We were driving to Thornton crematatorium for Auntie Rita’s funeral.
The windscreen wipers were at maximum in the heavy rain. “Well,” said daughter Sharon, “at least it’s not a burial!”
We often use humour to deal with difficult situations; it’s a way of handling reality sometimes in taxing situations. It was Mel Brooks who observed: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger, Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
It was no surprise to discover that Mel is Jewish (and that Sharon is an Old Testament scholar!). For humour is at the heart of the Jewish heritage.
When it was reported that the BBC show “the Office” was to be remade in Tel Aviv, Ricky Gervais asked “Who has ever heard of Jewish comedian?” That, of course, is a joke – for there are so many of them. Jews naturally do comedy. There’s even a Wikipedia page.
God tells Moses that he has some commandments. “How much are they?”
“Moses, they’re free.” “In that case I’ll have ten!”
But why do Jews do humour? Wikipedia suggests may be a reaction to the Jewish tradition “of elaborate legal arguments and situations often seen as so absurd as to be humorous in order to tease out the meaning of religious law.”
I think that misses the point altogether. The main reason has to be that the Jewish people have known much suffering, it’s at the heart of their calling. So Brooks said of his own father’s death, that “there’s an outrage there. I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that. And I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility.”
As it happens my Bible reading this morning was on Leviticus 26 – it been hard going working my way through this part of the Torah. All those long chapters. This summary chapter shows what it means to be God’s chosen people, a wonderful privilege as well as an awesome responsibility of being, in Isaiah’s words, a light to the nations.
And that, in a word, means that they are going to suffer.
But the big surprise of the Jewish scriptures is that you can actually argue with God and survive, such is the strength of the relationship.
So Jeremiah, for example, can rail against God and exclaim: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughing-stock all day long; everyone mocks me.” (Jeremiah 20:7).
And God takes it. He does not rebuke his prophet for gross insubordination. He gives Jeremiah space to be himself. And then replies: “Are you finished complaining, Jeremiah? Good. Because I have more work for you to do.” You have to laugh.
So where does Jesus fit into all this? Essentially he assumed the responsibility of being God’s people, alone, so that through his suffering God’s blessing may reach out to all peoples, so fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. That has to be said when you realize just how much the Jewish people have suffered over the millennia. For God has suffered too.
But what about humour with Jesus? It’s very much there – but we tend to miss it in our scholarly interpretations. Not least in the parables which nearly always have an unexpected twist, one of the more important ingredients of humour. So the story of the dinner party when three of the original guests fail to turn up. (Luke 14: 15-24)
The first says, ‘I bought a piece of property and need to look it over. Send my regrets.’ “Another said, ‘I just bought five teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Send my regrets.’
“And yet another said (long pause here – normally the third in the sequence is the punch line, as in the traditional Irishman joke), ‘I just got married and need to get home to my wife.’ Huge laughter – although to be fair, often humour doesn’t travel well between cultures).
But the point is that we can be totally open with God. There’s no point putting on a polite front and say the right prayers – for the simple reason that God knows what’s happening in our hearts anyway.
There’s no need to pretend.
Such is the wonder of God’s love is that we can be real with him and incredibly laugh with him. He gets the joke.
Unlike my wife. For Jacqui always laughs three times at my jokes. The first time when I tell it, the second when it is explained to her (normally by a daughter) and then the third time when she gets it.