In recent years, my sense of humor has undergone a relative shift. When I was younger, my sense of humor largely derived from being pretty concrete so as to “misinterpret” what someone said by being very literal. As I got a little older, I began to use self-deprecation as a source of humor; I did that a lot, unfortunately. Gradually into college, my sense of humor shifted to hyperbole and sarcasm. However, unfortunately, sarcasm, even if its well-intended, is often ambiguous and for those who do not feel safe, sarcasm may seem like a barb rather than being playful. However, given my interest in language, I have begun to develop a sense of humor that is related to language and sound. For instance, if I ever find the opportunity to propose to someone, I will ask them “Would you like to be a wood doll?” Of course, if I want to actually get married rather than a loud groan (like the zingy zeugma there?), I might have to be more creative… maybe make a play off of her last name and me being the one who changes the name. For example, if her last name began with the letter E, I might say “I would like to be one with you,” with the letters of “one” sounding out to be my first name and the initial of her last name, while also playing off of the Biblical teaching about marriage as two becoming one. If you are groaning at that one, hey don’t blame me… my sense of humor has usually relied upon self-deprecation, but I am not really that good at it.
God has a sense of humor too. The Bible doesn’t talk a whole lot about it. Firstly, because the Bible is a text that address many life circumstance where life is lived in the margins, humor is not always a strong presence in such cases. Secondly, much of humor throughout history has been rather deprecating of others, which would make it far from the intentions of the writers of the Scriptures. Thirdly, however, is that whereas today we have people and books that specialize in humor and we have people who actively seek out laughter, but in the ancient world, laughter would have much more part of the daily life. The Scriptures would represent this by the way stories are told.
One such example is when Nathanael meets Jesus in John 1.44-51. When Philip talks to Nathanael about Jesus from Nazareth, Nathanael speaks derisively about him, saying “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” When Nathanael finally meets Jesus, the first think Jesus says to him is “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” At one level, this looks like an assessment of Nathanael’s character as being someone who doesn’t lie. It certainly is that at some level, but at another level, it is a positive reframing of Nathanael’s derisive speech about Nazareth. It is the equivalent of reframing someone’s rude speech as saying “Hey, you are honest.” However, the real humor of what Jesus does is in the irony of the event, where Jesus immediately knows Nathanael and what he said, even though Nathanael was entirely unaware of it originally. This revealed irony has the effect of showing Jesus to be a prophetic figure, but at the same time, it serves to heighten the humor of the event, as Jesus’ positive reframing right when he meets Nathanael shows He knows something about Nathanael that Nathanael, and the original audience wouldn’t expect Jesus to know. It seems to come totally out of left field.
Now certainly, trying to explain this humor doesn’t make it sound funny. Explaining humor is like dissecting a frog… it just dies. However, in showing this, we see a bit of the nature of God’s sense of humor. It is, effectively, a sense of humor that seeks to bring good light into bad cases. What Jesus does can be understood as a form of sarcasm, but not in a derogatory sense. It takes a bad event and finds a positive in it, seeing Nathanael as someone who will be honest, rather than as a curmudgeonly figure.
So next time you think about laughing and telling a joke, ask yourself the question: what is the nature of your humor? While you don’t have to be a legalist about it, seek to find the sense of humor that brings positive, non-deprecating laughter to a negative circumstance, which is a healthy form of humor, because in doing that, you are being more like Jesus.