Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, and an Adventist minister walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “What is this, some kind of a joke?”
The ability to find something humorous in different life situations is part of the legacy of creativity bestowed on us by the hand of God. To be sure, the world is a serious place. But in the midst of the tragedy, disappointment, and morbidity that plague our planet, humor is the one thing that allows us, literally, a little comic relief.
A Merry Heart
For many, the idea that Christians should enjoy, let alone cultivate, a sense of humor is anathema. After all, the Bible never says, “Jesus laughed.” But it does say, “Jesus wept” (once, at a funeral). And because we’re living in the great antitypical day of atonement, surely any silliness or hilarity on our part is strictly forbidden.
But the Bible is full of funny and humorous incidents. One of the reasons Jesus was so popular with children and other sinners was certainly His warmth, His cheerfulness, and His willingness to be approachable. Some would like to imagine Him always cold-stone sober, but I like to think of Him as someone who knew the effect of a good story, told well, with a highly defined sense of humor.
The benefits of cultivating both a sense of humor and a positive outlook on life are well documented. The late Norman Cousins, for many years editor of the Saturday Review, discovered the healing benefits of humor when he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and usually terminal disease of the connective tissue. Afflicted by chronic pain, Cousins sought the counsel of a physician who granted him wide latitude in the treatment of his disease. In the days before home videos, Cousins brought into his hospital old 16-mm. movies by the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, the Keystone Kops, Buster Keaton, etc., and showed them on the wall of his room.
In his book Anatomy of an Illness
Cousins reported: “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”1
When Cousins experienced complete remission from this usually debilitating and terminal illness, he became an ambassador of humor and positive thinking in the treatment of disease. He lectured at medical schools and before professional associations. He attended meetings of patient support groups. Everywhere he went he spoke of the importance of positive attitudes to combat illness. He encouraged patients to arrange their own programs to celebrate life, humor, and a positive mental outlook.
Cousins visited one group that began each session with reports of things that made their lives brighter. One patient reported that a nephew had been accepted into medical school, and that he planned to specialize in cancer research. “I’m going to come up with some answers,” read the patient from the nephew’s letter. “Just hang in there.”
A round of applause followed the report. One of the patients reported seeing a friend he hadn’t seen in 20 years, and how much the visit meant to him.
One patient told how he was dissatisfied with the course of treatment prescribed by his doctor. He wanted to discuss the situation, but he was anxious about how the conversation would play out. But, he said, after a frank discussion with his doctor things turned out better than he’d hoped.
Then one of the doctors spoke up and told about being notified that he was going to be audited by the Internal Revenue Service. That news cost him lots of worry and several sleepless nights. But when it finally came time for the audit, it was discovered that the government owed him money.
Cheers and applause.
“Suddenly it was my turn,” wrote Cousins. “I hadn’t realized that I was expected to talk about something good that had happened to me. Fortunately, I was not without material.
“‘Something happened to me last Thursday that was indescribably wonderful,’ [he] said. ‘Never again, as long as I live, do I expect it to happen again. It was unforgettable. . . . When I arrived at the Los Angeles Airport from Chicago, my suitcase was the first one off the baggage carousel.’
“‘That was not all,’ [he] said. ‘I went to the telephone to call the office and promptly lost a dime when an operator came on and asked for a quarter. It was a recording. I put in another dime, got a live operator, told her what happened, and she said the phone company would be glad to send me the dime if I would give her my name and address. It seemed absurd that the phone company would spend 20 cents in stamps [in 1983], to say nothing of personal expense, just to refund a dime—and I said so. I also pressed the coin-return lever.
“‘At that point, all the innards of the machine opened up and quarters and dimes tumbled out in magnificent and overflowing profusion.
“‘Operator,’ I asked, ‘are you still there?’
“‘Operator, something quite remarkable has just happened. All I did was press the coin-return lever and the machine is giving me all its earnings. There must be more than three dollars in coins here and the flow hasn’t stopped.’
“‘Sir,’ she said, ‘will you please put the money back in the box?’
“‘Operator,’ I said, ‘if you will give me your name and address I’ll be glad to mail it to you.’
“Cheers, applause, standing ovation.”2
Several studies since then have reinforced the notion that a healthy sense of humor is one of the factors that lead to a longer, more productive life. When he died several years later, Cousins was dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Being Like Jesus
Jesus was a master at using humor to make a point. It often goes unrecognized because we assume everything Jesus said was serious, sober, inoffensive, and suitable for reading on Sabbath; therefore humorless and unentertaining. But look again at these examples of Jesus’ use of hyperbole:
Jesus could have said, “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged,” and He did. But He went beyond that and gave His listeners an unforgettable visual image: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). As a carpenter, Jesus surely knew the difference between a speck of sawdust and a two-by-four. The visual image of someone trying to remove a speck while blinded by a plank is hilarious.
Jesus could have said, “Don’t be a hypocrite,” and He did. But He also said, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:24). That’s certainly an image worthy of the talents of the folks at Pixar. How do you swallow a camel feetfirst? Headfirst? Either way it’s going to be quite a (hilarious) sight.
Jesus could have said, “It isn’t easy for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven,” and He did. But He also added this arresting image: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). This is bad news for Bill Gates, Donald Trump, and most members of ASI. Jesus is really saying, “Your money isn’t going to help get you into God’s kingdom. You enter heaven on My terms or not at all.” But the poor, anyone looked down upon by the rich, must’ve laughed themselves silly when Jesus used this image to describe the predicament of the wealthy.
I’ve heard preachers declare that the “eye of the needle” referred to a small gate, cut into a larger gate through which, in order to pass, camels had to be relieved of their loads and get down on their knees, representing the kind of humility the rich have to adopt in order to reach the kingdom of God. But that kind of gate wasn’t in use in the time of Christ. Jesus is clearly using a humorous image to connect with His listeners and give them a visual image they would never forget.
Perhaps the best example of Jesus’ use of humor is found in the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18.
You know the story: A man who owes 10,000 talents is brought before the king to settle accounts. The servant begs for mercy so that he, his wife, and his children won’t be sold into slavery to cover the debt. Through the mystery of grace the king freely forgives the servant his debt.
But the man who has just been forgiven that great debt runs into a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii. A denarius represented about a day’s wage, so the fellow servant would have had to work two jobs for more than three months to repay his debt.
But the first servant is not as merciful as the king, and he has his fellow servant thrown in prison until he can pay back the entire debt (how is he supposed to earn 100 denarii in prison?).
The punch line in this story occurs early on, in verse 26. The first servant begs the king: “Be patient with me, . . . and I will pay back everything.” He begs for time and assures the king that he will repay the entire debt.
By this time the people who heard this story for the first time were grabbing their sides with uncontrolled, hilarious laughter. Here’s the joke: In the first century 10,000 talents would go a long way toward funding the entire economy of the Roman Empire. All the armies, libraries, schools, hospitals, museums, and infrastructure could be paid by 10,000 talents. It’s the same as if the managing editor of the Adventist Review was responsible for repaying the entire national debt of the United States—$9 trillion. That’s going to take more than a night job (perhaps with the help of my fellow editors . . .).
Question one: How did a “servant” accrue that kind of debt in the first place?
Question two: How long would it take to repay a debt of 10,000 talents if you earn just one denarius a day?
Jesus wrapped this parable in humor to make an indelible point: No one will ever live well enough and long enough to repay the debt of salvation that God offers freely to all.
Want to do it yourself? It would take 150,000 years for a servant earning a denarius a day to pay down a debt of 10,000 talents. If you think you can merit salvation by your good works, you’d better get started. Because this is no joke.
1 Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness (New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1979), p. 43.
2 Norman Cousins, The Healing Heart (New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1983), pp. 156, 157.
Stephen Chavez is managing editor of the Adventist Review. Yeah he’s a little different. It must be the bowtie.