Somehow, humour penetrates the armour that surrounds our thoughts and opinions in a way that engaging people in intelligent debate just does not. Yes, there is a time and a place for intelligent debate – I am not suggesting that we just tell jokes rather than reason with people, but perhaps that this should not be our first line of approach.
You see, debate is great for open discussion that enables open-minded exploration on open-ended topics. But most of the time, debate, or the exchange of thoughts between individuals, involves two sides with entrenched opinions who seek to garner as much evidence as possible with which to batter their opponent. Listening is not the sensitive hearing of another’s view in order to better understand and potentially embrace that view; it is discovering the weaknesses in another’s arguments in order to better prepare our own line of attack.
Now what about the magic wand of Protestant Christianity, the sermon? Sometimes, preaching is like a debate where the other side is gagged and not allowed to say anything. Lots of reasons are laid down for whatever the preacher is trying to communicate, but does it reach its target? Whilst a sermon may contain some great stuff, it is at the best of times a one-size-fits-all product applied to all who happen to be within hearing range, with no scope for interaction or exploration of the theme outside the bounds of this one-way communication.
Is this effective communication? Are people influenced towards change by this? Sometimes, no doubt, particularly when “preaching to the choir” and the hearers are both used to this methodology as well as tolerant and generously disposed towards the preacher. For non church-goers, it can serve as a conversation starter but is not the place or the means to engage with genuinely significant issues for them. Perhaps there is a better way.
Enter humour. And Jesus was a master of the art.
Take this one, for example. Jesus is walking along the Emmaus road with two disciples, Cleopas and another – his wife, I reckon. Jesus plays ignorant and gently leads them in understanding what has just happened in Jerusalem. As they break bread together, suddenly they realize who he is and, as if by magic, Jesus simply disappears. Bet he was having a good chuckle as he did it.
Another one. We all know the story of the two guys with things in their eyes, one with a speck of dust, and the other with a log, plank, telegraph pole, or whatever. We analyze the passage theologically, but have you ever stopped to try and picture it? Someone walking round with half a tree in their eye but who still thinks they can get close enough to someone else to help them with their issues? A bit ridiculous really, and humorous to try to visualize… but that was probably what Jesus wanted.
He liked puns too. Puns don’t work in translation, so this passes unnoticed in the English – and the original Greek too for that matter. But when Jesus talks about straining out gnats and swallowing camels, the Aramaic words most likely used are galma and gamla respectively. A real groaner.
And speaking of camels, what about trying to get one through the eye of a needle? Don’t be misled by some half-baked story about a special door next to the gate of a city that a camel could only get through on its knees and having shed its load – there is not a shred of evidence that such a gate ever existed. Jesus was using deliberate hyperbole and we are meant to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all and take an important message home with us.
The absurd has a place in such humour too. Whoever would think of putting a candle under a washing-up bowl? Or what about polishing the outside of a cup and forgetting to clean out the collected crud on the inside? Serve up stones for lunch instead of bread, or snakes instead of fish? And whilst few of us know the botanical facts involved, and thus miss Jesus’ take on this, mustard seeds do not grow into trees that birds can build nests in. The absurdity of such images is meant to convey the strength of the teaching that Jesus wished to transmit.
Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman in Mark 7 can only be understood if humour and gesture is taken into account. When said with a grin, the meaning changes completely, and the lady herself seems to have been able to respond with some repartee of her own.
Understanding the cultural background to Jesus’ world can help too. It seems that shepherds tore the brunt of many jokes of his day, the rednecks / blonds of first-century Palestine. A shepherd leaving 99 sheep all by themselves, with all the risks that entailed, to go off and search for one would have raised a laugh or two. But it gave Jesus the foundation to speak of the character of God who does the ridiculous to reach us.
And what about irony and sarcasm? Do you think Jesus was really so impressed with Nathanael that he calls him a true Israelite in whom there is no guile as a compliment? Or was it more of a “Well I never, seems like we have found Mr. Perfect” as a response to Nathanael’s incredulity about Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth. Calling Peter “Mr. Rock” also seems a little tongue in cheek to me…
Like jokes our six-year old tells us for the twenty-somethingth time, our over-familiarity with the stories recorded in Scripture means we no longer relate as their hearer did nor respond to the humour they contain. Theological constraints push us to understand and apply, rather than react and respond. And ignorance of humour and communication conventions in Jesus’ world means we miss so much of this facet of his life and ministry. Humour is so very culture-bound; the gospels abound in stories that relate to the honour-shame dichotomy of first-century Mediterranean society but which are completely lost on us. The image of the “prodigal father”, for example, hitching up his tunic and running to meet his second son would have brought a shocked smile to his listeners’ faces.
Humour has the ability to bypass the normal self-defense mechanisms that protect our egos and thought constructs and deliver a one-two punch right to the heart. Where rivers of words fail, aptly chosen humour can succeed. This Jesus knew well.
One contemporary illustration. Look at this cartoon, drawn by Joel Pett for USA Today during the Global Summit on Climate Change in December 2009. So many words on both sides of the issue, but his “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing” cuts through all of that in a mere 15 words. Most people get the message in less than 15 seconds. Tremendous.
So next time you are thinking about how to engage with others to promote change and want people to reflect on deeply held beliefs and values, spare a thought for the humorous, the arty, visual, poetic, something that engages with a person at a different level to rational thought alone. Fire away and see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised.