210. The Dry Humor of Jesus – except for the time when it was very wet


When I first went to college, a church of my denomination sponsored a supper for us newcomers. As we ate, one guy made a cute (clean!) remark. We laughed. The pastor looked at us severely and said: “Life is a serious matter. We should not make jokes about it.” We never went back.

I love humor, as long as it’s clean and not mean. I’ve found it the best way to deal with the absurdities of life, of which there are many. (OK, sometimes I overdo it. Ask my wife.) Whenever I’ve discovered that I couldn’t find humor in anything, couldn’t laugh, that signaled to me that something had gone badly wrong, and it was time to make some changes or get some help. And when I have found someone who rarely laughed, I have always figured something was wrong there.

Humor and Orthodoxy

So, imagine my discomfort to find that my patron Saint Basil the Great  agreed with that grim pastor. Basil said that the Lord Jesus never laughed. In his eulogy for his sister Macrina, he said that one of her greatest virtues was that she rarely smiled. He advised: “The Christian…ought not to laugh nor even to suffer laugh makers.” Not only that: Saint John Chrysostom agreed that the Lord never laughed or even smiled, and said “This world is not a theater in which we can laugh.”

Oh dear. Basil has been my patron and guide for these thirty years. I respect and admire him and Chrysostom and the dear Macrina enormously.

So what do I do with this? I think that in this matter those two great Fathers and one dear Mother were wrong. (If you think I should be excommunicated or defrocked or burnt at the stake, please comment at the bottom.) I believe they probably were reflecting the cultural norms of the time. Of course, probably so am I.

But consider: Jesus Christ was fully human in all things except sin. Hebrews 2:17, 4:15 He ate and drank. He wept. He was frustrated and angry. He suffered and died. So why should we think He did not smile? Human beings smile and laugh.

However, I’ve read only one Orthodox source that dealt with the possibility that Jesus had a sense of humor, and the author thought maybe, but probably not. So perhaps I’m on my own here.

Let’s get something straight. “Humorous” does not mean “not serious”. Perhaps this just reflects my intellectual shallowness, but I have heard many sobre sermons, read many solemn books – and today I can’t remember much from most of them. But I do remember the teaching of G.K. Chesterton, for example, or C.S. Lewis, or Father Thomas Hopko, who used a bit of engaging humor. I’ve found that most Orthodox have a good sense of humor – except they can be so solemn about their religion. In this Blog, I have purposely tried to counter this – for better or for worse is for you to say.

Now, am I wishing that Basil and Chrysostom had put a few funny lines in their Liturgies? Of course not. You’ll find this hard to believe, but I once attended a wedding ceremony in a certain church (not Orthodox!) best left nameless, where all through the ceremony the priest told jokes. It was dreadful beyond description. I left early so I wouldn’t have to talk to him.

Nor am I suggesting that the Lord Jesus just went for laughs like that priest I mentioned. Do I want Christ grinning out at us from His icons. No! Here’s a picture by some Protestant artist. I think it’s just short of sacrilegious.

The Dry Humor of Jesus

My wife said “humor” is the wrong word here. Probably it is, but we both looked and couldn’t find a better one.

I don’t mean “ha ha” humor. I mean clever humor, humor often so dry, so nearly imperceptible that you might easily miss it, unless you try to imagine the situation and the intended effect of His words or actions. He used very subtle, mentally challenging humor. Sometimes He had almost a mischievous sense of humor, using impossible images and saying things that sounded absurd – often without explaining Himself. He was going for peoples’ reaction, trying to startle them (and us) into thinking and imagining.

Over the years I’ve found that when I can’t understand something the Lord Jesus says or does, I put a little twinkle in His eyes, and often what He meant and what He was “up to” seems to come clear. It doesn’t always work, but try it, and see what you think.

Outrageous images

“Why do you try to take a speck out of your brother’s eye when you’ve got a log in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3-5  He could have said simply “You’re a greater sinner than he is.” Why didn’t He?

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.” Matthew 19:24 I’ve read possible explanations for this. No matter, He chose to use this funny image.

Startling statements not explained, intended to challenge peoples’ thinking

What He said above flummoxed His disciples, because everybody knew riches were a sign of God’s favor. They asked  “Then who can be saved”? Jesus gave them a non-answer: “With men it is impossible. With God all things are possible.” Put a little twinkle in His eye.

Jesus is invited to dinner by a “prominent Pharisee”. The Pharisee’s guests wanted nothing to do with what He had to say. So He leans over and says to His host: Don’t invite these people to dinner. They’re only going to repay you. “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” who can’t repay you. Luke 14:13 His host surely stared at Him in disbelief – but it’s my party – and I suspect Jesus “deadpanned” it. Finally He added “You’ll be repaid at the resurrection…” That was not quite what His host had in mind!

Astonishing actions which He used to playfully “tease” the disciples towards belief

Early in His ministry, Christ and the disciples were out on the sea by night. A storm came up. Jesus was asleep. The disciples wake Him: “Master, don’t you care that we are perishing?” So He wakes and commands the winds and the waves: “Be still!” and they are! Imagine the disciples sitting there, mouths agape, awestruck. And He says to them, as if nothing much has happened, “Where is your faith?” Didn’t you know I could do that? He’s teasing them. Of course they didn’t know that! Not yet. You see: There’s a purpose in His humor. He’s leading them on to ask: “Who is this that wind and waves obey Him?” They would soon learn who He is. Matthew 8:23-27

In last Sunday’s Gospel reading Mark 6, Matthew 14 five thousand men plus women and children have come out into the desert to hear Him. They’re enthralled and won’t leave. His disciples are in a panic. “Master, send them into town to buy food.”

Again He teases them, “You give them something to eat.” Again try to imagine their reaction: “But…but… but… us? that’s crazy!” This time He didn’t leave them hanging. All the while “knowing what He would do”, He shows them how they can feed the multitudes: First bring their meagre gifts to Him, and He will multiply them. Today the world is still feeding on the work of the Apostles. Christ is still multiplying their gifts and ours – “thine own of thine own, we offer unto thee” –  both material and spiritual, now beyond measure.

But now comes this Sunday and a “slapstick” story. Definition: “Slapstick is a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of normal physical comedy.” That’s exactly what we have here.

Jesus walks on water, but the Rock sinks.

Gospel Reading for the Ninth Sunday of Matthew: Matthew 14:22-34

Some of what follows here is paraphrased, with a few words of interpretation added.

Christ had fed the multitude and sent them home. He told the disciples to set out by boat for the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while He remained behind. He went up onto a mountain, as He often did, to pray. 

It is the fourth watch, the darkest part of the night just before dawn. The boat is out in the middle of the lake. The wind and the waves are up. The disciples see this figure walking on the sea, Mark’s Gospel says “as if to go past them”. Mark 65:48  

As if to go past them?! He’s teasing them, playing games with them. I mean, what other possible explanation is there? That he’d decided to go for a 4 a.m. stroll on the waves and just happened, by chance, to walk past the boat? 

Their natural reaction: Fright. What is it? a ghost? and they cry out, afraid. Then Jesus’ voice comes to them across the waters: “Take heart. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” The disciples are doubtful, and Simon Peter (who, bless his heart, always has to say something) this time blurts out something crazy, but so full of trust: “Lord, if it is you tell me to come to you on the water”. I can’t help but think that the Lord, in the darkness, allowed Himself a quiet loving laugh as He says: Alright. “Come.” This is going to be fun. 

Now, I’m sure you know that Christ gave Simon the name Peter. It means “Rock”.

So Peter in faith gets out of the boat and walks on the water towards the Lord across the waves! till suddenly he panics. You can tell he’s saying to himself: Wait! I can’t be doing this. People can’t walk on water! The Rock starts to sink, and thrashing about he cries out, “Lord, save me!” So Jesus walks over, stretches out His hand, catches Him, and right there with the two of them standing atop the Sea the Lord gently teases him: “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peter, where’s you faith? Didn’t you know you could walk on water? Of course Peter didn’t know that! And then He walks His disciple across the water to the boat, they get in, the wind ceases and they arrive safely on the other side. 

A slapstick story, but merely slapstick? No. Even this kind of humor can be used to make serious points, and this one like the sea is deep, with many profound symbols and images. Remember that Christ’s parables and actions often have double and triple layers of meaning.

For example, if you haven’t seen yourself in this story, read it again. We all are sailing across the sea of life, trying to reach the “other side”. When it’s dark and stormy Christ our God comes to us. At first we may not recognize it’s Him, and He frightens us. Even when we recognize His voice, still we’re not quite sure. But He finds a way to assure us: “Don’t be afraid”. 

When He comes to us sometimes He plays little games with us to loosen us up, open us up to new seeming impossibilities. But if we put our faith in Him, Christ can allow us to “walk upon the waters”. If we begin to fear and lose faith, as we almost always do, and begin to sink, if we call on Him He will come and save us and lead us back to the boat. 

The boat in which He has joined us is mankind, His Incarnation – but at the end of the story, the boat is also His Church which gets us safely to the “other side”.

As I say, we can approach His parables and stories from different angles, sometimes all at once. No problem. Don’t think like a modern Western literalist.

The last line is most important. When it was all over, those in the boat “worshiped Him saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.”  This is where He’s leading them. This the One who walks upon the sea, who rules the wind and the waves and the world – and rules us. It is through this scary wonderful process that we learn who this Man really is and to trust Him. “Truly you are the Son of God’.” *

  • Personal testimony: When He first called me to ordination, I didn’t know it was Him. All I knew was that suddenly this thing was planted in my heart. I did not yet believe in Him, didn’t know Who He is. I wasn’t especially “religious”, knew very little about religion. I was scared even to speak in public. Whatever was happening, I thought I had to do it all by myself. It meant giving up what I had spent my college life preparing for. But by His grace, I jumped out of the boat, and when I’ve failed, as I have many times, He took my hand, and now sixty years later…  I never could have imagined what He would do for me. Do I know who He is now? You know I do.

Many serious points in this story. Yes. But it’s also very funny. 

So my advice:

Brothers and sisters, loosen up. Be joyful about your Faith, and don’t be afraid to show it. Despite the dark stormy state of the world, despite our sins and failings, we have good reason to be happy: “Fear not, little flock. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Luke 12:32  “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

G.K. Chesterton touched on this at the end of his book Orthodoxy (by which he meant not Eastern Orthodoxy but traditional Christianity):

“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city.

   “Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

Next Week: What did Jesus really look like?

Week after Next: 2013 -the Trip to Greece that wasn’t, and the Miracle that was

14 thoughts on “210. The Dry Humor of Jesus – except for the time when it was very wet

  1. Two points: 1) I’m now imagining Christ’s human nature pondering at that moment if he could out-walk a sailboat.

    2) One need only look at the platypus or blob fish to see that God has a sense of humor.

  2. Immediately after I finished reading your blog, I scrolled through my other emails and noticed one of my Merriam-Webster “word of the day” emails that I overlooked from a few days ago. The word happened to be “risible” which means capable of laughing. A priest once said in a sermon that there are no coincidences. If that’s the case, then it appears you should be safe from being excommunicated, defrocked, or burnt at the stake!

  3. He is shown as appreciating the wit of the Samaritan woman who said the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table . He healed her daughter promptly because she answered well.

    1. I hadn’t thought of that. She gave such a clever “spunky” answer He couldn’t resist.

    2. M. Emberson, I have a different take on the cry of the Samaritan woman. She had seen who Jesus is. She was in desperate pain and need and cried out to Jesus with deep longing and pain.
      Wit is the product of a well fed mind and often a hard heart.

      1. Thanks.I had not meant that kind of wit,though. She responded with a clever riposte ,perhaps. Much as many people display humour in desperate situations .

  4. What a lovely depiction of our Lord. Thank you, Father. I’ve often imagined Christ calling Peter a “Rock” with a particularly mischievous wink, but haven’t given much thought to him out on the water acting like he’s just out for a stroll. Wonderful.

    1. In the sense of solid and stable, Peter certainly wasn’t a rock when He called him. But he turned him into a Rock, didn’t He?

  5. Laughter is such a wonderful gift, real laughter, that I think it highly unlikely that Jesus did not laugh. As a line from the play, “A Lady’s Not For Burning” says, “the phenomenon of cachinnation is an irrelevancy that almost amounts to a revelation”.
    However, it can also be used as a weapon and used to shame and destroy people’s hearts. That is a different kind of laughter though.

    Laughter can also be the result of shame as well as a sudden recognition of a discontinuity of some sort or even shared pain. It can be induced in people with nuanced pauses and other types of designed rhythm.

    There was a classic Borscht Belt comedian, Henny Youngman whose entire gig was based on discontinuities in timing. His tag line was “Take my wife please”. The way he said it was “Take my wife…..PLEASE” Even when everybody in the audience knew it was coming, people laughed.

    It is not a simple question of whether Jesus laughed or smiled. I find it impossible to believe he did not because “what is not assumed, is not saved”.

    Nevertheless from an Orthodox perspective it is not difficult to understand saints not smiling or laughing. Saints are extreme people who often feel things and see things far more deeply than you or I. They also tend to be more empathetic and therefore more aware of other people’s pain. How else does one really pray for another person and see them without entering into their pain, sharing it and offering it up to God together for healing and transformation. A life like that would make it difficult to smile and laugh I would think.

    Then there is the great Slovenian word podvig–struggle, wrestle the English root for struggle also means to stumble. So as we struggle and stumble through our separation from God, it can be quite difficult to laugh and smile when carrying our Cross.

    Still there is much about which to smile, laugh and even whoop with joy. That is a wonderful thing, Certainly not something to be despised.

  6. Thank you Father Bill for reminding me that laughter is yet another emotion that our Lord gave to us, and for good reason! I can’t imagine not being able to laugh not only at myself, but at the many dilemmas we find ourselves in. In John 16:33 the Lord tells us “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

    One of the many reasons I read your blog is for your use of gentle humor. Great!

  7. In Luke chapter 10, the 72 disciples are sent out: green missionaries on their first expedition without Jesus. They return full of good news: even the spirits have been subject to them. Jesus “exulted greatly in the Holy Spirit.” The Greek word for exult means to “rejoice greatly”. Further definitions of rejoice” are “to feel or show great delight” and “to show triumphant elation or jubilation.”
    Can anyone do that without a smile? Perhaps Jesus even laughs for joy?

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