Help! Did Jesus ever laugh?

The audience, weary of burdens and regulations laid upon them by pompous Pharisees, would have tears of laughter at the “swallowing-the-camel” image.

Laughter and joyDear Thoughtful Pastor: My son laughed in church when he heard the New Testament reading of Jesus chiding Peter about his lack of faith after he was the only one with enough faith to trust Jesus’s invitation to walk on water to reach him and started to sink when he was within arm’s reach of Jesus.

A concordance search brought up no record of Jesus laughing.

A concordance search brought up no record of Jesus laughing.

What do you think Jesus’s sense of humor was like? Are there other instances recorded that capture this part of his personality?

-Buddha laughed, why not Jesus?

I have often wondered the same thing. Did Jesus ever laugh? Were there times of relaxed camaraderie with the folks around him? Was he just too holy, too set apart, for humor and jokes?

Like it or not, humor can be a bit cruel, with words spoken at the expense of others. Would, or should, Jesus engage in such things?

The Gospels are not biographies, systematic efforts to made a record of a life. Instead, each had a focus audience in mind, all different.

Matthew, full of quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures aimed at the Jews.

Mark fast-paced, brief, wrote for the efficient Romans.

Luke, along with the companion book, Acts, went straight after the Gentiles, the perennial outsiders. His work particularly emphasizes Jesus’ encounters with those considered unclean and outside any hope of Covenant.

John, completely different, appears to write for the mystical, allegorically-minded reader.

We can’t easily see the laughter and humor in translation

We read translations of words originally spoken in Aramaic, a kind of colloquial, conversational Hebrew. The memories of those Aramaic words then find their way, via translation, into Greek manuscripts. One or more translations later, plus two centuries, we in the US read them in English.

Because of this, we often miss the subtlety in Jesus’ frequent use of hyperbole, teasing, and just plain shock to catch the listener’s attention.

Matthew 23 records a bundle of accusations that Jesus hurls at the religion experts of his day, the Pharisees and scribes.

Now, keep in mind that these people held massive power over the people, already oppressed by Roman rule and presence. They were the interpreters and enforcers of the religious law, their pronouncements binding upon the people.

No democracy here, no free thought: this is the nature of a theocracy, the place where religion and political powers are one and the same. Pharisaical decisions about what was and what was not acceptable behavior carried significant weight and authority.

Jesus pokes fun at the Pharisees

Look at one of Jesus’ accusations:  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.

Photo credit: @Doug88888 via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: @Doug88888 via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Here’s what we don’t get: the Aramaic word for gnat is gamlâ’ and the word for camel is qalmâ.

Step back and see what he just said. See how wordplay becomes the great put-down?

Jesus describes the oh-so-important religious people as meticulously straining their soup and wine to eliminate any possible contamination. Swallowing a gnat would render them ritually unclean.

But then he paints them happily openly their mouths wide to swallow a whole camel.

The size disparity is adequately ludicrous. We English readers see that.

But it’s much worse for those in the first-century audience. The Law, and remember, Jesus speaks to the declared experts on the Law, clearly states in Deuteronomy 14 that the camel is an unclean animal.

An observant Jew would never, ever, consume one. The very thought would make them shudder in horror.

Assume that Jesus delivers this insult with perfect timing, combined with facial expressions and vocal tones to match. Again, we have to read those things into the text. Flat words tell us nothing.

The audience, weary of the burdens and impossible regulations laid upon them by those pompous Pharisees, would have tears streaming from laughter at the “swallowing-the-camel” image.

It’s the perfect put-down. The first-century version of Don Rickles, master of insults.

Surely, Jesus and his groupies also had a good chuckle later as they recounted the story around the fire.

Surely God has a sense of humor

But for some reason, many have decided God has no sense of humor. Really? The Creator who came up with the giraffe and the duck-billed platypus can’t laugh?

The whole story in Genesis 2 of God bringing all the animals before the first man to see which would be the perfect mate and partner is ridiculously funny.

But God forbid that we see the humor, given to make a point.

So, to answer your question: I can’t name a verse and say, “See, Jesus laughed here.” But I’ll stake my life that he did.

And so should we. Humor is a gift from God.

The Thoughtful Pastor

[Note: A version of this column is slated to run in the May 19, 2017, edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.

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  • Great piece. Another instance of God’s sense of humor is when the Israelites see manna for the first time (Exodus 16:15) and ask “What is it?” Which literally is “manna” in Hebrew. So it’s like an Abbot and Costello thing between God and the Israelites.
    I: What is it?
    G: Yes.
    I: No, really, what is it?
    G: Exactly
    And on it goes!

  • KateGladstone

    “the Aramaic word for gnat is gamlâ’ and the word for camel is qalmâ” —
    Are you sure that you haven’t transposed the two? Please check.

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Great article again. I like to think that humor was part of Jesus’ life. Why should we have it and He didn’t?

  • Chuck Johnson

    Much of Christianity teaches blind obedience to authority.
    In such a political environment, laughter is to be avoided and suppressed.

    “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
    (The Mysterious Stranger, 1908)