Can’t think of any? OK … I’ll give you 30 seconds.
Still stumped? The Bible might not read like a comic strip or a Saturday Night Live script, but it’s got more humor in it than most of us think.
Want some of my favorite examples of biblical comedy?
Numbers 22:22-35, Balaam, the donkey, and the angel. “This is a hilarious put-down of Balaam’s pretensions,” says my ESV Study Bible. “The international expert on magic cannot see the angel, but his donkey can.” When the donkey changes course to avoid plowing into the angel, Balaam beats her, and God allows her to speak in order to scold Balaam. Then Balaam finally sees the angel, who tells him off for beating his donkey, even before yelling at him for being willing to curse Israel. The angel tells Balaam he would have died if his donkey hadn’t turned aside. Now just who is the ass in this story?
Matthew 7:4–Jesus’ original listeners must have laughed at the ridiculous image of someone with a plank in his field of vision trying to get a speck out of someone else’s eye. What nerve. And what great use of hyperbole.
Acts 12:13-16–When Peter figures out that his escape from prison isn’t too good to be true, he knocks on the door at his friends’ house to get to safety inside. But the poor man can’t get anyone to let him in, because Rhoda gets so excited that she forgets to open the door. Can’t you just see Peter sighing, smacking his forehead, and knocking harder?
James 2:18-19–Gotta love James’ sarcasm. Think you can pat yourself on the back for believing in God? Well, good for you–the demons do, too.
The Bible’s primary purpose isn’t to entertain us with funny stories and witticisms. But sometimes it fulfills its primary purpose–revealing who God is–by means of humor. Humor is predicated upon a certain creativity, joviality, and joy that ultimately find their source in God.
The virtue of humor
Father James Martin, S.J., author of “Between Heaven and Mirth,” gave a great commencement speech last year with a simple message–lighten up! “Joy, humor, and laughter are underappreciated virtues in the spiritual life,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve all met people who think that being religious means being deadly serious all the time. But when you’re deadly serious,” he said flatly, “you’re seriously dead.”
We don’t often think of Jesus as someone who laughed and cracked jokes. “But he surely did,” said Father Martin. “He was fully human.” We don’t always get the funny parts of his clever stories and parables, Father Martin said, because humor doesn’t translate well from culture to culture. And many of us have heard the stories so many times that they’re not funny anymore. But with a little imagination, we can see the humor that Jesus used so skillfully.
“Any good friendship is leavened with some humor, some joy, and some laughter,” Father Martin said. Recognizing humor–whether in Scripture, everyday experiences, or creation–brings us joy, which is an important part of our relationship with God.
A few years ago, I learned a lesson in lightening up that was probably more important for my spiritual life than I realized at the time.
I was preparing to lead a Bible study for some friends, and I was a little worried about how it was going to go. So I prayed for a special word of encouragement from my Scripture reading that morning. I’d been reading through Matthew, so I opened my Bible to the passage where I’d left off.
It was Matthew 14:1-12: John the Baptist beheaded.
So, has God done anything to make you laugh lately?