Religion without Humor is Blasphemy 1
A sermon based on Luke 5:1-11
at Mount Vernon, OH on August 28, 2016 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
You may have noticed that I tend to start sermons off with humor (“try” might be the operative word). Humor is a holy thing in my book.
Somewhere along the line I have mentioned before that I attended a seminar where Rabbi Lawrence Kushner said “Religion without humor is blasphemy.”1. Meaning that God is certainly in all of life and shines most particularly in the good and the joyful and if we stifle humor in our faith we do a great disservice to God and ourselves. In my experience humor can serve as means to mediate the Sacred, it can open up a portal to God . . . and to not allow that IS a blasphemy.
Humor is a good and Godly gift. In our many months together we have done more than have humor break the ice in sermons. From time to time we’ve explored humor in some of our Bible lessons. IT can be found in both Old Testament and New . . . and Jesus can even be funny too.
You may recall we discussed that Jesus’ donkey ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday can be heard as Jesus using humor to protest Rome and the pomp and circumstance arrival of Pilate with his royal troops on a showy marshal ride into Jerusalem, as Jesus rode in from the opposite side literally and figuratively as God’s true king without material wealth and armed conscripts, but riches in love and blessings and devoted followers.
Nowadays we imagine Jesus’ ride focusing on the “Hosannas!” not the humor, but, it’s pretty clear that the humor is there lampooning Caesar’s emphasis on violent shows of force and wealth with what God really wants as show, humble leaders who lead people joyfully with and toward the good and God. Justice and kindness.
Most of us probably do not picture Jesus as humourous. He’s not usually seen as a funny guy. We’ve talked this this summer in TAG classes about how in movies Jesus is almost always portrayed as gentle, loving and wise, but kinda humorless. So the Jesus in our films is likable enough, but not funny at all. The Jesus we grew up with and heard about in church is like that too. It’s the Jesus we most often picture in our mind’s eye. I think that is unfortunate. Jesus’ story as a whole with all it’s tragedy of human conduct and the Glory of God’s presence and power, can still also be heard as having humourous edges and angles without taking any of that away. If nothing else, there is the great irony that Jesus, an expendable nobody to Rome, a nobody Rome sought to crush and destroy, in the end outlives the Roman Empire and eventually becomes venerated and worshiped by Roman emperors and all of the Roman Empire– and a goodly portion of the rest of the world even to this day. The story on this one level has a cosmic, loving, almost Chaplin-esque like character besting a big rich bully. In real life the underdog ends up winning for all of us!
In retrospect– with the distance of time– the Gospel story has the ultimate ironic end, but the story can also be heard as beginning with ironic edges that we’ve discussed as well. Caesar Augustus was considered in the Roman culture to have been born of a virgin and with father who was a god. That was Rome’s religious story. Caesar Augustus was believed to have been a god and was even known as Savior, Son of God, Lord and Bringer of Peace. 2 The authors of Matthew and Luke cheekily co-opt these stories about Caesar, twist them around in supreme contortions taking those stories about Caesar and making them applicable to the peasant Virgin Mary, and her peasant infant son Jesus.
The Christmas story is about the God of real peace choosing a non-Roman power elite, someone of lower class origin as the real Bringer of Peace. This cleverly knocks down Caesar’s story at the start even as it lifts Jesus’ up when he is conceived and when he is born. Consequently Jesus ends up as a reversed mirror image of Caesar by birth story and name for name. If Caesar’s earthly seat of power made him eligible to be worshiped as a god to the Romans, Jesus heavenly birth made him all the more worthy since he came from the One God of love. The God of not just Romans, but the God of everyone.
“Choose your way to god,” the Nativity story can be heard to say, “Rome’s violent peace through Caesar or God’s just peace through Jesus.” The big bad mighty wealthy Caesar is bested by a humble, poor, frail, baby boy born in a stable. An infant peasant is sent to defeat Caesar – AND does. That’s got some humor in it! My little baby Jesus bests your big macho Augustus.
Jesus did this same kind of co-opting in life– that’s where his followers likely picked it up. The Romans had these elite meals that only wealthy men were invited to. They were all the rage– everyone who was anyone went to them. So what does Jesus do? Talk about cheeky! He makes everyone someone by having meals that everybody is invited to. He co-opts the meal idea for all– poor, rich, oppressed, powerful, sinners, enemies, neighbors, foreigners, men, women, children all get to come to Jesus’ table. This catches on, and churches around the world for millennia have celebrated the awesome meal ministry of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper, a meal we celebrate every month.
And it’s not just the meal idea Jesus judo flips for everyone. We’ve talked about how Rome ran on a patron system with people owing allegiance to patriarchs, father figureheads above them in the system. So what does Jesus do? He takes a little used pronoun for God, “Father” and turns it into the name he most often calls God. Rome wants its people to give allegiance to patriarchs, their patron fathers. But Jesus’s spins this completely around by calling his followers’ allegiance to a patriarch alright, God as Father the only patron anyone will ever need. And then he does something even more amazing he makes sure that we understand not only God as our patron Father, but as “Abba,” daddy – a loving close personal father. Certainly we are meant to smile more than a little at these ironic twists in the Jesus stories.
Looking through the Gospels we can find a lot of other humorous acts or sayings by Jesus and about Jesus– see it was the nature of not only Jesus but his following to smile and have humorous moments. I am going to rattle off just a few more of them . . . Hyperbole, or exaggerated images or descriptions is a form of humor.
Today’s reading about the fishermen is a great example. Jesus tells some fisherman who are soon to be his disciples to throw their nets in the water. Having just returned from a failed outing he’s told “We tried already. All night. No luck.” But they try again to humor Jesus and like a cartoon story when they pull in their nets there are so many fish – where there were none– that their boats begin to sink. Listening to this story Luke’s community would have smiled at the picture the story paints of the tired fishermen being told to try one more time and the surprise they get with over-burdened boats loaded to the gills (so to speak) with fish.
We hear Jesus use exaggeration in his teachings. One of his most famous is meant to conjure up a funny image. Picture what Jesus is literally portraying when he asks “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Luke 6: 41).
Or here’s one worthy of being in what we used to call Saturday morning cartoons: in Mark (10:25) Jesus says “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” He meant us to picture a large life-sized camel going through the eye of a teeny tiny real eye of a needle. It’s meant to be funny.
Perhaps my favorite exaggerated images of humor from Jesus is found in Matthew 23 (24) when he accuses religious leaders of being hypocrites for neglecting justice and mercy and faith, while worrying about little unclean bugs in their wine. Jesus says “You . . . strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” That’s a funny image. Culturally camels were unclean – like gnats– only obviously much bigger! Jesus is using humor to point out there are big camel sized worries not being tended to and these guys are worried about dinky things, petty legalities instead of poverty, oppression and other injustices. I like this little Jesus joke because it not only takes on petty squabbling while there are big problems that really need our attention, but in Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue, it also has a pun. Yes, Jesus was a punster! Gnat in Aramaic is “galma” camel is “gamla.” This is funny: Straining galma and swallowing gamla.” Okay, maybe puns don’t work so well in translation. The closest I could get in English is you strain out the dinky while swallowing the donkey. Dinky. Donkey. Galma. Gamla. Word play.
Jesus does word play with Simon too. First of all, fishermen as fishers of men, is a nice clear pun in our lesson today. And it turns out, Simon in the gospels is a not always so solid a disciple, he’s sometimes unsteady and slow to get what Jesus means, he loses faith, he disagrees with Jesus, even denies that he will deny him and then denies him.
This not so solid fellow Jesus renames “Rock” which translates as “Peter.” There are at least two levels of word play in this name. The obvious is Jesus founds the church on the rock of the Rock, but there is also the irony that the unsteady Peter is called Rock. It’d be kinda like calling me “youngster.” It doesn’t fit. So it is funny.
There is not just punny stuff, humorous satire and irony is found throughout Jesus’ sayings. He deflates elitism with satirical statements of the obvious. When Jesus first starts his ministry the religious elite give him grief for tending to the sinners. Jesus notes the obvious that healthy people don’t need doctors do they? The righteous don’t need tending to, the sinners do.
Jesus also notes how the self-righteous show off piety with public prayers, long faces while fasting, and wearing religious items and taking places of honor. They worry about small things like gnats and ritual washing and showy things, when there are big real problems (like oppression, malnutrition, war and violence). Do as the religious elite teach from the Torah, not what they teach by action, do as they say not as they do, Jesus points out they are hypocrites, snakes and vipers brood–kinda scary, yet funny– animal images of the religious elite.
Jesus is often besting the religious elite with the obvious. For example Jesus notes that Sabbath is for humanity, not the other way around. He notes that we don’t pick figs and grapes off of weeds, but fruit bearing trees. And he says this a lot, that those who have ears to hear need to listen. Obviously that is what ears are for.
Jesus also makes the religious elite respond with humorous results, often balling them up with their own thinking. When they ask “Was John the Baptist from man or from God?” He says “You tell me,” And they can’t for fear of taking a stand. If we say “Man” then the people will be angry. If we say “God” then we have defied God. So they look quite goofy as they opt for the answer: “We don’t know.”
When the religious elite try to get Jesus in trouble over who to pay taxes to, Jesus has them give him a coin with the Roman emperor’s head on it. Jesus asks, “Who’s head is on the coin?” They state, “Caesar’s.” He responds “Well ,pay who is on your coin, your earthly boss, what you owe him. But don’t forget to pay God what is owed God.” The trap the elite set for Jesus goes off on them making them look foolish since they’ve failed to pay God what they owe God. Plus they are found to have the false idol of Caesar’s image in their pocket.
In Jesus longer stories there is much humor too. In “The Good Samaritan” the religious elite walk on by the wounded only to be bested by the unexpected better man, the lowest of the low, an ordinary Samaritan– who in truth is like ordinary Israelites. It is that person the one that they are trained to see as a hated enemy of Israel, not the religious elite, who makes a good neighbor. Talk about ironic.
There is the Prodigal Son who leaves home squanders his money and ends up not just working with unclean pigs, but, longing for pig food. He comes home to a father who’s love is so profound for his son it is shameless. To the eyes of the culture that dad, that “Abba,” is a fool for love. To the dismay and confusion of his other son, the dad loves his wayward brother and honors him. He lets go of cultural expectations and chooses to be a fool for love, for God.
So that’s just some of Jesus’ humor. But let me end with one more bit. Jesus teachings I think humorously belie expectations of heaven being a kingdom of gold and high falutin’ stuff. He messes with our mind. Heaven is like a mustard seed that grows to be the greatest of . . . . shrubs. In other words heaven is a tenacious weed. That’s so far from what we think. Heaven? Like a mustard seed? A shrub? You gotta be kidding?
Jesus was kidding in the sense that he wanted us to smile at his images as well as remember his teachings. Heaven’s a weed. It’s not what a lot of humans want. It’s what God wants–a place here and now where all get enough all the time, a place of well being of peace for everyone. That’s a far cry from Rome and many other earthly powers, wants. Funny thing heaven.
In the Old Testament, Job 8 (21) notes that “God fills our mouth with laughter.” Jesus often does just that if we look for it. And we have a partner in that laughter as we heard in the invocation, Psalm 2 (4) tells us that God sits in the heaven and laughs.
Jesus was an extraordinary man in so many ways. He experienced a lot of serious and tragic events. But he did not let that stop him from filling other mouths with laughter. Psalm 100(2) tells us to “worship the Lord with gladness.” Jesus set just such an example for us.
And it is not just worship at church that it is okay for us to be glad and smile and laugh, but, in dealing with all sorts of trouble from hypocrites to petty literal Biblical enforcement to rough times to just life in general.
The good news to take home today is that it is okay to laugh in life, to find humor in life, to see humor in the Bible and in the gospel stories, and to hear it on the lips of Jesus. The good news is that the Bible is full of humor including the stories of Jesus; including Jesus himself many times! And we should not be afraid to find it in either of those sources, or in our lives. Humor, you see, is a good Godly gift, and we are meant to enjoy it.
* Based on a sermon I wrote in 2008
1. I borrowed some ideas for this sermon from these two articles: Viney, Donald, “The Humor of Jesus of Nazareth,” Midwest Quarterly, (Winter 1997) located at artfuljesus.0catch.com; Bilynskyj, Steve, “The Humor of Jesus” a sermon given at Valley Covenant Church, Eugene, OR on line at godsgrace.org.
2. Borg, Marcus, Crossan, John, The First Christmas, p 57. I also used this book for information on Christmas in general.
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2016