The Joy and Shame of Laughter: (2 in a Series)

What the Bible Has to Say about Our Grins and Giggles

The story is told about a bagpiper who was hired by a funeral home to play for the funeral of a homeless and friendless man. The burial was to take place in a pauper’s grave, way out in the sticks. The piper was lost several times over. When he finally arrived at the graveside, late, the hearse was gone, and only the gravediggers remained. Looking down into the grave, he saw that the top of the vault had already been put into place. Feeling very badly because he had missed the service, he did what he could. He started to play. He played a series of mournful tunes, and then he played “Amazing Grace.” As he did, the gravediggers started to sing. When the gravediggers started to sing, he started to cry. Tears rolled down his face. Soon the gravediggers began to cry, too. It was a marvelous, magical, grace filled moment. When the piper finished playing he walked away from the grave with a full heart, knowing he had done the right thing. Just before he opened the door of his car, he heard one of the gravediggers remark, “I have never seen anything like that, and I have been installing septic tanks for twenty years.”

It was W.C. Fields who said, “We know what makes people laugh.”

Last week we looked at two things that make people laugh.

First, we saw that people laugh at the incongruous. We laugh at things that aren’t supposed to fit together, like snakes that trade frogs for whiskey and a piper playing bagpipes over installation of a septic tank. Then we took a close look at the very first written record of laughter, as it appears Genesis 17 and 18. The Bible declares that when the Lord God told old man Abraham and old woman Sarah that they were going to have a child they laughed. First they laughed at the thought of having sex and a child. They laughed at God; then they laughed with God, for they laughed for joy when God kept his promise to give them a son. They named the boy, “Isaac,” which means, “he laughs,” or “he will laugh.” And I will bet Isaac did laugh, too, as soon as he was old enough to learn of his miraculous birth.

Isaac’s name leads us to a second reason people laugh. Laughter is a spontaneous expression of joy, and we experience joy when we sincerely believe that we have gained something. Thus, a man who has been without a job laughs when he has found one. And a woman who has waited years for a proposal of marriage laughs for joy (and then cries for joy) when she receives a proposal and a diamond ring. And what about this: A friend told me that when he was in Vietnam, he had just vacated a portable privy when his camp came under a mortar attack. He ran for his foxhole, and dived in. As he did, he heard an explosion behind him. Looking back over the lip of his hole he saw that the privy he had recently occupied had been blown to smithereens. He told me he sat in his hole and laughed until he cried. Laughter is a spontaneous expression of joy, and we rejoice when we believe that we have received something, even our life.

Today we want to look at a third reason for laughter. We laugh at the misfortune of others.

This means that when human beings are safe, secure, and happy we look upon the misfortune of others who are not so safe, secure, and happy, and we laugh because it is their misfortune and none of our own. This is not particularly noble or ignoble, it is simply a part of our humanity.

All the great comedians—from Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy to Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin have understood this, and they have used it to make us laugh.

Perhaps you remember the Super Bowl commercial, which opens with a little old woman carrying a sack of groceries. In the top of the sack is a bag of Doritos. Then the camera pulls back, and we see that a steamroller driven by a distracted man is about to run her over. Then, from stage right (or left) Chevy Chase swings into the scene on a rope. It appears as if he is going to rescue that sweet little, old woman, but he does not. Instead, at the last possible second, he snatches the bag of Doritos from the top of her sack, and swings safely away. We are left to imagine what happens to the little old lady, and we laugh. Hopefully, most of us laugh at the incongruity of Chevy Chase choosing a bag of Doritos over a fellow human being. However, there is no doubt that some people laugh at the idea of a little old woman flattened by a steamroller for the same reason that Kalahari bushmen laugh at the death throws of a waterbuck. We are just glad it is their misfortune and none of our own.

People laugh at the misfortune of others, and sometimes people cause the misfortune of others. The playwright, Jean Paul Sartre, was one of the leading figures intellectuals of the 20th century, yet when he started school as a boy, he felt very inferior. He writes, and I quote:

“(When I entered school in my teens) I was very small for my age, ugly, no good at games, and not much good at my lessons because my eyesight was so poor. They said I smelt bad, too, and maybe I did. But I could make them laugh. I found it was easier to make a lot of people laugh than just one, and that laughter was louder if I could direct it at a single little boy, even more miserable and friendless that I was. That is what I did.”

Unquote. It is said that an intellectual values ideas more than people. Sartre valued the idea of his own comfort over the person of a miserable friendless child.

Laughter often contains elements of cruelty.

Give that truth, I think it is of great significance that New Testament never indicates, not even once, that Jesus laughed.

I shall never forget when this first came to my attention. Though I had already been accepted in a seminary, I was still in the service, though. Knowing that I was to become a preacher, one of my sergeants called me over to his area to show me a picture he had slipped under the glass of his desk. He said, “It is a picture of Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus never laughs, but I think he did.” He went on to explain that he had found the picture of a laughing Jesus in Playboy, which he assured me, he only read for the articles

I did not know what to think of the picture, but I found what the sergeant said about Jesus never laughing in the New Testament very interesting. I borrowed a concordance, did a search, and confirmed his story. In the New Testament Jesus does not laugh. That one simple fact led me to a question that I have pondered for years, “Why not? Why doesn’t Jesus laugh in the New Testament?” After all, we believe that Jesus is not just “fully divine,” but also “fully human.” Would not one who was fully human experience the full range of human emotion?

The ancient Greeks believed that the twin masks of the muses, one laughing, and one crying, could symbolize not just the theater but also all of human life. Their Gods sometimes cried, and they frequently laughed, especially at the misfortune of human beings. Matthew Arnold summed up Homer’s Iliad when he wrote, “The gods laugh in their sleeve to watch man doubt and fear.” Likewise, several times in the Old Testament, the Lord God laughs. In Psalm 2 we read:

1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.

The God of the Bible does not laugh at our human misery. The God of the Bible laughs only at those human beings who are so naive as to think they can oppose him. Understandably, the God of the Old Testament does not cry. Why should God cry? God’s power is ultimate? What God wants to do, he does.

In the gospels Jesus is just the opposite. The Fourth Gospel tells us that Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. For almost two thousand years, scholars of every persuasion have repeatedly told us that this story of Jesus weeping reinforces the idea that Jesus cares about us, as he cared about his friend Lazarus.

If laughter and tears are both a part of human life, shouldn’t Jesus also laugh?

Now, let us proceed carefully. We are really talking about two different things here: 1) On the one hand we are talking about whether Jesus recognizes our human need to laugh. 2) On the other hand we are talking about why the New Testament never mentions Jesus himself laughing.

Certainly Jesus recognized our need to laugh. In his book, “The Humor of Christ,” Elton Trueblood argues that Jesus used humor in the stories he told. The evidence is not irrefutable, but it is compelling. Likewise, even before the 4th Gospel tells us that “Jesus wept,” it tells us that Jesus attended a wedding at Cana. Not only did Jesus grace that wedding with his presence, when the host ran out of wine, at the request of his mother, Jesus turned six huge stone jars of water into wine. And when the host served that wine, the guests, who did not know what Jesus had done, happily observed that the host had saved his best wine for last. I will guarantee you that most of the people who said that were laughing, or at least smiling when they complemented their host. Jesus rebuked his mother because she forced his hand in turning the water into wine, but he did not rebuke the people who celebrated as they drank the water he turned to wine.

So, Jesus does recognize our need to laugh. Why then isn’t there a verse that declares, “Jesus laughed,” to balance the verse that declares, “Jesus wept”?

I have contemplated that question for more than thirty years, but only in the last few weeks have I have found an answer that satisfied me. It goes like this:

I have do doubt that Jesus himself laughed. The gospels report just a small fraction of what Jesus said and did, and he had lots of opportunity to laugh when he was “off the record.” At the very least I suspect that, as a boy, Jesus must have laughed at the sheer joy of living as he ran through the grass on a spring day in his bare feet, or played in the creek with his friends, or received a warm cake from his mother. If Jesus was fully human, he must have laughed, for laughter is part of what makes us human.

Yet, in the pages of the New Testament, Jesus does not laugh. There are several reasons he does not.

  • Some would argue that he does not because of the gravity of his mission. His time is short. His business is serious, the salvation of the world. There is no time for laughter.
  • So also, laughter is often—- not always, but often, a component of cruelty. The authors of the New Testament, inspired by God, knew instinctively that Jesus must never appear to be cruel or an advocate of cruelty, in the same way that Jesus must never appear to be violent, or an advocate of violence.

Matthew 5:21 and 22 serve to make my point quite nicely. Therein Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ (Laughter implied! WNG) shall be liable to the hell of fire. “

For a follower of Jesus to engage in random violence against another human being is tantamount to blasphemy! So also, it is blasphemy for a follower of Jesus to laugh not “with” but “at” another human being. In the pages of the New Testament Jesus does not laugh in order to remind us that some of the things that we laugh at—especially the discomfort of others, would only make him cry.

Laughter can be a great joy, it can transport us, albeit briefly, out of our troubles. There are instances in life where laughter can restore our balance, our courage, our sanity! But laughter can also be a shame, especially when we laugh at the misfortune of others.

That is the Joy and Shame of Laughter.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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