Laughter: it's the best medicine, as the saying goes. In theology, a small number of works have explored the theme of humour and God.
Recently I discovered Robert Darden’s book, Jesus Laughed: the redemptive power of humor, (published by Abingdon, 2008—apologies for the American spelling).
This book provoked me to think about this basic question: did Jesus laugh? It almost seems a ridiculous question, yet somehow or other we need to think about it. Of course, surely any person laughs, at least sometimes. Yet our image of Jesus can be that he was so serious, so committed to serving God, and so concerned for others, that he never had any time to laugh.
Before I go on, I'd like to comment on the question. Just how is it that when we think of Jesus there are so many ordinary, everyday and thoroughly human aspects of life we seem not to attribute to him.
He went to bed at night, and got up in the mornings and (like all of us) went to the toilet.
He had eyes of a particular colour. You would expect that his hair was dark and his skin olive. And he had a particular kind of personality: introvert or extrovert? Who knows?
There are some aspects of Jesus' humanity we don't know about. Some aspects which are probably not important at all: certainly not significant enough for the writers of the Gospels to mention.
But they do include clear indications that he laughed, and that humour and celebration were real and important parts of his teaching and life-style.
The Bible is filled with the invitation to joy. A Dutch theologian, Edward Schillebeecks once wrote that being sad in the presence of Jesus was basically impossible. Jesus invited people constantly into the joyous presence of God. Indeed, Jesus was criticised for his partying habit (Matthew 11.19). And since Jesus is the definitive revelation of who God is and what God is like, that means that God invites us into joy.
Yes, Jesus did laugh; what’s more, he made jokes. Darden’s book includes a wonderful cartoon representing Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7. 3, about not picking on the speck in your neighbour’s eye, when there is a plank in your own eye. This is a classic piece of humour, using a bizarre image to make a point. Here’s Darden’s version: “So this Pharisee with a log in his eye says, ‘Would you like to dance with me?, and his date says, ‘Would I, would I?’” The caption reads, ‘Jesus does stand up’.
Perhaps the most confronting (and sad!) section in this book is the chapter ‘How the church lost the ability to laugh’. This discussion leads to the challenge: the redeemed ought to look more like it!
There are many gems of wisdom in this work, drawing upon lots of other scholars. For example, from Harvey Cox’s work, The Feast of Fools, this fabulous line: ‘Laughter is hope’s last weapon.’ As I think about that, I remember how often it is noticed that people who are really poor often laugh a lot more than those who are burdened with many things.
There is something about our idea of 'religion' that seems to have missed out on this idea of laughter: and perhaps it has its origins in the things I mentioned above: our image of Jesus, as somehow not really and genuinely human. Or is it that we shape our image of Jesus to suit our preferred concept of what it means to be 'spiritual'? In this dynamic, being spiritual somehow misses out on all the everyday, earthy and struggling aspects of life; but it also misses out on all the fun!
There is a lovely section in appreciation of the great Karl Barth’s ability to laugh at himself and his insistence that ‘sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking’ have no place in theology.
The book concludes with the idea that the Psalmist’s prayer, ‘Restore to me the joy of my salvation’ (Psalm 51. 12) includes the meaning: ‘make us laugh!’.
Yes, God does laugh and God does invite us into joy. Sometimes, our laughter may be the ‘black’ humour of gritted teeth in the face of struggle and pain. But much more the laughter God gives is the joy of hope, the funny realization that we have within us the precious treasure of the Gospel. Yes, it is in clay jars, and yes we have work to do and all that. But, hey, we are children of God, invited to the party of life, now and forever. All that is needed is provided. We should be so lucky! As Darden says, ‘Let the party begin!’