Did Jesus Have a Sense of Humor?

did jesus laugh

“Jesus never laughed,” or so the pamphlet said. An adolescent boy at the time, I found myself laughing at every little thing—too often during church services. Reading that pamphlet I wondered, “So he never laughed? What was wrong with him?”

Perhaps we’re accustomed to thinking of Jesus only as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3). His crucifixion is certainly no laughing matter. Or maybe the image of a laughing Jesus offends simply because it makes him too human. Yet Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus is able to sympathize with us because he is exactly like us (minus the sinning). God has gifted us with a sense of humor; it stands to reason that Jesus had one, too.

Every culture has its own idea of what is funny. Watch a random selection of German, Spanish or Japanese comedy shows, and sometimes you’ll be rolling on the floor, and other times you’ll be scratching your head. Why is that funny? First-century Palestine would be no different: It had its own comedic tradition, steeped in the cutting irony of the Old Testament (Job, Jonah or Ezekiel) and the over-the-top parodies of classical Greece (Aristophanes).

Aristotle famously wrote that comedies end with a wedding. That may be so, but the gas that really fuels the fire of Greek comedy is exaggeration: Take a simple gag and blow it out of all proportion. Reread some of Jesus’ sayings with this in mind, and you might find a chuckle or two yourself: Your neighbor may have a speck in his eye, but you’ve got a log. The blind are leading the blind—right into a hole in the ground. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are walking down the road . . .

Not Exactly the “A”-List

In the parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1–10), the king throws a banquet in his son’s honor. It’s the social event of the year. Servants are dispatched carrying invitations to all the VIPs. The powerful. The socially connected. The “in” crowd. The kind of people who know how to dress and how to act at a royal banquet.

But the glitterati—the Pharisees with their clean robes and punctilious manners, the scribes with their jots and tittles all in a row—simply can’t be bothered to attend.

What’s a king to do? Fed up with those who think they’re too good to come, he decides to invite other guests. He sends his servants out to round up the religiously and politically incorrect. The powerless. The socially disenfranchised. The “out” crowd. The kind of people who hang out on the street late at night.

Imagine a royal wedding feast filled with homeless people. Scandalous! This is a comedic break in expectation, exaggerated to drive the punchline home: The outsiders have become the insiders. And if you’re one of the insiders, the joke’s on you.

I’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday . . .

The parable of the unforgiving debtor (Matt 18:23–35) makes use of what comics today call the topper or call-back. While the audience is still laughing at the last line, you hit them again.
Imagine a slave who owes the king some money. Make that a lot of money—10,000 talents, even. We might not get the joke, but Jesus’ listeners would have: That’s more money than the Roman government had! It’s as if your freshman daughter had called up to say she’d run a little money up on the credit card you gave her. How much? The national debt.

Better yet, when the man is called to pay, he says, “Give me a little more time and I will pay all” (18:26). This is like the girl telling her father that she “plans to get a job at Christmas” to pay off that maxed-out credit card. What’s a king to do? Instead of laughing the slave out of his court (or into prison), he simply forgives the debt. She calls the credit card company and whines a little, so they let her off the hook—just like that.

Then the topper: The slave leaves and finds someone who owes him a hundred denarii—a few months’ wages. Not only does he demand the money, but he chokes the poor guy. That goes beyond merely uncharitable; it’s downright cruel. One might even say comically so. In the end, the unjust slave gets his comeuppance—tossed in jail until he can pay in full, which he never can.

Here, Jesus lays one exaggeration on top of another until the audience can’t help but see how utterly ridiculous it is to hold a $10 dollar grudge against a neighbor when God, the gracious king, has wiped clean a fortune’s worth of sin.

The Divine Comedy

By Aristotle’s rule of thumb, God’s plan for the ages is a comedy, because no matter how tragic this world may seem, it ends with a wedding (Rev 19:6–10). God has chosen for himself a bride made of people who don’t dress or act properly—drug dealers, prostitutes, and even a few recovering Pharisees—former sinners all. Snubbed by the people the world counts as important, God spends his incredible riches on the unwashed masses instead, inviting them to join him in an exquisite meal.

And, one would like to think, more than a few good laughs.

Dr. Samuel Lamerson is professor of New Testament and president of Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

This article was originally published in Bible Study Magazine, May–Jun ’09 with the title “Jesus Never Laughed?” and collected in The Bible in Its Ancient Context: 23 Fresh Insights. Biblical references are the author’s paraphrase.

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Comments

  1. Kevin Robinson says:

    I struggle greatly with the “God has gifted us with a sense of humor; it stands to reason that Jesus had one, too.” It is not that I don’t believe Jesus didn’t have a sense of humor as much as I disagree with always hearing that reason for being the sole of basis for him having a sense of humor. I personally love humor, enjoy laughing, and think laughter to indeed be a medicine for the soul (cheerful heart, Prov.17:22).

    But I’m not sure that Jesus would have had a sense of humor as we understand humor. I wrestle with this often in my mind and it is very apparent in the scripture that because mankind is fallen everything about humanity doesn’t work as it should. Our minds are tainted/polluted with sin and thus how we view humor is also. It is why people often laugh at crude jokes and other people tripping and falling down. I often think that though Jesus perhaps had a sense of humor its perhaps unrecognizable to what a fallen mind considers humor. It certainly could be an argument from silence (though certainly not a dogmatic one) as to why there aren’t any passages demonstrating Jesus had a sense of humor could it not?

    I just wanted to hear someone’s thoughts on this because I often hear people say “God has gifted us with a sense of humor; it stands to reason that Jesus had one, too” and I’m not sure that is a scriptural basis for why Jesus had a sense of humor but I’m intending to argue. After all it was God the Father who told us through the prophet Isaiah that “…My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.” From that passage alone is it not right to deduce that what we think as humor may be very far from anything God would call humor? And does that passage not infer that just because we think something in our mind does not mean that God thinks it in his?

    Just hoping for a little but of guidance here. I’m not denying Jesus had a sense of humor but I am not admitting that he had one in the sense that we describe humor either.

    In Christ
    -Kevin Robinson

    • Tyler Smith says:

      Hi, Kevin.

      What do you think of Dr. Robinson’s claim that Jesus used comedy in his teaching? If you accept his analysis, wouldn’t that prove Jesus has a sense of humor? Curious to hear your thoughts.

      • Kevin Robinson says:

        Tyler,

        I’m just not sure, from a contextual srandpoint, that any of those illustration were meant to be comedic. In fact I think it’s a stretch to say that Jesus meant any humor in the parable of the wedding feast. I certainly could be wrong but in the given context of rebuking the Pharisees and the Jewish rejection, I think that parable was meant to portray a very sad truth about the Pharisees and Jewish people along with the gracious truth of the Gentile inclusion into the Kingdom.

        The parable about the unforgiving debtor has very grave and also doctrinal truths about the dire importance of being gracious and forgiving. I’ve never heard exegesis from that passage include comedy/humor. The illustration about the Wedding Feast is certainly one that could be considered uplifting and encouraging but simply because Aristotle said it is certainly not a reason for it to be so.

        Again, I sincerely have no desire to come off as being disagreeable but I fail to see at least that Jesus meant any humor by those illustrations.
        Certainly we could look at them in a humorous light but that is not the same as saying “God has gifted us with a sense of humor; it stands to reason that Jesus had one, too.” When I hear statements like that I cannot help but think of when our Lord said in Psalm 50 “You thought that I was just like you; I will reprove you and state the case in order before your eyes.” In other words, just because we think or experience things a certain way doesn’t mean that our perfect creator does so also (humor). I intend these words as hopefully iron sharpening iron and desire to learn where I am mistaken.

        May grace and peace be multiplied to
        you through Christ our Lord,
        -Kevin Robinson

        • Tyler Smith says:

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kevin. It’s definitely an interesting topic.

          • Kevin Robinson says:

            Tyler,

            It certainly is an interesting topic and one that I’ve encountered many times. I myself tend to think that Jesus had a sense of humor but I’m just not so certain that I can soundly demonstrate it from the text of scripture. I also realize that Jesus thought much differently than everyone else around him and it caused Him to have a difficult time getting things trough to His Apostles. Thanks for listening, interesting topic indeed!

        • Lucas Hilty says:

          Thanks for this response, Kevin. I find irony in the biblical examples used, but ultimately not comedy.
          I’m wonder what a redeemed sense of humor is like.

  2. Hamilton Ramos says:

    Blessings:

    Interesting topic as some poster has expressed.

    I once heard a message (including a conjecture), that a Pastor gave, and relates to humour and God.

    The Pastor said that he could picture God laughing when He made the donkey talk to the unwise Balaam in Numbers 22:28, and his point for that part of the sermon was that God does have a sense of humour (by association Jesus should have also).

    I can picture Jesus not being very humorous all the time while incarnated on Earth, because of the seriousness of His mission.

    Someone said that the Matthew 7:6 word play in an original language other than Greek is intended to be humorous.

    At times I think that the biggest joke of all, is that God made creatures, that they take themselves way too serious, when we are supposed to be easy going, the way Jesus told us (be like children, ideally joyous, trusting of Father, etc.)

    Just a different angle to the conversation.

    Peace and grace.

  3. In John 1:44-51 we have Nathanael using sarcasm to say, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Jesus’ humerous response was, “Look! here comes an honest Jew!” Looks like humor to me!

    • Yes! One other example that stands out to me is Matthew 21:23-27. Jesus’ reply to an attempt to trap Him is priceless. And yet, He showed great wisdom and did not evade the question.

  4. Joseph Novak says:

    I find that humor is expressed in Jesus’ actions but this is evident only after the resurrection. He toys with the people to whom He appears. The garden scene with Mary Magdalene He seems to appear as a gardener at first — Rembrandt actually draws Him wearing a hat and carrying a spade. With the disciples on the road to Emmaus He effectively says, “Really? something happened in Jerusalem?” With the disciples fishing He “pulls the same stunt” that occurred right at the start of His ministry. With the doubting Thomas, the same kind of humor is present. These are expressions of the joy that Heb. 12:2 speaks of.

    Prior to His death and resurrection, His face was “fixed toward Jerusalem” and the death that awaited Him.

  5. Herb Persons says:

    We have to remember the Eastern mindset is very different then our Western.
    Another example that I am sure drew laughs from His listeners is the house building location. (Matt 7:24-27) This is a story that is recorded before the 1st century as an illustration about how foolish some people are (idiots?). Who would even think about building a house on a dry river bed in a wadi? (That is the only place sand is found in much of Israel.) I am sure people laughed at the story. After all, some day it will rain in the mountains again and water will rush down out and wash the house away. (Read Psalm 69.)

  6. I definitely believe that Jesus demonstrated a sense of humor for a few reasons:

    First, in order to understand if Jesus had a sense of humor, we need to define words. What does “humor” mean as our English minds intend it to mean? If you search this word on google, it defines “humor” in a few ways such as, “the quality of being amusing or comic as expressed in literature and speech,” and also “a mood or state of mind.”

    So, humor is both external and internal. Humor means the way that you carry your words, but also goes as far as describing what you’re feeling on the inside.

    Even if we don’t perceive his “humor” to sound funny or make us laugh, it always stands true that one mans comment is another man’s joke. So, perhaps God’s humor looks and feels very different than our kind, but he still has it. He just thinks through it differently.

    So, if we approach humor from the angle of internal mood with an external expression, then Jesus definitely had this. I think we wrestle mostly with how he felt while using these humorous expressions. What exactly, was Jesus thinking? We will never completely know his mind, but we can be assured that he used humor because of his remarkably timed superfluous illustrations.

    Second, look at the verses Psalm 2:4 and 2 Corinthians 9:7.

    Psalm 2:4 says that “God laughs.” God uses an anthropomorphism in order to describe a greater mood that he feels from within. I would call that humor because humor expresses a certain set of thoughts and feelings coming from the inside out.

    Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 9:7 says that “god loves a cheerful giver.” Cheerful can be translated as “hilarious.” So, at the very least, God loves the idea of laughter, which means he must not be so opposed to the idea after all.

  7. John Alexander says:

    I have given some thought to the idea of divine humor, and how, when, and under what circumstances it might be manifested. Perhaps God withholds His humor at this time because we either wouldn’t get the punch line or, we would literally laugh ourselves to death. After all, He would tell the perfect joke.

    Of course, I’m being facetious.

    The things in scripture that cause me to chuckle generally have to do with records of human activity. For example, Hebrews 11 speaks of faith and the wondrous works of God. On one occasion, the author speaks of the multitude that springs forth from one old coot (Abraham), “and him, as good as dead” (v.12).

    I strongly suspect that God’s sense of humor will be fully realized after Christ returns and sets up His kingdom. In the meantime, perhaps God does not want us to be distracted from the seriousness of sin while we’re in this carnal state.