19th February, 2017
Alexandre Dumas is arguably the most widely read French author of all time. Some of his most popular titles include The Count of Monte Cristo and the Three Musketeers. Some of the source material for these adventurous stories is likely to have been drawn from Dumas’ military service during the French revolutionary wars.
It so happened that in early 1825, Dumas had a verbal exchange with another solider during which he felt that the other soldier cost him his dignity. As was the custom of the day Dumas decided to right this wrong by challenging the soldier to duel. What better way to reclaim your self-esteem than by shooting at someone with whom you’ve had an argument?
Sadly, Dumas was not to reclaim his dignity in the way he had hoped. Firstly, it was decided against his wishes that the duel be fought with swords rather than pistols. Dumas was a good shot, but poor at fencing. Secondly, as the duel began Dumas drew his sword only to have his trousers fall down. It is said that all gathered had a good laugh as Dumas wrestled his clothing back into position. Fortunately, the future novelist decided against fighting duels with everyone in the crowd. As it happened Dumas did win the duel when his opponent tripped over and conceded, possibly having been undermined by Dumas’ comic display. Given that Dumas later wrote about this episode we can guess that he too found some humour in the story in his later years.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once criticised the New Testament for being the only book ever produced that did not contain a single joke. In his opinion this singular point was enough evidence discredit the New Testament entirely. While on the one hand it is good to know that Nietzsche, who is not exactly remembered for his comedic ability did actually appreciate a joke or two, his assertion is incorrect. There is humour in the New Testament it’s just that we have to look for it.
One of the great sins of the church is that throughout our history we have found many ways to clean up Jesus’ image. We love to strip away his moments of righteous anger, his impatience with his followers and his fraternising with undesirables. Many of us have grown up with a sense of gentle Jesus meek and mild. Today Jesus is often presented as a type of first century hippy, all peace love and confusing idealism. Given this it is not surprising that we have lost track of the fact that Jesus did have a sense of humour and certainly enjoyed a joke.
In the 1990’s one of the most influential comedies of that era was Seinfeld. This program is fondly remembered as being the show about nothing. It wasn’t exactly about nothing, rather the minor misadventures of a small group of friends.
In a particularly memorable episode one of the characters, George, complains that he is finding it hard to get ahead at work because everytime he makes a good joke at a staff meeting he always makes the mistake of following it up with a bad one. His friend, Jerry Seinfeld, tells him he should try to use more Las Vegas showmanship. He explains that old time comedians performing in Vegas used to wait until they got a big laugh from the audience and then stop performing no matter how far into their routine they were. The idea being you always walk out on a high note. Leave when the audience still wants more. Sure enough at his next staff meeting George puts this advice into effect and having made one good joke he then says, “thank you everyone, have a great night”, and walks out of the meeting. At his point his career starts taking off.
Jesus used a similar approach when preaching. Jesus employed the use of the one liner. Jesus told jokes, because good jokes are memorable. A well-timed joke not only engages us; it can convey truth in a way other forms of communication cannot. The proof of this is that many of Jesus’ best lines were recorded in the Gospels decades after his death.
The English comedian Eddie Izzard picked up on this in one of his shows. Izzard talked about the conversation between God the Father and Jesus when Jesus told the Father about what he had been teaching humanity. Jesus tells the Father about how he said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” God the Father responds by saying, “Well that was pretty surreal of you.”
Lots of scholars have posited all sorts of theories about what Jesus meant when talking of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, only a minority share Izzard’s view that this was actually a kind of joke. Jesus makes a point by sharing a ridiculous image.
This idea is supported by the fact that this morning’s reading from the Gospel contained more one-liners. I suspect that the reason you weren’t all rolling about on the floor during the reading of the gospel is more to do with the fact that you’ve heard these jokes before. No?
If you look at the text I will tell you what I am talking about. The first thing we need to be aware of is that Jesus did not rattle off a series on unconnected ideas when he spoke. I can remember seeing Jesus: The Movie years ago, during which the actor playing Jesus walked through a crowd simply reciting bible passages like this one. All the extras pretended to hang on his every word.
The discourses recorded particularly in Matthew and Luke are more like a highlight package of the most memorable things Jesus said. The editors of these gospels did their best to put all the remembered sayings of Jesus into a logical order, but on some occasions, they simply lumped a number of different ideas together. This is why the one liners often pass us by, because they are hidden in what looks like a Shakespearean soliloquy.
The first two verses are a single thought. Again, just like the camel passing through the eye of a needle, turning the other cheek has also been analysed and studied to the nth degree. Without wanting to go into all of that detail yet again, simply consider the humour of the statement. There is a wry humour here. How many of us would willingly let someone strike us a second time? There is a playfulness to this suggestion, but also a deeper truth, that there are alternatives to responding to violence with a tit for tat approach.
Verse 40 is a one liner. If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well. Think about that for a moment. Think about your stereotypical idea of what Jesus looked like. What would Jesus have been wearing? Most of us imagine Jesus in a white flowing robe, much like Arabs in some parts of the world still wear today. That’s a fair idea. Jesus would have also had a cloak for when the weather was cooler. So just the two items of clothing then.
This is the context in which Jesus said, if someone asks for one item of clothing, give them your second item of clothing as well. The result being, you don’t have any clothes left. This is a joke.
Last year on All Saints day Neil and I had a discussion about some of the modern words we use for one of the hymns we sing on that day. In one of the verses Jim Cotter wrote in his version of For All the Saints, there is the line, “The Clown of Glory tumbles in the way.” The clown of glory is an image for Jesus. It is an image that many people do not like and often complain about singing. I think this is more than a case of Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. Lots of us, don’t like clowns. I think the difficulty is really that the word clown implies foolishness. Was Jesus foolish, I don’t like to think so.
There is an Italian folk story that is still retold under the title of The Clown of God. It is the story of a clown who was greatly revered and loved. In his prime he was celebrated as one of the greatest entertainers of all time. Yet as the clown grew older, his popularity waned, his jokes were to no longer found to be funny. His juggling ability diminished. Finally, the clown abandoned his craft and is reduced to being a beggar.
As an old man the clown entered a church and saw a statue of Christ as a child. Seeing the sad look upon the statues face, the aging clown began to perform again and in doing so remembers his true identity as a person born to bring joy into the world. Because that is what a clown is, a person who brings joy into the world. Maybe calling Jesus the Clown of Glory isn’t such a terrible description after all.
Humour is a wonderful gift from God. Laughing is a sacred moment when we experience joy in a way that overwhelms us. To laugh is to drop our inhibitions and in doing so we connect with the divine in a unique and sacred way. So laugh loudly, joyfully and frequently. Amen.