“Our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:2).
Have you heard the one about a priest, a rabbi and a monk who walk into a bar? Religion and humour are often found together. A religion of any stripe can so easily take itself too seriously. Humour plays an important role in helping us see the comical in ourselves and in others amid the complexities of life. Author Franz Kafka once wrote, “the comical is present in every stage of life, for wherever there is life there is a contradiction and wherever there is contradiction the comical is present.” Christian faith appears contradictory, more accurately it is paradoxical; sinner and saint, law and grace, self-denial and self-love, Son of God, Son of Man. The Judaeo / Christian tradition has long believed that encountering God includes moments of laughter and joy. Sombre and stern-faced faith feels like a denial of the God who creates and celebrates human life and at times, smiles at all that is good in the world.
Could it be that God has a sense of humour?
Look at God’s creation; the African meerkat, the South American aardvark, the Mexican axolotl salamander and many others all suggest God had fun whilst creating. Some Biblical stories ouse with humour; take the story of God speaking through Balaam’s ass to have a laugh at Balaam’s expense (Numbers 22: 21ff). Or notice how many times the Psalmist observes that God laughs when arrogant, self-important humans think they will have the last laugh. Many of the prophets of old clearly had a sense of humour. Isaiah walked around naked and Jeremiah carried an ox yoke on his shoulders in order to shake the status quo into giving attention to God. Moreover, several New Testament scholars in reading between or beneath the text suggest that Jesus had a wonderful sense of humour.
It is no coincidence that Jesus was so popular at parties. It seems very likely that he loved conversation, banter and a joke or two. Amy-Jill Levine points out that many of the stories that Jesus told were very funny, with their use of exaggeration and hyperbole. Part of the popularity of Jesus was that he knew how to connect with an audience.
Centuries later, Dante and Erasmus reminded the world and the Christian community that faith and folly can come together. Of course, life has its tragic and dark side. Suffering is never far from any of us. We should be able to laugh at ourselves but we have to be careful who we laugh at, for humour can be offensive and very hurtful. Jokes can be racist, ageist, prejudiced, misogynistic and belittling of others. There are boundaries to our humour. Humour can unfairly distort, caricature and cruelly misrepresent others. It can be cheap, lewd, and profane.
Dare I say it; humour can also be blasphemous, offensive to God and God’s holy and loving purposes. As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, “there is a time to laugh and a time to be weep” (Eccles 3:40).
We need to discern the difference.
May you enjoy the gift of laughter.