“I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.” Ba-boom. That was Rob Auton at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
Here’s Alex Horne: “I used to work in a shoe-recycling shop. It was sole-destroying.”
You see how it works? In terms of theatre, you set up the plot, and then deliver the denouément. The punch line is the final part of a joke which is intended to be funny or to provoke laughter or thought from listeners. Few punch lines are inherently funny out of context, but when a comedian sets up the premise and builds up the audience’s expectations, the punch line can function as the climactic part of the act. Here’s Tim Vine, an expert exponent: “My friend told me he was going to a fancy dress party as an Italian island. I said to him ‘Don’t be Sicily‘.”
Punch lines generally derive their humour from being unexpected. The Vaudeville comedians would have punchlines accompanied by a “sting” (erroneously called a rim-shot) on drums. The idea of a joke like a sting recalls Kenneth William’s gloating remark: “I see myself as a roving mosquito, choosing its target.” That’s the point of the knockout punch line: it is a targeted sting, an irrefutable insight. It has the quality of a non sequitur. It is a moment of humour, insight, wit but –above all else – it is a moment of penetrating truth.
Jesus described himself as “the truth” on one occasion (John 14:6). It’s the hard-hitting description of a deliverer of knock-out punchlines. Many of these were delivered with a familiar format “You have heard it said… but I say.” This is a classic set-up: He is using the context of the familiar to announce the unfamiliar. Look back at those one-liners: they start with the familiar (shoes), through the bizarre (shoe-recycling) to the punchline (sole-destroying).
Try it on the others.
Now, here’s a few of Jesus’s one-liners. Consider them as punchlines, as absolute conversation-stoppers. It’s as if Jesus was saying: “Here’s the truth: now figure how on earth this can be worked into your life.”
You have heard it said, “Hate your enemies” (familiar, safe). I say “Love your enemies” (bizarre) and “Pray for those who persecute you.”
It’s a total non sequitur. How do you respond to such a radical volte-face?
The same sun rises on the evil as on the good.
If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?
I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell 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 heaven.
The knock-out punch comes into stories, miracles and general teaching too.Probably Jesus’ hearers smiled when He pointed out to those who objected to His healing on the Sabbath a woman who had been sick for eighteen years, “The Lord answered him, ‘Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?’” (Luke 13:15,16) And later, “Then he asked them, ‘If one of you has a childor an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’” (Luke 14:5).
Who can fail to catch the irony in Jesus’ question when about to be stoned, “Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’” (John 10:32) Irony is obvious when He called Gentile rulers “benefactors” (Luke 22:25). One tyrant had even incorporated the word “benefactor” as a title along with his name but Jesus’ listeners knew how utterly false was this high-sounding title.
Jesus gave us the amusing description of wolves parading in sheep’s wool (Matthew 7:15). Wouldn’t it likewise be absurd to find oranges on apple trees, or raspberries on poison ivy plants? Transposed to modern setting this is the idea of, “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16).
Toby Sumpter (an American pastor whose blog I enjoy) spoke about the weekly Confession in this way: “When we pray together about our sins, don’t do it trying to find some mud to rub on to your arms and cheeks, as though it’s holier to feel a little dirty, trying to get all muddied up for the absolution. No, say the words triumphantly: we do sin in thought, word, and deed, we are sinners saved by grace, but pray those words like one of your favorite jokes, pray those words like a wonderful, hilarious joke that you know the punch line to.
Because you do know the punch line.
The punch line is Jesus, His cross, His resurrection, and your forgiveness.”
- Jesus the Song and Dance man (tithebarn.wordpress.com)
- Say it with trumpets… (tithebarn.wordpress.com)
- Introverts and Extroverts in the Kingdom of God (awakeningohio.wordpress.com)