"Pecooler Noshuns"

Your religion is small pertaters, I must say. You air in a dreary fog all the time.

— ARTEMUS WARD

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   Jesus had a sense of humor. It's high time to excavate this truth and examine it objectively. It has been buried too long in the sludge of religious sobriety which is so often mistaken for reverence.

   The Gospels abound with evidence pointing to the existence of Jesus' humor. His memorable sallies were forever bobbing to the surface in the sacred writings. No wonder His followers found it easy to copy them down! He described the teachers of the Jewish law as straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. He said it was "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." He described the care with which the religious leaders washed the outside of their cups before drinking from them, but left the inside soiled.

   He pointed out how ludicrous it was to claim that He was casting out demons by the power of the head demon himself. He talked about blind men attempting to lead blind men, about dead people burying dead people, about picking figs off a thistle,

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about hiding a lamp under a bed. He figuratively laughed at people who were quick to point out the speck of dirt in someone else's eye while they had a two-by-four plank in their own.1

   How much good humor was present, do you suppose, as Jesus called the youngsters to Himself and picked up the smallest ones and held them in His lap? Was there intimate talk? Banter? Laughter? Blessing? Did some mother who was present come up with raisin cakes for a treat? What do you think was actually going on when His disciples tried to break up the party?

   Or consider the Canaanite woman who knelt at Jesus' feet and implored Him to heal her daughter of a demon possession.2 This woman is elsewhere identified as a Syrophoenician, but today she would be called an Arab. Jesus looked down at the kneeling woman, and again His response was unexpected. He explained that His primary mission from God was to His own people Israel. Using a familiar analogy, He said, "The children's bread shouldn't be given to puppies." William Barclay suggests that here Jesus was "speaking with a smile."3

   The woman looked up at Him and replied in the same light manner. "Yes, Lord, but even the puppies under the table eat the children's crumbs."

   Although the text does not say so, what else could Jesus do but laugh? "You win," His attitude implied, and then He spoke those wonderful words: "The demon has left your daughter."

   If Jesus had a sense of humor, what does that tell us about His Father? Christian faith looks upon Jesus, the risen Christ, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and co-Creator with the Father. The late William R. Inge was known to Londoners as the "gloomy Dean of St. Paul's," but he was in great form when he wrote, "I have never understood why it would be considered derogatory to the Creator to suppose He has a sense of humor."4

   More recently the beloved Quaker philosopher, D. Elton Trueblood, left us for the laughter of heaven. He wrote, "If Christ laughed a great deal, as the evidence shows, and if He is what He claimed to be, we cannot avoid the logical conclusion that there is laughter and gaiety in the heart of God."5

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   Books have been written about our Lord's wit, His repartee, His keen sense of the absurd, and His ability to see the comical side of a human situation or predicament. Even when no humor whatever is involved, His dialogue has a unique style, a twist and a flair that betray the Master's touch.

   It is obvious that whatever sense of humor may be ascribed to Jesus was good humor. It derived not from cynicism or the bitterness of life. The Germans have a word "gemutlichkeit" or "good nature" which seems to fit Jesus' temperament. He comes through in the Gospel accounts as an attractive, loving personality, so different from the legalistic types He encountered during His ministry.

   Look, for example, at the way He summoned His disciples. He visited some fishermen along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and said to them, "Follow me."6 It is clear that this was not their first encounter with Jesus. The fact remains that they wasted no time in dropping their nets and taking off after Him. I can almost hear them saying to one another, "Why not?"

   What attraction drew them? Was it His commanding appearance, the impressiveness of His voice of authority, the tempting prospects He set out for them, the poor conditions in the fishing industry, or some other persuasive factor? What made Levi the tax collector leave his booth and cash box and follow Jesus? Did he think Jesus was a rich man? A seer with second sight? An angel from God?

   There is only one answer. Jesus was a man of such gladness of Spirit, such freedom and openness and magnetism in His attitude, that He was irresistible. They wanted to be near Him, to catch His Spirit, to do what He was doing for other people, and if possible to learn His secret.

   What a pity that Jesus was not presented to succeeding generations as He presented Himself to His own: not a holy, mystical figure but as a vital human person! We are told that great crowds of "common people" heard Him "gladly,"7 and many accepted the Good News of the kingdom that He preached without realizing who He really was.

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   Today most pictorial representations of Jesus show Him grim and resolute, or else sad, suffering, in mortal agony, hanging from a cross. Anything else stirs distaste or resentment at the breaking of tradition. But to me here is what is sad: The real Person of our Lord seldom comes through in the representations of Him through the ages. The doctrine is there, to be sure. The creeds and catechisms have taken great pains to enshrine the biblical truths, but some of us think they have not done so well with the Stranger of Galilee.

   It might be said that the rank and file of Christians have done better in capturing the personal essence of Jesus than have the august fathers of the church. Ordinary people sense something leveling, something winsome about the Man and His cheerful demeanor, while the traditionalists insist on emphasizing the elements of sanctimony and downplaying the joy.

   I cannot help believing that Artemus Ward, Abraham Lincoln's favorite humorist, was reflecting the mind of Christ when he told the legalists of his day, "Your religion is small pertaters, I must say. You air in a dreary fog all the time, and you treat the jolly sunshine of life as though it were a thief, drivin' in from your doors by them pecooler noshuns of yourn." To which might be added a humorous word from Billy Sunday: "To see some people you would think that the essential of orthodox Christianity is to have a face so long you could eat oatmeal out of the end of a gas pipe."8

   It is a wonder that so often in the history of the church the real Jesus does not come through. The New Testament itself is a document of great beauty, alive with joy, bright with cheerfulness, filled with love and excitement and healthy teaching for body and soul; yet for millions of people in generation after generation it remains a black-covered Book that tells people how bad they are. I know. I left it unopened for years just for that reason.

   But what about those who open their Bibles and still fail to find the joy of the Lord? The reason, I believe, is that they are not filled with the Holy Spirit of God. And the reason they are not filled with God's Spirit is that they are loaded up with other,

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unholy spirits that is to say, negative attitudes and these spirits monopolize all the believer's time and energy. And what are they? Hostility, resentment, fear, antagonism, bitterness, envy, revenge, arrogance, self-love the list goes on and on. How can one enjoy the fullness of the Spirit, who is God, when one is filled with everything else?

   To be filled with the Spirit is to be filled with love. Love is the first fruit of the Spirit, and the second fruit is joy. To feel His love and know His joy, we need to become poor in spirit in other words, to walk out of the junkyard and shut the gate.

   But that spiritual state may not be what you think it is. To be poor in spirit means that we have shucked off the zeal so often compounded with corruptible human pride. We may not see it in ourselves, but other people do. They see us strutting like peacocks, seeking to draw attention. Get rid of it, Jesus is saying. Grow up. Become a full-grown person, mature, and operational.

   As Irenaeus declared in the second century, "The glory of God is a man fully alive." He could have said the same thing about a woman and added an exclamation point! But to be alive is to be alive in God, to be God-controlled, not to be a pious nothing with a handcrafted halo and a reputation for being "religious."

   "Spiritual growth" is a term I personally fear, because I have learned that a lot of such growth consists simply in getting out of God's way. I'm certain God does not want me to develop into a spiritual giant even if I could. He wants me to become a spiritual pygmy so He can handle me. He wants me poor in spirit so He can do something with me without having to contend with my ever-present, darling ego.

   It's when we let go of the rope that we discover that underneath are the everlasting arms. It is when we have no spirit at all, as far as the "flesh" is concerned, that we are able to receive the filling of the Holy Spirit. That is the work of the cross in Christian experience. As Paul wrote, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us."9

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   Oh, the joy that comes when people realize that they don't have to be religious with God, they don't have to be sanctimonious, they don't have to be anything or do anything except repent and believe the Good News! All the blessing of the Father, the love of Jesus, and the joy of the Holy Spirit are theirs for the taking. Of such indeed is the kingdom of heaven.

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1. Matthew 23:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 11:39; Matthew 12:26-28; Luke 6:39; Matthew 8:22; Luke 6:44; 8:16; Matthew 7:3-5

2. Matthew 15:21-28

3. William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Mark (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press), p. 40

4. Topical Encyclopedia of Living Quotations (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1982), no. 1578

5. Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989)

6. Mark 1:16-20 NIV

7. Mark 12:37

8. Topical Encyclopedia, nos. 1139, 1137

9. 2 Corinthians 4:7

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