jesus as a Stand-up Comedian

I know, I know: the Big Point of all Jesus said and did was to announce and enact something that he called “the Kingdom of God. He wasn’t playing for laughs. He was dead-flat serious about it.

And yet.

And yet,  the common picture of Jesus as the  dour  “man of sorrows” who spent most of his life suffering is mostly inaccurate.  When you look carefully at the Gospels, you find a man with an obvious joie de vivre, a storyteller who told jokes to make a point, a leader who gave his companions nicknames and a former carpenter who enjoyed a good laugh.

So why do we often think of Jesus as gloomy?  For one thing, it’s a reflection of the historical emphasis on the Passion and Death of Jesus.  For the early Christians, the fact that Jesus was arrested, stitched up at a kangaroo court, tortured and crucified was appalling and confusing.  So the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) took care to explain this period of Jesus’s life, to help the early Christians make sense of what it really meant.  But as a result, those passages tended to dominate the rest of the Gospels.

Think of it this way: the time from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion represent only about a week in Jesus’s life.  Most of the rest of his ministry—which lasted over three years–was often spent doing normal stuff in an extraordinary way:  attending wedding receptions, sharing meals with disciples, welcoming those on the margins of society, and healing the sick and preaching what he called “Good News.”  And along the way, he showed some rare good humour.

Where?  Well, we may not notice it because we’re too removed from it—culturally and temporally.  In Jesus’s time, for example, his parables were probably not seen as just clever but, as Daniel J. Harrington, professor of New Testament of Boston College put it, “hilarious.”  For people in first-century Palestine, the idea that someone with a plank of wood in his own eye would critique someone with a speck of dust in his was probably laugh-out-loud funny.  “The parables were amusing in their exaggeration and hyperbole,” said Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt.

Some of Jesus’s parables are ridiculous in their exaggeration.  Take the story of a rich man who gives to his servants several “talents” to keep while he is away.  Some of the servants invest wisely; one not at all.  It’s usually seen as a serious story about the proper use of one’s gifts in life.  But we may overlook the fact that a “talent” represented 15 years of wages.  And to one servant the rich man gives five—the equivalent of 75 years of wages–a ridiculous amount, which would have made listeners smile.  “Jesus’s parables are witty in their surprise,” said Professor Harold Attridge of the Yale Divinity School.

Elsewhere Jesus bestows on the disciple Simon a new name: “Peter” or “Rock.”  While some understand this as Jesus designating Peter as the foundation of the church,  another possibility is that  Peter (Cephasor stone, in Greek) may also refer to the character of the tough fisherman—angular, sharp, hard-edged.  In other words, it functions as the nickname: “Rocky.”  And when the mother of James and John, two disciples, bossily ask whether her two sons will sit at Jesus’s right hand in heaven, he demurs.  Later on he gives James and John a nickname: “Boanerges,” or “Sons of Thunder.”  Is this a comment on their brashness, or perhaps even, as one scholar suggested, a playful way of referring to a strong-willed mother?

There are more overt signs of Jesus’s appreciation of a sense of humour.  When Nathaniel hears that Jesus is from Nazareth he says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  It’s a dig at Jesus’s hometown, which was seen as a backwater.  What does Jesus say in response?  You would expect a grumpy Jesus to castigate Nathaniel.  But he does the opposite.  Jesus says, “Here is an Israelite without guile.”  In other words, here’s a guy I can trust!  And Nathaniel joins the group.  It’s an indication of Jesus’s appreciation of a sense of humour.

Christians believe that Jesus was “fully human and fully divine.”  And being fully human means having a sense of humour.  So let’s balance things out a bit and think not only about the “Man of Sorrows” but also the “Man of Joy.”

But a stand-up comic? Isn’t that a step too far?

In some senses, sure it is! In another –with certain comics, at least- it provides a provocative parallel.  At a basic level, comedians -ok, at least some of them!- are asking the question: why? Why do we do things this way and not a different way?  It’s the way of Socrates (another great comedian) to make us question  our unconscious habits, making the habitual strange and ridiculous, saying the unsayable, challenging conventions, challenging power. Finding the line that society draws and then stepping over it!

Or think of how Diogenes  punctured his society’s civilised pretensions. Diogenes today would be a stand-up comic, not an academic philosopher. Indeed, he hated philosophy’s movement towards institutionalisation, and would go and heckle at Plato’s academy, pulling out chickens and other stunts to get laughs.

Of course, there’s a difference in intent and consequence. Though Jesus and stand-up comics might both start with the same questions, what happens next is profoundly different.  The questions of life that are brought forward and laughed at are mostly an end in themselves for the comedian. Jesus sought to bring his listeners into a state of readiness for something else. The comic conclusion is often a refuge in the absurd or some kind of bathos.  Woody Allen, for example, would  raise profound philosophical questions about life and death, briefly confront them, and  then shrug them off.  It’s his basic comic manoeuvre. For example, the line from Hannah and Her Sisters – ‘How the hell do I know why there were Nazis, I don’t even know how this can-opener works.’ Or some of Allen’s early one-liners: ‘Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.’

It’s interesting to observe that  the vigour of the “New Atheism” polemic  derives from the fact that it’s as full of comedians (Ricky Gervais, Robin Ince, Stephen Fry) as it is of scientists and philosophers.

So the comics point out the folly of life. Remember Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice : “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”  Jesus and the comics both poke fun at pretension, pomposity, foolish fundamentalism, ignorance. And we laugh, because it’s true! And en route, we sneer a little in a downwards direction because we (at least) realise how foolish all this is. Bit of superiority.

But Jesus wanted to create a readiness for something quite different. He mocked –quite cruelly- the fundamentalists of his own day. The word “hypocrites” was often on his lips: it is a word that was used of actors, and of the dissonance between what they portrayed and what they really were.

Readiness for what? Readiness for “the kingdom of God.”  Readiness for a way of looking at life differently. A place where you are not self-obsessed with how you look, how long you live, how important you are.  To re-evaluate you and your life in the light of an over-arching awareness of God as creator, father, owner, boss. It’s like a child playing in a muddy puddle who hasn’t really understood that he has been given the whole seaside for himself. That’s the dissonance that spurred Jesus’ wit into play.

So for God’s sake lighten up.  As G.K.Chesterton said: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

 

 

 

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