The Story of the Laughing Jesus
None of you have probably heard the story of the Laughing Jesus because it wasn't selected to go into the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the commonly known texts handed down to us about the life of Jesus. When people are oppressed, they tend to forget the laughter and remember the hatred. The times in Jerusalem when Jesus lived were not very happy, because the Jewish people suffered under the domination of the Romans. And neither the Jewish kings who cooperated with the Romans nor the Roman governors liked people who stirred up trouble.
Jesus was a troublemaker, a challenger of the ways things were being done, and a prophet recalling the Jewish people to the true way of the Torah, the sacred scripture of the Jews.
Jesus did a lot of talking. He liked to debate, and a crowd would gather when he and his disciples came into town. There were many stories about what he said and did so it doesn't surprise me if you haven't heard this one.
Where did I hear it? Well, let's just save that story for another day.
This story begins in one of the towns of Galilee, the area where Jesus did much of his ministry. In this town lived a boy named Ethan, who could not have been more than ten years old. Ethan looked much older than his age, for he had lived far beyond his years. You see, the boy was an orphan. His father had been killed by a drunken centurion and his mother had died in childbirth. He had no other family in the area and no one would take him in because his family was from Samaria and the townsfolk looked down on Samarians. Finding no help, he began living on the street.
Ethan slept at night in a manger in exchange for carrying water for the animals to drink first thing in the morning while the stars still shone in the heavens. Each day he visited the farmers in town to see if they had any work to be done in the fields. The workday began at sunup and finished just after sundown. He was paid just enough to buy a small loaf of bread, which kept him from starving. Because he could save no money or food from day to day, he worked every day - or did not eat at all. Fortunately for Ethan, he was blessed with a sharp mind. Without it he surely would have perished.
The town was on a road to Jerusalem, and Rabbis on occasion stopped to spend the night. Often the townsfolk would gather to hear the Rabbi talk. Ethan enjoyed hearing the Rabbis debate points of law expounding great principles and ideas. Ethan tried to figure out the answer to a question put to the Rabbi before the Rabbi spoke. Ethan loved the stories they would tell to inspire people's faith that God would not forget them and someday would lift them up and send the Romans packing. This gave Ethan hope that someday he too might have a home, his own cow, and a small plot of land to grow vegetables when the Romans were gone.
One evening when Ethan was returning from tilling the barley crop, he noticed a new Rabbi was in town. He also noticed the crowd which gathered around the new Rabbi was much larger than normal and some gentiles or non-Jews were part of the group listening. Words were being exchanged at a fast pace. Ethan asked a woman on the outer edge of the crowd who the Rabbi was and she shushed him replying quickly, "Shhhh, he is Jesus of Nazareth."
Ethan pressed into the crowd so he could see and hear. As fate would have it, he pushed up against the wrong man, a Roman soldier watching the crowd for trouble. The Centurion looked down at the Samaritan boy and gave him a fast hard kick shouting, "Get away, you little scum!" (actually he said this in a way we shouldn't talk in a Sunday service - this translation will give you the gist of what was said).
Well the Rabbi Jesus stopped talking, and looked around. "What scum wishes to come and sit at my feet?" he said. "Open the way for the little scum!"
The crowd became silent as they looked around to see who Jesus was talking about. This was Ethan's chance. Rubbing his sore rear end, he dove into the crowd, wiggling and jiggling until he was at Jesus' feet. Jesus smiled and asked the boy to sit next to him.
This stirred up the crowd because everyone knew he was a Samaritan and more than that, the boy was unclean (in more ways than one). The most obvious way were the sores on his skin. In Jewish purity law of those days 2000 years ago, if someone had sores on their skin, they were unclean and shunned. The local religious know-it-alls who had been debating Rabbi Jesus brought this to his attention by saying, "Rabbi, you defile yourself by sitting with this unclean child. Send him away."
All eyes were now on Rabbi Jesus to see what he would say or do next. Again the Rabbi smiled and said, "We will see if this child is really clean or unclean by asking him three questions."
The crowd murmured in curiosity. What would the Rabbi ask that would show this defiled child to be clean? The evidence, the sores on his skin, was right in front of their eyes!
Jesus asked his first question, "Boy, who are your mother and father?"
Ethan, enjoying greatly being the center of attention replied, "Rabbi, I have no father or mother for they are both dead. No one has taken me in for I am from Samaria. So now my mother is the earth which gives my body rest as I sleep on her at night and my father is the sky which guides me as I walk home from the fields at night."
Noises of surprise rippled through the crowd, as they did not even realize the boy they often kicked out of their way could speak such words.
Jesus, looking straight into Ethan's eyes, asked his second question, "Boy, by what do you gain your daily bread?"
Ethan straightened up proudly, "I earn my bread by working in the fields each day. When I have no work, I only eat by the generosity of those who offer me bread in the street. If I can buy no bread and none is given to me in the street, the bread I eat is the hope that someday I shall have my own land to grow grain to make my own bread. This bread of hope sustains me until my next meal."
Jesus, without a trace of emotion, asked his third question, "Boy, what sustains your spirit?"
Ethan thought for a moment and then answered, "Since I must labor from before the sun rises till late in the evening, I have no time or money to practice the rituals and ceremonies of any religion. My spirit is often weary. What restores me is seeing the birds fly high in the sky, watching the tiny barley seeds sprouting up out of the ground reaching for the sun, enjoying the pinks and oranges and purples of a sunset, feeling the friendliness of the animals with which I sleep, and hearing the Rabbis tell of the good days to come when God will triumph over evil. Even though I am a homeless orphan outcast, I know there is beauty and kindness and generosity in this world. This sustains my spirit."
Everyone was silent after hearing the boy's words. Then Jesus began to laugh. He laughed so hard his whole body shook. This wasn't the ordinary kind of laugh when someone falls down on a banana peel, or when someone says something foolish. It was a kind of laughter that makes you feel all warm inside. It was the kind of laughter that when you heard it, you couldn't help but begin to laugh as well. Soon the whole crowd was falling over in laughter. When everyone quieted down, Jesus smiled at the boy and said "Everyone here has thought you to be unclean, but the beauty of your words show a heart of great purity, for it is what comes out of our mouths that reveal us, not our outer appearance."
And from that day forward, the boy found favor in that community, was taken in by the man and his wife who owned the stable in which he slept and eventually inherited their land, as the couple was childless. He never forgot the kindness of Rabbi Jesus and told this story many times, hoping it would be told many years to come. You can pass it on as well.
And strange as it may seem, after Ethan met Rabbi Jesus, his sores disappeared. If you asked me why, I'd have to shrug my shoulders and say I don't know. What I do know is that magical things do happen when a child is given love, attention and respect.
Laughter. Everybody laughs once in a while don't they? And even if they don't laugh, I'm sure they smile sometimes. I think I've seen every person in this congregation laugh or smile at least once. Given the universality of laughter, it seems logical that Jesus laughed too.
So last week I confidently turned on my computer and fired up my CD-ROM drive. I'm sure almost all of you are aware of compact disks or CD's or music which have replaced records. Well, CD's are also used in computers to store large amounts of information. The CD-ROM (or read only memory) disk I put into my computer was called CDBIBLE. It has seven translations of the Bible on it along with a collection of Biblical reference materials. Included on this CD-ROM is special searching software that allows the user to search all seven translations for individual words.
Feeling quite confident, I called up this searching program and searched the translations for the words laugh, laughter, humor, and smile. I can now report that there is precious little laughter recorded in the Bible nor is there any smiling. The only references in the Hebrew Scriptures to laughter I found were in the psalms and in Job. This humor isn't of the banana peel variety. In the second psalm we find this text,
He who sits on the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
"I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.
This kind of humor sure isn't infectious. In the four gospels, there are only two references to laughter found in the Sermon on the Plain:
Blessed are you that hunger, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
This is encouraging until one reads a few lines later:
Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
This sure doesn't make you want to laugh does it? These are the only references to laughter in Christian scriptures included in the Bible, and from this we could not infer that Jesus was much of a comedian.
A reason for the absence of jolliness in the gospels is understanding that they were written many years after Jesus' death and not for the purpose of setting down an accurate biography. Mark, the earliest gospel written around 70 of the common era, spoke to a community grappling with the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, a community feeling abandoned by God. Matthew was likely written after Mark for a quite different time and community. During this time, Judaism was being reorganized in the absence of a temple. The Pharisees were in competition with Matthew's community of believers. Matthew pays close attention to Jesus being the authentic Jewish Messiah. Luke is the most literary of the synoptic Gospels and was targeted at yet another audience, non-Jews. The gospel of John was written for an almost Gnostic community who were strong believers in the final judgment fast approaching. It is the most theological of the gospels.
Because each of these gospels was written to communicate a certain image of Jesus to a certain community, we don't have a very accurate record of who Jesus was. Of course creative people (like your minister) will not let this big hindrance stop them from looking for evidence to support a little speculation.
Probably the most persuasive evidence that Jesus laughed is his use of stories. Charles Guignebert, professor of church history at the Sorbonne, has this to say about how Jesus speaks:
"...he broke away-for good reason-from the form of teaching established in the schools; that he did not cite the evidence of famous rabbis, but that his own inspiration was all he had need of, even when he appealed to the Torah, and the freedom, the homeliness, and the spontaneity of his words were hampered by nothing, not even the attempt to organize them, because they were inspired and justified by an irresistible inner force...We find in it no abstractions, no theories concerning man, life, the world, or God, in short, not the slightest interest in rational or objective knowledge...There is, however, one device of Jesus...which the Gospel writers seem to regard as most completely characteristic of the Master: parables."
The reason Jesus spoke in parables was likely because he was not speaking to the learned folk but rather to the ordinary person. And as we see on the lecture circuit, talk shows, interview programs, and in any forum of public speech, humor is the lubricant that brings the speaker closer to the audience. Humor was a well-known device of rhetoric in those times. The parables Jesus told used everyday images. And it is quite likely he used satirical references lost to us over the course of time, to which his audience responded with laughter.
I was first alerted to this by my Baptist New Testament professor in his analysis of the story of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus sent into swine an evil spirit named Legion who was tormenting a poor half-naked fellow. The swine went nuts, ran into a lake and drowned. My professor pointed out that the word Legion was a reference to Roman soldiers. This suggested the story had a dimension of political satire. I'd wager the telling of this story caused a good laugh by the Palestinian hearers of the time.
Another telltale sign of humor is the way Jesus reverses people's expectations. Jesus was always getting in trouble with the Pharisees because of the way he observed the Sabbath. In the Jewish tradition, one does not work on the Sabbath. In the story, while walking through a field on the Sabbath, Jesus picked barley grains from a field and ate them after rubbing the grain seeds his hands to take off the husk, thereby doing work (by strict definition). When questioned about this by the Pharisees, Jesus replied: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
The most persuasive evidence of good humor I find in the gospels is Jesus' affinity for children. It is hard to imagine a humorless person enjoying being around children or to suggest that we must be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.
The final sign of humor I'll mention today is the insolent mocking tone Jesus takes when he was questioned by Pontius Pilate. When asked, "Are you king of the Jews?" he replied "You have said so."
I doubt if I have built much of an argument out of this evidence, but more interesting to me than proving whether Jesus laughed or not (which will remain forever impossible) is the question: what does it mean to us if in fact he really did laugh? How does our image and understanding of Jesus change?
The image of Jesus who uses biting, sarcastic humor is quite different from the dewy-eyed, sappy savior image presented by some Christian churches. The "he walks with me and he talks with me" image doesn't have the hard edge clearly presented in the gospels. Good humor requires a sharp intelligent mind. Yet Jesus' ability to laugh at the same time makes him more real and accessible. A laughing Jesus likely found pleasure and enjoyment in life - he wasn't a one issue ideologue.
If indeed Jesus did use laughter, it in part was because laughter is an instrument of power for the powerless. The power of humor is not coercive nor violent, but stimulates insight by bringing one face-to-face with reality. Konrad Lorenz wrote in On Aggression that humor and satire are vehicles whereby seemingly rational and sober schemes of control and domination can be exploded by a pinprick of comedy.
Throughout world cultures and religions one finds characters who use humor, satire, and laughter to bring truth to power. These people, like King Lear's fool, are often called wise or holy fools. [Jesus] has been represented as a "divine" fool and mediator between terrestrial and celestial realities. Early Christian martyrs depicted him on catacomb walls as a crucified man with the head of an ass. This crucifix thus represented a combination of animal, human and divine qualities, and symbolized as well the paradoxical position of early Christians, who became fools for Christ, but with faith that this foolishness was wiser than the wisdom of men.
Christianity lost much of the spirit of humor and satire at the time of the Reformation. Calvin felt religion should be concerned with reason and law, not the foolishness celebrated by the Medieval Church. And we today inherit Calvinism through Puritanism, which continues to define us. Modern religions have dismissed humor and satire as blasphemous and irrelevant in the context of ritual. Many religious leaders, leaning toward formality, sacredness, reverence, rationality, and authority, have helped to develop religious structures that are hierarchical, heavily structured, overly serious, dogmatic or impersonal.
[But] most important of all, let us celebrate the value of laughter as part of our religious life. Laughter brings people together and dissolves differences and hatreds. Such liminal occasions are important to religion because they create a commonality among the participants, and the creation of community is a basic function of [religion].
Jesus rode into Jerusalem and put his life on the line, not to bring more weeping and gnashing of teeth to the world but to bring liberation from suffering and bondage. Jesus proclaimed that all people were the children of God - all people had inherent worth and dignity. Jesus spoke against religious and political oppression pleading for justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
So today let us honor the memory of a great prophet who continues to inspire us. His spirit and message live on in our midst. And the next time we laugh a warming connecting laugh which opens our minds and hearts, know the spirit of Jesus laughs with you.
Rev. Sam Trumbore is a Unitarian Universalist minister serving a medium sized congregation in Albany, New York. He delivered this as part of a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County on April 16th, 1995.