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Jesus as Comedian

Posted on: November 25, 2018

Category: Theology

Jesus as Comedian

Quest Thoughts: Jesus as Comedian

When I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature a week ago, I heard an excellent lecture on the historical Jesus. It was a lecture about how some scholars conclude Jesus was a wisdom teacher and others conclude he was an apocalyptic prophet. This question never goes away, and I never lose interest in it. The lecturer made the point that if you start with parables (what did Jesus say?), you end with wisdom, but if you start with deeds (what did Jesus do?), you end with apocalypticism.

The deeds of Jesus are derived almost exclusively from the Gospel of Mark and, accordingly, very little if anything is known about the biography of Jesus. Matthew, Luke, and even John rely on Mark, and the gospels that did not - like Thomas, Q, and Nag Hammadi gospels - do not have deeds in them. The apocalyptic argument has to focus on deeds: baptism, the entry into Jerusalem, and the crucifixion. With these three actions in place, the apocalyptic words of Jesus become the focal point. The Q saying found at Luke 13:35 is an example of an apocalyptic Jesus saying that comes into focus when the centre of attention is on the deeds: "(Jerusalem) your house will be abandoned and you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'

It is certainly possible that Jesus was mainly wisdom teacher who pronounced some apocalyptic sayings. We do not really know. Even the question of there being a single person named "Jesus" is difficult to answer. I am comfortable with the idea that Jesus was part of a movement or school, and it was only the crucifixion that singled him out as the identity of the movement. Nevertheless, if we start with the question, "What did Jesus say?" the conclusion about who Jesus was tends to be different.

The saying of Jesus - 22 parables and 68 aphorisms - are rhetorical presentations. They hold a style that coheres (repeats) throughout the sayings. The common elements are paradox, hyperbole, and irony. They mark what is called the voiceprint of Jesus. None of the parables and aphorism are about Jesus or about beliefs in Jesus. They all concern common, everyday life in which some element provokes an alternative interpretation. In the parable about the mustard seed, the seed sprouts into a bush and has birds nesting under its branches. When we read this parable today, we might think that it is sort of nice. But when we hear it against ancient agricultural attitudes and against the cedar tree that represents holy Zion, we know that Jesus or the school of Jesus burlesques the idea of a holy and mighty God. Jesus makes fun of God. So, while Jesus might have said apocalyptic things about various end-time scenarios, the parables suggest that if he did, he was capable of offering them in jest.

While the debate between interpreting Jesus mainly as a wisdom teacher or mainly as an apocalyptic prophet will continue among academics and the interested public, one question I like to ask is what does Jesus as a comedian mean for the church and its future?

If the church understood Jesus mainly as a comedian, I think this would mean three things. One is that our theology (what we believe) would be taken with a grain of salt. Ignorance is what makes us human, and humility, accordingly, ought to be our common practice. The comic Jesus turns everyday human stories into little adventures of theatre where mishap, deception, and exaggeration invoke our spirits and change our minds. The parable of the Good Samaritan plays on prejudice and comically, shockingly, upholds the heroic deeds of our enemy. The shock can make us laugh at, and relieve us from, false prejudices that creep into our points of view.

Secondly, comedy creates compassion because it is based on universal human characteristics. We all misjudge situations, misinterpret other's intentions, and play out pompous roles, sometimes destructively, of power, advantage, and authority. Comedy has a way of leveling the playing field, revealing our true selves, and letting us peek behind the contrived nature of social life. Imagine a church that poked fun at the pompousness of world leaders and even itself.

Thirdly, if the church were centred on comedy, the crucifixion of Jesus would not be its main concern. The life of Jesus would displace his death. The parables would be of greater concern than beliefs about Jesus. Church gatherings would be festivals, not worship services. Many ministers do not like this last point, for what about the dignity of worship, the history of liturgy, and the heritage of sacred music? Somehow, I think, a comical church would integrate these elements into the larger picture of parables. It would do so because, frankly, all these holy elements are items of burlesque for the historical Jesus.

Comedy enables history and tradition to be like a gift that can be re-created over and over again. Comedy takes the heavy anchor of custom and turns it into a light, rising hot-air balloon. Comedy helps us float in tradition with good humour instead of sinking into its overly serious and depressing abyss. A church of comedy would be about gospel translated as "world-transforming news" in place of gospel understood as "soteriology" (salvation) or other serious words that few understand anymore. The Gospel of Truth, an ancient sermon found in the Nag Hammadi Library, is peculiar and hard to follow, but it does open with comedy: "The gospel of truth is (the gospel of) joy."


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