It’s Day Two — and Excerpt #2 — of our Twitter Book Club on Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, by Fr. James Martin. We’re tweeting through the book over the next several weeks and inviting your comments and questions. It’s easy to join — just read the brief daily excerpt here (or in your book), and then tweet a response or question with the hashtag #patheosmirth. You can follow the whole Twitter conversation here: https://twitter.com/#!/search/%23patheosmirth. For a complete schedule of the excerpts we’ll be reading, click here.
Excerpt 2 from Chapter 2: Why So Gloomy?
Reprinted with permission from HarperOne Publishers
What I see as the undervaluing of humor in church circles is even more surprising when we look carefully at the person of Jesus, whom the Gospels reveal as a man with a palpable sense of joy and even playfulness. You can catch glimpses of this in his interactions with the men, women, and children of his time as well as in many of the parables. “Jesus’s parables are witty in their surprise and catching his listeners off guard,” said Professor Attridge.
Indeed it’s hard to imagine a good storyteller who doesn’t know the value of humor. Jesus probably knew that he had to “grab” his listeners. His stories were often sharp and provocative. After all, he was an itinerant preacher and so needed to attract his listeners quickly through a funny story, a clever parable, or a humorous aside. Also, the constant themes of his preaching — love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; forgive someone seventy times seven times; the kingdom of God is at hand — were so ridiculous, so incongruous, that they may at first have seemed humorous to listeners.
His parables are the stuff of comedy — expectations are frustrated, the poor come out on top, and the rich are revealed as fools. Many parables also delight in the use of hyperbole. In one tale, often called the parable of the talents, before beginning a long journey, a wealthy man calls together his servants and entrusts them with money for safekeeping. To one servant he gives five talents, to another two talents, and to a third one talent. After a time the rich man returns. The first servant, he discovers, has invested the money wisely and has made five more talents, which pleases his master. The second has made two talents over the two he had been given. The thrid, however, has not invested the money at all and merely returns the one talent. He is punished for his lack of industry. The parable is often used by preachers to illustrate the need to use our “talents” in life to the full; Jesus himself draws that serious lesson from the story.
But for the listeners of the day, there would have been a clear element of the absurd in the story, for a “talent” was the equivalent of a worker’s daily wages for fifteen years. The idea of a weaalthy man blithely handing over to one of his servants an extraordinary sum — seventy-five years of wages! — would have evoked a sense of the ridiculous in his hearers. Jesus was not above using a little comic exaggeration to make a point.
Besides the parables, there are other indications that Jesus of Nazareth was a joyful person. Children felt comfortable in his presence, which points to a pleasant, even cheerful disposition. At one point Jesus in the Gospels is castigated for not being as serious as John the Baptist. “John came neither eating nor drinking .. the Son of Man came eating and drinking,” says Jesus, “and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard.'” In other words, the Gospels record criticism of Jesus for being too high-spirited and joyful in his own lifetime. “Jesus and his disciples,” says Father Clifford,” are criticized for living it up.”
Even Jesus’s response to that particular critique shows some humor. In his book God Makes Me Laugh: A New Approach to Luke, Joseph A. Grassi, a New Testament scholar, writes that Jesus “saw his own contrast to the Baptist and the Pharisees with a great sense of humor.” Jesus’s response to the criticism that his disciples don’t fast is to offer an “absolutely ridiculous” question. “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?” he asks. “In likening himself to a bridegroom,” Grassi suggests, “Jesus was effectively saying that his approach changed the ordinary somber picture of religion…to the most joyous images of human life.”
Tweet your response or question to today’s excerpt now, and include the hashtag #patheosmirth.