May 23, 2016
Did Jesus Laugh?
Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose, is set in an Italian abbey in 1327. The main character is a Franciscan friar named William of Baskerville. He is in Northern Italy to attend what is referred to as a theological disputation. It’s a murder-mystery, but I won’t go into the details of that. What is of interest is the fact that they discuss the “subversive power of laughter.” It comes down to a question that people have been asking since the four gospels were written: did Jesus laugh?
First of all – why should we care? Well, I happen to think it’s an important question. There are a lot of reasons, which I will get to in this essay.
Most people have this strange opinion of the Bible, that God (Elohim, Yahweh, Abba Father) was always sober and serious. This perpetuates the lie of Satan that God is also… boooorrrring. That deception needs to be dealt with. Now, I’m not going to do a comprehensive Scriptural study on the topic of laughter in the world created by Elohim – that would take a lot of time. I’ll try to hit the key points and keep it relatively brief.
Let’s answer the question first: yes, God laughs in the Bible. We are never told explicitly that Jesus laughed during His earthly ministry, but there’s a lot of evidence we can follow to speculate.
Did you know that one of the key people in the Bible has a name that means “he will laugh”? That would be the son of Abraham – the son of promise. Isaac. Do you remember why that’s the name Yahweh told Abraham to call him? It’s because God waited so long to fulfill His promise to Abraham and his wife, Sarah. Yahweh told him he would the “Father of Many Nations.” But He waited many years to fulfill that promise. He waited long enough for Sarah to foolishly send her servant, Hagar the Egyptian, to be the mother of the nations that she hadn’t seen yet. Their attempt to force God’s hand, so to speak, led to the birth of Ishmael. We’re still living with the unfortunate results of that decision today. But I don’t think God rebuked Abraham (who laughed out loud) and Sarah (who laughed inwardly) for laughing – that was part of His plan. He waited until it HAD to be a miracle birth – which, it indeed, was. I believe the laughter, which at first showed a lack of faith, became a symbol of the joy the Lord would bring into the lives of this “past-their-prime” couple when He blessed them with the child of promise. Laughter also is a sign of our amazement at the wonderful works of Yahweh. Isaac was a miracle that only He could have done!
Another time laughter is prominent in Scripture is the recounting in 1 Kings 18 of the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Jezebel’s 400 went first – they tried to call fire down from heaven to light their sacrifices, but to no avail. The funny part is that Elijah started “trash talking” – to build up Elohim, not himself – when they inevitably failed. In verses 27 – 29, we pick up the record:
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
I think we only have a TASTE of what Elijah said, with the Holy Spirit guiding him. He must have been nailing them left and right! Finally, after they fail, at the time of the evening offering, Elijah finally builds an altar to Yahweh, douses it three times with water (at the time of a severe drought) so there’s no doubt of the miracle the people were about to see He prays humbly and fervently… and a miracle happens!
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
OK – then the people killed the prophets of Baal, but that was what they should have done, anyway.
Solomon says in his old-age memoir, the Book of Ecclesiastes, that there are times for everything in life, including “a time to cry, (and) a time to laugh”. He laments how he went away from Elohim during his life, as he sought for worldly pleasures, but what he says about a “merry heart”, both in this book and Proverbs, is true – to be happy in this life, to be joyful, to have fun, are good things, balanced against the other important concerns of this life.
Sarcasm is used throughout Scripture. Elohim nails Job with sarcasm, starting in Chapter 38 – “Where were YOU when I created everything, little man?” summarizes the Lord’s scathing rebuke. He’s not just rebuking Job, though – He’s rebuking his heartless “friends” who were part of Job’s agony instead of being his comforters.
Jesus used a cartoonish image that must have been funny to those listening to Him. It’s recorded in Matthew 7, as part of the Sermon on the Mount, right after He had warned against judging others: “3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Jesus really made the point – there’s no clearer picture of the foolishness of hypocrisy!
Paul used sarcasm in a number of places. He laid it on the Corinthian church throughout his first letter to them, but he really hammers them in Chapter 4, in response to their boasting, as they listened to the lies of the false teachers, who taught them that they had done something to earn what God – Abba Father – had given them.
6 I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers,[ that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 7 For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. (1 Corinthians 4: 6 – 14).
As we might say today: “Tell us what you REALLY think, Paul!” A scathing treatise on the cost of discipleship, indeed! A true disciple of the humble Messiah has no business being arrogant – pride in our own accomplishments, like the false teachers in Corinth had, has no place in the life of a genuine believer. Jesus made the same point in John 15: the world system hates the true disciple; if they hated Him, then they will hate us:
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. (John 15: 18 – 21)
Paul goes even further than just sarcasm talking to the “bewitched” Galatians – all the way to some pretty rough hyperbole. The false teachers, who we today call the “Judaizers”, because they were teaching the Galatian church (and others) that salvation required that new believers keep the Jewish law. They were violating the Biblical principle of grace – Yahweh’s unmerited favor – by replacing it with a works righteousness religion. They were requiring the new Gentile believers to become Jews and keep the Jewish law completely before they could become true believers. The false teachers were even requiring that, in order to be REALLY saved, these Gentile believers had to be circumcised. The truth is: there are no works that we can do to get us saved, or to keep us saved. Genuine salvation simply requires that a person repent – humbly admit to Abba Father that we are sinners – and to believe the gospel – the good news that Jesus, the Messiah, the genuine King of Israel, the only God-man, lived a sinless life and died a substitutionary death on our behalf, rising from the dead to “seal the deal.” That’s it – works come as a RESULT of being saved, not an antecedent to it. So, we can understand why Paul gets a little rough with these false teachers in Galatia when he writes:
7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5: 7 – 15).
Does verse 12 really mean that? Ouch! Well, I did say it was hyperbole – but that’s what it says! He’s saying that they should do … that… using a word that in other places means “to castrate” – to themselves (not that anybody should do it to THEM).
There are three other significant reasons, I believe, that Jesus laughed. For one thing, humor is something we associate with Jewish people, still the Chosen Children of Abraham, today. Look at just the American culture of the last century and a half or so – Jewish people were, and are, in the forefront of comedy. Not only were the Three Stooges (at least 5 of the six) were Jewish. The Marx Brothers were Jewish. Jack Benny, George Burns, and Jerry Lewis were all Jewish, along with many others, including Jewish people today like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Jon Stewart. Four of the funniest baseball players ever – Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, and Leo Durocher – probably had Jewish ancestry (I’ve made that claim in other places). But there’s no doubt: Jewish people have a rich sense of humor that attracts us all. It might explain why one of the most popular musicals ever on Broadway – even up to 2016, with its sixth revival (amazing, since it was first produced in 1964) is “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Second: Jesus laughed because we laugh. It’s central to the human experience. We love to laugh… it’s always been something that has been considered good. Not raucous scoffing, but a real, genuine laugh – really, sincerely, the best medicine. Laughter has always been assumed to be healthy for all of us. While, just like anything, humor can be perverted, good cheer is at the foundation of a healthy human experience. While I love “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” because of its powerful message of the meaning of Freedom, I love the significant amount of humor in it. How else can we really appreciate “joy” in our lives?
Last: Jesus is laughing NOW! Read Psalm 2 – He is laughing at the attempts of the “power-brokers” in this world to think that they’re winning. On the surface, it may seem to be that they are… but just like the crucifixion of Jesus, what looked like defeat was absolute victory! Read this – one of the few places in the Tanakh where “the Son” is mentioned by that title;
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.