“A cheerful heart is a good medicine.”—Proverbs 17:22
Do we miss the humour of Christ when we read the Gospels?
Few of us are familiar with the culture Jesus lived in. In our culture, most humour is based on joke telling, verbal inexactness, and physical comedy. Jewish humour often employed witty hyperbole—clever, startling, over-the-top statements—to get a laugh. Though some comedians today do this and we laugh, when we see Jesus use the technique in the Gospels, we usually don’t get it.
The New Testament, similarly, abounds with laughter. Jesus must have been a compelling personality, to keep the attention of crowds for days and the steadfast loyalty of at least twelve disciples for three years. In addition to being a riveting teacher whose words brought life, he was likely the kind of personality that was just fun to be around.
For example, a crowd numbering about 5,000 men followed him to a solitary place (Mark 6:30-44). Jesus’ teaching evidently made people forget to eat, bring food or worry about work.
The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery says, “Jesus was a master of wordplay, irony and satire, often with an element of humour intermixed.”  Jesus makes many serious points in humorous ways. “Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes?” He asks, “or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). People who worked the ground in that culture surely smiled at the self-evident answers. When encountering a verse such as this one, which instructs us not to “cast your pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6), a modern reader might wonder why anyone would even think to do such an unfamiliar thing. But that’s the whole point—no sane person would! Therefore, Jesus was saying, don’t do the spiritual equivalent of that ridiculously stupid thing.
Jesus told people, “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). No one would do anything so obviously self-promoting. Instead, they’d draw attention to themselves by walking slowly and piously, making their money clearly visible. These self-congratulatory actions, which Jesus characterised as “sounding a trumpet,” undoubtedly produced numerous smiles, smirks, and chuckles.
Can’t you imagine folks looking at each other with amazement and nervous glee when Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27)? Jesus was not telling jokes but painting mental pictures with a humorous, satirical sting. Think of the religious leaders’ outrage when Jesus said, “The harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). Then think of the approving smiles of the poor and oppressed in the crowds who finally saw someone unafraid to confront these pseudo spiritual false shepherds.
Jesus referred to the shrewd and ruthless political leader Herod as “that fox” (Luke 13:32). Since a fox is cunning, this may appear to be a compliment, but it certainly wouldn’t have been lost on the crowd that those pointy-eared varmints were nuisances, not terrors. Jesus was poking fun at a vicious, immoral, murderous tyrant by comparing him not to a lion or a bear but to a fox! Imagine people going home and telling their friends, “You won’t believe what Jesus called Herod!”
“The most characteristic form of Jesus’ humour was the preposterous exaggeration.” It’s important to understand that this form of exaggeration is not falsehood in any sense, because the hearer knows it’s overstatement. The speaker is not misleading anyone; rather, He is appealing to the hearer’s humour to make his point.
Consider when Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? . . . You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5). Surely the ridiculous picture of a log sticking out of a man’s eye produced not only a sense of conviction but also broad smiles.
Those who heard Jesus speak knew His keen humour—and they were endeared to Him. The humour of Jesus is far more apparent if we understand His culture and engaging personality. There’s nothing disrespectful about noticing that many of Jesus’ statements are, by design, happily outrageous.
INSPIRED FROM : Elton Trueblood, The Humour of Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1964)