Friday, November 04, 2011

"Jesus of Nazareth, Stand-Up Comic?"

A student sent me the following article on written by Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life“ (HarperOne). It’s pretty good in offering a different side of the Gospel stories and parables. Whether or not every example is true that Jesus was being funny or ironic, the point that we have being trying to make on different occasions is made: God does have a sense of humor (He’s the one who gives us our senses of humor!):

"Jesus of Nazareth, Stand-Up Comic?"

Was Jesus the Jerry Seinfeld of his day? Not really. His ministry on earth—to announce the Kingdom of God—was more important than being a stand-up comic or poking fun at surly soup vendors. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

On the other hand, the prevailing image of Jesus as the grumpy, dour, depressed prude who spent most of his life suffering is inaccurate. When you look carefully at the Gospels, you find a man with an obvious joie de vivre, a preacher who told funny stories to make a point, a leader who gave his disciples nicknames and a former carpenter who enjoyed a good joke.

So why do we often think of Jesus as gloomy, and why do all those statues, paintings and mosaics portray him as downcast? For one thing, it’s a reflection of the historical emphasis on the Passion and Death of Jesus. For the early Christians, the fact that Jesus was arrested, tried, tortured and crucified was appalling and confusing. So the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) took care to explain this period of Jesus’s life, at great length, to help the early Christians make sense of what transpired before the Resurrection. But as a result, those passages tended to dominate the rest of the Gospels.

Think of it this way: the time from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion represent only about a week in Jesus’s life. Most of the rest of his ministry—which lasted from one to three years–was often spent doing joyful things: sharing meals with disciples, welcoming those on the margins of society, healing the sick and preaching the “Good News.” Along the way, he showed some good humor.

Where? Well, we may not notice it because we’re too removed from it—culturally and temporally. In Jesus’s time, for example, his parables were probably not seen as just clever but, as Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., professor of New Testament of Boston College told me, “hilarious.” For people in first-century Palestine, the idea that someone with a plank of wood in his own eye would critique someone with a speck of dust in his was probably laugh-out-loud funny. “The parables were amusing in their exaggeration and hyperbole,” said Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt.

Some of Jesus’s parables are ridiculous in their exaggeration. Take the story of a rich man who gives to his servants several “talents” to keep while he is away. Some of the servants invest wisely; one not at all. It’s usually seen as a serious story about the proper use of one’s gifts in life. But we may overlook the fact that a “talent” represented 15 years of wages. And to one servant the rich man gives five—the equivalent of 75 years of wages–a ridiculous amount, which would have made listeners smile. “Jesus’s parables are witty in their surprise,” said Professor Harold Attridge of the Yale Divinity School. Elsewhere Jesus bestows on the disciple Simon a new name: “Peter” or “Rock.” While most understand this as Jesus designating Peter as the foundation of the church (which he is) another possibility is offered. Peter (Cephas, or stone, in Greek) may also refer to the character of the tough fisherman—angular, sharp, hard-edged. In other words, it functions as a nickname: “Rocky.” And when the mother of James and John, two disciples, bossily ask whether her two sons will sit at Jesus’s right hand in heaven, he demurs. Later on he gives James and John a nickname: “Boanerges,” or “Sons of Thunder.” Is this a comment on their brashness, or perhaps even, as one scholar suggested to me recently, a playful way of referring to their strong-willed mother?

There are more overt signs of Jesus’s appreciation of a sense of humor. My favorite is the story of Nathaniel in the Gospel of John. When he hears that Jesus is from Nazareth he says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It’s a dig at Jesus’s hometown, which was seen as a backwater. What does Jesus say in response? You would expect the grumpy Jesus to castigate Nathaniel. But he does the opposite. Jesus says, “Here is an Israelite without guile.” In other words, here’s a guy I can trust! And Nathaniel joins the apostles. It’s an indication of Jesus’s appreciation of a sense of humor.

Christians believe that Jesus was “fully human and fully divine.” And being fully human means having a sense of humor. So let’s balance things out a bit and think not only about the “Man of Sorrows” but also the “Man of Joy.”

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