April Fools’ Day is the perfect excuse to talk about jokes in the Bible. Most of us believe that the Bible is all heavy stuff, and Christian discipleship is based on a very serious Jesus, so we need to try to be a very serious Christian. But the Bible is full of jokes! This does not mean Jesus is not serious. A joke need not be frivolous or false, and in fact the best jokes are neither. One reason we miss jokes in the Bible is our Puritan tradition of disdain for levity, which tends to frame the things Jesus says as pithy ripostes or clever aphorisms – but not jokes. There is a logic to this: we have no problem being fully human but struggle to be godly, so we should focus on what is godly about Jesus. The ability to tell good jokes (and get them) is deeply tied to our moral imagination.
A good joke in the functional sense depends on our ability to see the difference between the world as it is and as it could be. A good joke in the moral sense, then, depends on our ability to see the difference between is and should. A good joke can light up the dark between the two, can help us see one from the other. Not everything that is funny is a joke, and not every funny joke is a good joke, but a good joke helps us see the distance between who we are and who we should be. Who but Jesus ever saw so clearly the distance between is and should? Who else had the imagination to grasp fully the gulf between heaven and earth? Laughter is both human and humane, an essential tool to help us cross the distance to God.
The lectionary for April 1 – Easter Sunday – is heavy on the heavy stuff, but it does contain one good joke. In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus finds Mary Magdalene weeping over the tomb. Mary, “supposing him to be a gardener,” does not recognize him. It is a joke about Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus, but also a joke about the reader’s ability to do so. The joke is at Mary’s expense and also ours.
It is neither stretch nor slight to say that the resurrection was a joke – and a good one. What more could Jesus have done to mock the world that killed him than rise from the dead? When we say we are Easter people, we say we live in the light Jesus brought to the darkness between what is and what should be.
“Jokes can be noble. Laughs are exactly as honourable as tears. We have no problem with the Jesus who wept. This Easter, let’s grapple with the Jesus who laughed”. (Kurt Vonnegut)
(adapted from an article by Miles Townes on Christian Century)
Here’s another thoughtful article on Eureka Street.