A good bit of life is the sharing of jokes, and some of the best jokes are Jewish. The Jewish mama for example, with her pride in her son’s achievement. Here she opens the door to visitors, in floods of tears,
“Oi veh, oi veh, my son the famous surgeon has been killed in a car accident…!”
Even God can be in a joke:
The poor man approaches God and says, I’m told a million years to you is as a second. God agrees that this is true. The man goes on, I’m told a million pounds to you is as a penny. God agrees to this also. Well, says the man, can I have a million pounds? Sure, says God, just give me a second.
But as far as I was taught, there are no jokes in the Bible.
Just give that some consideration. Jokes are a an indispensable part of living, cementing friendships, easing family tensions, increasing social joy, helping us bear misfortune, offering us insight into life, but there are no jokes in the book which is the basis of our faith and practice as Christian people! Serious believers will answer, The Bible is about our eternal salvation. Do you think that’s a topic for jokes??
Well, yes, I do, don’t you? Aren’t a substantial proportion of traditional jokes about the pearly gates?
A minister who has been recently received into heaven with a modest commendation is disturbed to see his lawyer being welcomed at the gates, with a flourish of trumpets and a special anthem by the heavenly choir. He complains to St Peter, I spent most of my life in faithful service, and I was hardly noticed at the gates but my lawyer has just been welcomed with all that razmataz! Ah, son, replies Peter, you see, in heaven ministers are how shall I say, ten a penny, but this is the first lawyer we’ve ever had!
So of course, we are delighted with jokes about eternal salvation, especially if they offend those who’re sure of theirs. But that takes us back to our jokeless Bible. Is it really so solemn, or is the problem the humourless people who have given us its traditional interpretation?
Maybe I should confess that I find the Bible full of jokes, the Old Testament more than the New, although Jesus provides a ready supply. In fact the Bible story has barely begun when we are given several jokes, in the narrative which has been solemnly called, The Fall of Man. You remember that Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit then hide when they hear the voice of God, who easily finds them. Why were you hiding, asks God. Because we are naked, answers Adam. Who told you that you were naked, asks God; have you eaten from the forbidden tree of knowledge? Perhaps this is more a smart deduction than a joke, but I imagine it was delivered with a chuckle. So Adam tries his own joke, It was the woman you put with me, she took the fruit and gave it to me! It’s not a great joke but it blames God for the whole mess. Humour is woven into the great story, which theologians have misinterpreted over centuries. Surely God’s punishment has to be taken seriously, but how can it be, when part of it is removing the legs from a kind of snake we’ve never seen?
Once we open our eyes and ears to the jokes of the Genesis author, we realise that they are built into the whole design of the story. What greater joke can there be than a God who creates a creature which then proceeds to outguess its maker at every opportunity? Unless it’s the spectacle of a creator who is so enraged at his creation that he destroys almost all of it in a flood, and then repents his action. You need a strong sense if humour to appreciate this story. (The biggest joke of all of course is that this comic-cuts narrative has been made the basis of an utterly humourless theology about the total corruption of humanity.)
I could go on. Genesis is the funniest and most profound piece of theology in the Bible, with the exception of the Jesus tradition represented in the Gospels. If we only take the nicknames He gave to his disciples, Cephas the rock for Simon the shaky; the MacThunders for the aggressive sons of Zebedee; jihadi for the ex-zealot Simon; we can see a wry humour which is not without affection.
When Jesus talks about hypocritical religious people, he exposes their play-acting but finishes with the mild observation, They have their reward. This is accurate and funny. As is his vivid remark about trying to remove a speck from your brother’s eye while having a log in your own. We need to waken up to this dry, passionate, humorous voice which the first three gospels give us as the voice of Jesus.
The parables of Jesus are another example of his wit. The rich man in hades demands that Abraham should send the poor man with some water to moisten his mouth. You can imagine Jesus imitating his accent. Abraham then explains that heaven is a reverse mirror image of the rich man’s society. As it placed a great gulf between rich and poor, so God has placed a great gulf between reward and punishment, so nobody can help him. What fun this is for the poor people listening! Jesus is not giving a lesson about the geography of the afterlife but about the justice of God.
Once we open ourselves to the humour of Jesus, we will find it everywhere in the gospels.
Jokes, which make us laugh because they reveal the contradictions, disproportions, ironies, and baffling stupidities of human behaviour, are integral to any tradition of thought that offers us wisdom. The fundamental joke of the Bible is that the creator God has to learn to be a human being in order to perfect his creation. We need to read the story with humour as well as piety.