ONE of the great Jewish jokes is about a grandmother who takes her beloved grandson, aged five, to the beach.
She watches the kid, decked out in his new hat, building sand castles near the water.
When the grandmother dozes, the grandson wanders into the water, is suddenly caught in an undertow and starts to drown.
The frantic woman calls for help, but there is no one else on the beach. Figuring she had nothing to lose, she falls to the ground, raises her arms to heaven and prays, “God, if you are there, please save my grandson. I promise I’ll make it up to you. I’ll donate to the hospital; I’ll join the synagogue and work with the poor. Whatever makes you happy.”
Suddenly a huge wave tosses the grandson on to the beach at her feet. The grandmother notices colour in his cheeks, his eyes opening, but she appears upset. Bringing herself to full height, she wags her finger at the sky and yells: “He had a hat, you know!”
There’s something about Jewish humour that cuts to the core. In Jewish terms, humour is not the opposite of seriousness. It is the opposite of despair.
Christians seem, by comparison, more restrained about humour. In fact, Christians are often portrayed as stodgy, self-righteous and serious. If they are being funny, it’s unintentional.
For example, writer Quentin Crisp said that when he told a meeting in Northern Ireland that he was an atheist, a woman in the audience stood up and said, “Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don’t believe?”
But Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian, said that the Christian faith was the most humorous point of view a person could take. Why? Because once you’ve seen this world as the creation of God, once you know that life at its root is joy and not fear, then you can laugh freely.
In other words, humour acknowledges that God takes our tragedies and adds a punch line.
G. K. Chesterton wrote: “Laughing has something in common with the ancient words of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater.”
Humour touches upon the most important topics — politics and science, sex and religion, life and death, good and evil. Good comics, like good ministers, wrestle with elementary questions.
Life is full of embarrassing reminders that, while we might be only a little lower than angels, we are also only a little higher than worms. Now that’s funny.
That’s why the Italian poet Dante titled his great poem of the Christian life, The Divine Comedy. In the best humour we learn to laugh at ourselves.
The big question is whether God has a sense of humour.
It seems so. Elton Trueblood wrote a book called The Humour of Christ in which he said Jesus was a first century stand-up comedian, a master of the one-liner.
Intentional exaggeration was big at the time. So, Jesus was using sacred humour with his comments about looking for a “speck of sawdust in a brother’s eye” while having a “plank” in our own. And surely there were laughs when he told the Pharisees they were so misguided that they would “strain out a gnat (from their glasses of wine) but swallow a camel”.
Unfortunately, a literal translation of Christ’s words doesn’t quite capture the cultural comedy.
For centuries, in Orthodox traditions, Easter Monday was observed in jokes, joy and laughter to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
The custom was rooted in the thought that Easter was God’s supreme joke played on Satan.
In that light, it can be just as sacred to laugh as it is to pray.