When I was a young whipper snapper in college–zealous for the truth, devouring all the good theology books I could, and perhaps a little too serious at times for my own good–I stumbled upon the book The Humor of Christ by Elton Trueblood. I remember not liking the book very much, concluding that Trueblood tried too hard to make Christ into a Galilean funny man. But now many years later–and, I trust, a bit more more mature and more balanced–I think Trueblood was on to something.
While I still don’t agree with every point the Quaker theologian made, I find his big idea compelling: “It is true that our common lives are helped by both genuine religion and genuine humor. In the teaching of Christ the two forms are conjoined” (125). Trueblood, who pays close attention to the gospel narratives and dialogues, makes a convincing case that Christ often used irony, purposeful exaggeration, and humorous parables, and knew how to engage in witty conversations where he gave as good as he got.
In particular, Trueblood argues, Jesus exemplified the great virtue of helping others to laugh at vanity. Because humans are given the gift of self-consciousness, we are prone to pride and vanity. But with this self-consciousness also comes the ability to laugh at conceit.
Christ was demonstrating one of the universal elements of His humor when He served the cause of true religion by exposing the pompous person whose profession far exceeds his practice. . . .Vanity is a great weakness of mankind in general, but it seems especially ludicrous when it appears among the professionally religious. The contradiction between man’s humility before God and his strutting before men is a perfect opening for ridicule, and Jesus employed it to perfection in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. (35-36)
Satire, sarcasm, irony, hyperbole–these are dangerous weapons, only to be wielded in spiritual warfare with caution and with great aplomb. But they are to be wielded at times. To poke fun at the oh-so-important, the perpetually offended, and the self-righteously sentimental can be good, godly work. When it comes to poking at the pretensions of the proud, laughter is often the best medicine. Vanity cannot be reasoned with, but it can be mocked. In the presence of overwrought solemnity and self-serving pomposity, Christ shows that a little humor goes a long ways.