by William J. Stewart
Studying God’s word is a wonderful endeavour, which if undertaken honestly results in wondrous eternal benefit. Students of the word must approach it with a sober attitude, a diligent focus, and a determined volition. With these, there will be much profit, both in the present life and that which is to come.
The Lord conveyed the plan to redeem man through several means. He at times spoke in parables, revealing great spiritual truths through simple earthly stories. Other times, He was as blunt as could be, for example, the list of woes against the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 23). Among other oratory skills, Jesus would occasionally use humour to teach His audience. Isaac Asimov once said,
Jokes of the proper kind, properly told, can do more to enlighten questions of politics, philosophy, and literature than any number of dull arguments.1
Asimov’s persuasion as an atheist / humanist accounts for the absence of religion and morality from his list of subjects which may benefit from the proper use of humour. However, in Jesus’ teaching, we see that humour, correctly employed, can serve to enlighten hearers of religious discourse also. Let us consider a few examples of Jesus’ humour.
Not all humour is knee-slapping, roll on the floor funny. Sometimes an appeal to the absurd will bring a smile to the face of the hearer and convey the orator’s point. Such was the case when Jesus said one does not “…light a lamp and put it under a basket…” (Matthew 5:15). How silly it would be to prepare the lamp and light it, only to hide its light. Is it not equally absurd for the child of God to not shine as a light in the world? We have been prepared for that very purpose—”You are the light of the world.” Get on the lampstand! And when people are drawn to the light, point them to the One who is the true light, the Lord.
Later in the same sermon, discussing worry, Jesus asked, “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” (Matthew 6:27) Friend, you’ve put a lot of time and effort into that worrying that you do, so what has it done for you? Did it make you any taller? Are you any better looking for it? Has it bolstered your health? Through a goofy question, Jesus has demonstrated how nonsensical it is for us to worry, for worry does nothing but harm to our bodies, and betrays a lack of faith in our God and Father.
Matthew 7:3-4 could well be found on the cartoon page of the Saturday paper. Jesus asked, “Any why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?” Sadly, most of us fail to appreciate the humour of this witty word picture, choosing rather to immediately begin analyzing the meaning. Certainly we should seek to know the meaning, but shall we not stop and delight in the Lord’s sense of humour?
Do you not suppose a grin appeared on the face of the people (well, except for the rich) when Jesus said, “…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” (Matthew 19:24). It is right to focus on the helplessness of the rich to save themselves, and to be thankful that though “…with men this is impossible, with God all things are possible” (19:26), but don’t lose sight of the comical image Jesus used to teach this lesson.
You’ve heard of the water who when asked by a patron, “What is that fly doing in my soup?” responded, “Looks like the backstroke to me, sir.” What about the Pharisee who strains his soup time and again looking for a gnat, but fails to see the camel who fills the whole bowl? Jesus said, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mind and anis and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24).
There are certainly other instances where the Lord taught through humour, but these will suffice. Jesus knew when a witty statement would best serve His audience, and when a direct word would be better. The pulpit is the place for Bible teaching, not stand up comedy, but Jesus demonstrated that the mild use of humour can be effective in leaving a lasting impression of a truth in the mind of the hearer. What a blessing to see Jesus’ use of humour in the Scriptures.