For almost a year now we have been exploring significant words that speak to our faith. Our Easter word is serendipity. “The occurrence and development of events in a happy or beneficial way; The phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”
Both definitions speak to us today. On the one hand Mary found a most agreeable thing not sought for, Jesus resurrected. And on the other hand, what a rare joy to celebrate the resurrection on April Fools Day! The last time these days aligned was 1956. For a sense of how rare, our son was born on Easter in 1995. Since then his birthday has fallen on Easter three times. So something that has not happened in 62-years is to be noted.
Don’t get me wrong, April Fools Day is not significant in Christianity, but it is the perfect excuse to talk about jokes …in the Bible and otherwise that might impact our faith.
Naturally social media has been all over this this week. My favorite was the mock pinterest photo of a bunch of grapes being wrapped in the foil of chocolate Easter eggs like these. I thought I’d give the grapes to the choir, but suspect they would rather have the chocolate. What do you think?
Get an image of the last supper in your mind. Another that made the rounds this week went like this:
Jesus and the disciples walk into a restaurant:
Jesus: “We’d like a table for 26”
Matre’d: “But there are only 13 of you.”
Jesus: “We like to sit on the same side.”
When I first went to seminary I was sure that to grow in Christian discipleship it was important to take the Bible seriously at all times. Jesus was very serious and we are to be serious followers. My brother tried his best to keep me grounded, writing letters to me addressed to the Princeton Monastery, the return address saying it was from the Vatican. I would smile and then hide the letters them thinking one could not possibly jest about such serious matters.
Then I happened upon Kurt Vonnegut’s essay “Palm Sunday.” Vonnegut was not a Christian, yet he was invited to preach at an Episcopal church on Palm Sunday 1980. In his text he took on Matthew 26, in which Jesus says, “For you always have the poor with you.” That is a text that is notoriously difficult for all sorts of Christians.
Vonnegut argues that Jesus is not dismissing Judas’ concern for the poor, but rather making a joke at Judas’ expense. To make the joke clearer, Vonnegut paraphrases it: “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.
This, Vonnegut says is a “divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil, but to chide Judas about his hypocrisy just the same.”
When you know what to look for, Jesus jokes all the time. The Bible is full of jokes. In Matthew 22, when Jesus is confronted with a question about taxes and tithes, his response –“Give therefore to the emperor” is a joke. Which is not to say that Jesus is not serious. A joke need not be frivolous or false, in fact the best jokes are neither.
In Luke’s take on the Beatitudes Jesus promises, “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.” Which is not a joke, but an endorsement. In John 8 with the crow about to stone the adulterous woman Jesus says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He is both deadly serious and making a joke.
Perhaps the first joke in the Bible is Genesis 4 when Cain replies “Am I my brother’s keeper?” His impudence is both astounding and hilarious. God may have been laughing as God thought, “Of course you are, Fool.”
I suspect the reason we miss the jokes in the Bible is our Puritan tradition of disdain for levity. It tends to frame the things Jesus says as pithy ripostes or clever aphorisms, but never 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.
I still struggle with that overly serious guy who went off to seminary a few short years after accepting Christ. I still can miss the joke, or worse, miss when I’m the brunt. Yet as I get older, I find it is hard to trust anyone who lacks a sense of humor. A sense of humor isn’t a substitute for moral direction, there are lots of vicious, abusive, violent jokes. But the ability to tell good jokes (and get them) is deeply tied to our moral imagination.
Explaining jokes ruins them, but let me point out that jokes have structure, usually a premise and a conclusion held in tension. 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. A good joke 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?
The jokes Jesus tells show us our predicament: made in the image of God but separated by sin from God’s grace. The idea that the Christ who bridged this divide might lack a sense of humor seems to me a stony-faced denial of Jesus’ humanity. For laughter is both human and humane, an essential tool to help us cross the distance to God.
Eugene Rogers, introducing Rowan Williams essay in Theology and Sexuality, says that “you have understood it when you get the jokes.” This applies to the Bible as well.
Our text for this Easter, this April Fools Day is loaded with heavy stuff. But there are two good jokes, the footrace of the disciples who run headlong into their continued lack of comprehension, and Mary. Mary Magdalene remains behind weeping over the tomb.
Mary, “supposing him to be a gardener,” does not recognize Jesus. That is an exceptional insight into Mary’s interior life. It is also a joke. It is a joke about Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus. But it is also a joke about our failure to recognize him. The joke is at Mary’s expense and ours.
It is neither a stretch, nor a 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. That is serendipity.
Celebrate Easter then, with the rite of laughter. So laugh like a woman who holds her first baby. Laugh like a man who finds he doesn’t have cancer, or he does, but now there’s a cure. Laugh like children as the gates of Disney World. Laugh like a man who walks away uninjured from a wreck in which his car was totaled. Laugh as if all the people in the whole world were invited to a picnic and then invite them.
“Jokes can be noble,” says Vonnegut. “Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears.” We have no problem with the Jesus who wept. This Easter, let’s grapple with the Jesus who laughed.