In a scene from Season Two of The Chosen, a series based of the life of Jesus and the disciples, the group finds itself in a Samaritan village, with a hesitant host providing their accommodations for the night. As the disciples shuffle into his home, the gruff man warns, “One of the bedrooms is haunted. By my dead grandmother!”
Jesus quips, “Oooh, I’ll take that one.”
The Chosen has chosen to depict Jesus as a savior with a sense of humor. He still exhibits all of the intense ferocity and attentive wisdom we would expect from the gospel accounts, but he’s also shown chiding Andrew’s dancing, or playing silly games with children. He’s portrayed with a degree of playfulness.
This angle on Jesus’ personality has caused some controversy with the show. Our current culture puts a high premium on all things funny. Did you know that Millennials cite humor as their primary means of self-expression and “crucial to their self-definition”? In prior generations, our key means of individualism was music (which explains all those 80’s lyrics that are still uselessly cataloged in my head). But today it’s humor that defines us. With that in mind, is The Chosen simply another example of us making Jesus in our own image? After all, the authoritative British accent of The Jesus Film lent itself well to the modernist mindset of the age it was filmed in. Jesus-as-revolutionary paired well with Che Guevara ideology, and Jesus-as-glorified-Santa-Claus has been a dangerously cozy fit with the theology of suburbia. Are the writers of The Chosen simply remolding Jesus according to the characteristics that matter most to our latest generation?
No, I don’t think so. While there are definitely some modern biases in play, and while we must always be attentive to accuracy in our understanding of the person of Christ, I believe God has left us with great evidence of the mirth, humor, playfulness, and wit of our Savior. Let me try to make a case.
The Comedic Timing of Jesus
First, consider Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the ways that he engaged the people around him. The marginalized hard edge of society actually enjoyed his company: prostitutes, tax collectors, and the notoriously unholy. He gave his disciples nicknames. He noticed the kids. He embodied the joy of which he spoke, and if you’d been in the crowds then, I think you would have called him winsome, engaging, maybe even (dare I say it) fun.
Maybe even funny? After all, he told stories about people walking around with two-by-fours sticking out of their heads — while trying to perform vision exams on others. I’m sure that got a chuckle from the crowd. He shared plenty more word pictures of vivid humor: building a house on sand, badgering an unjust judge at his home address, or straining out a gnat only to swallow a camel. And wouldn’t Peter have LOL’ed to pull his tax-day drachma from the mouth of a fish? All of these moments had profound lessons attached; it wasn’t just about the laughs. But can’t we also credit Jesus for some great comedic timing?
My favorite proof text for Jesus’ playfulness is John 21. The disciples are out fishing again. At this point they know that Jesus is risen—a paradigm-blowing new reality of life-altering joy—but these Galilee fish did not yet get the memo, and Peter and company have been subjected to another futile all-nighter of empty nets. Jesus calls from shore: “How’s the fishing, boys?” He encourages one more cast, and the resulting haul of fish shocks them into recognition. But don’t miss this amusing detail; when they get to shore, what is Jesus doing? He’s cooking breakfast. What’s for breakfast?
Think about it. The whole time that they’ve been coming up empty — presumably all night — Jesus has been just a hundred yards away, fishing from shore, and apparently reeling ‘em in like a boss. As they approach his campfire, can you picture Jesus giving them an over-the-shoulder smile and chiding, “Rough night, huh?” The fish sizzle on the grill. He flips one and says, with a mouth full of food, “So, you guys hungry?”
At least that’s how I picture it.
The Author of Funny Things
But we can also take Jesus’ penchant for humor seriously when we remember him as the very Word of God. Remember Colossians 1:16: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” The creation of God the Father was breathed through God the Son. Jesus was the Word through which God said, “Let there be…” And let’s face it, the Word of God spoke some funny things into being.
God himself says so. As he recounts some of the creation’s oddities to Job, he mentions the derisive laughter of donkeys, horses, and the mysterious Leviathan. He even features a bird: the ostrich (Job 39:13-18). Not a smart bird, that ostrich. “Yet when she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider” (v. 18). Nothing that spastic-looking should be able to run at forty-five miles an hour. But the ostrich finds the humor in it, and apparently so does God; maybe we should too.
Singer-songwriter Chris Slaten releases music under the name Son of Laughter. Presuming that a guy with a band name like that has probably given some thought to the topic of God’s laughter, I asked him to weigh in on the topic. He cited the same ostrich-deprecating passage from Job. “I love the part where God delights in the ostrich's lack of wisdom when they have been searching so desperately for wisdom the rest of the book. He seems to imply something like, "If you think the problem of suffering doesn't make sense, have you considered how much less sense an ostrich makes?" In other words, you actually aren't asking enough questions and if you did you'd realize how truly unmanageable the goal is of trying to make perfect human sense of everything.”
I imagine the great words of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” Except in ostrich-speak, it’s “when I run I feel his laughter.” God thought this freakish bird humorous enough to mention to Job. “Job, seriously, don’t try to figure me out. The world is too strange for that.”
The King of Bird Humor
I’ve never seen an ostrich in the wild, but in my experience, the king of bird humor is the Laughing Kookaburra. Even the name is funny. It comes from the Aboriginal word ‘Guuguuburra’ which is meant to capture the sound of human laughter. And in case you miss that onomatopoeia, ornithologists added the name “laughing.” Redundant, perhaps; the bird is laughing laughter.
You can hear the laugh in the kookaburra’s syllables just before the Australian sunrise; God’s mirth, like his mercy, is new every morning, and the kookaburra provides the laugh track. His laughter continues throughout the day, yakking it up with his mates. Kookaburras are the largest of the world's kingfishers, and so they can really turn up the volume, unapologetic about the O-L in L-O-L. Lots of things in God’s creation are humorous, but the only thing funnier than the sound of a Laughing Kookaburra is the sound of a whole family of Laughing Kookaburras.
If the beauty of this world reveals to us the artistry of God (Psalm 8), and the majesty in this world reveals to us the power of God (Romans 1:20), then can’t the humorous things of the world reveal to us the mirth of God? The crazed running of the ostrich, the exaggerated waddle of the penguin, and the ROFL call of the kookaburra are reminders that there are joys in this world that can savor the smile of God.
It's not only the things he’s made but the things he’s done. When the Lord provides, his people laugh. We glorify God by giggling in his goodness.
“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.” (Psalm 126:1-2)
Heaven is the sound of praise, the sound of singing, the sound of awestruck faith-made-sight. But I would be shocked if it is not also the sound of laughter. When the Lord restores us to the greater, final Zion, may our mouths be filled with laughter. No, it won’t be the forced laughter of anxious people-pleasing (Ecclesiastes 7:6), the cynical laughter of unbelief (Genesis 18:13-15), or the sarcastic laughter of mockery (Psalm 80:6). Instead it is the joy of realizing that we who justly deserved God’s derisive laughter (Psalm 2:4) have instead received his smile and his favor. He delights in his people (Zephaniah 3:17), a delight spilling over in joy and gladness. If laughter is contagious, won’t heaven be filled with our delightedly merry response?
Did Jesus have a sense of humor? My answer would be: he did, he does, and he will.