Thank God for Jokes: How Christ Redeems Our Ridicule

“Every Man is Important if He Loses His Life; and Every Man is Funny if He Loses His Hat and has to Run After It”

Sam Bush / 1.20.21
Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat and has to run after it. — G. K. Chesterton

Humor, as we like to say, is one of the minor fruits of the Spirit. It is, as Kierkegaard said, “the joy which has overcome the world.” But comedy can have a surprisingly volatile nature about it. Is it any accident that the conclusion of a joke is called a punchline? Any comedian worth his salt will tell you that almost every joke has a target and almost every laugh comes at someone’s expense. As Mike Birbiglia says in his special Thank God for Jokes, “All jokes are offensive … to someone.” A comedian will often begin a routine by offering himself up as the sacrificial lamb, telling self-deprecating jokes to soften up the crowd, but it’s only a matter of time until he executes “the flip” in which the tables are turned and the audience suddenly becomes the subject of ridicule. I cringe every time someone is picked out of a crowd during a stand-up routine. It’s essentially volunteering to be the butt of a joke. Whether or not the person can laugh at himself depends on his ability to accept his own ridiculousness.

In his recent New Yorker essay, “Some Notes on Funniness,” Calvin Trillin recalls one of the most epic flops on late night television when a professional smoke-ring blower named Harry Garrison failed to blow a single smoke ring on the set of Johnny Carson. Garrison had a reputation of being the best smoke-ring blower in the world, but the studio air conditioning system spoiled everything. The breeze turned his rings into clouds and the performance was a total disaster. Except it wasn’t. As Trillin writes, “In the right hands, a man trying to blow smoke rings can be funny.” Johnny Carson turned this failed act into an instant classic of hilarity; Garrison, of course, playing the role of the jester.

Being the punchline of a joke is sometimes too much to bear. A good joke has a way of amplifying our faults, turning the vulnerability of being known into the kind of judgment that lasts longer than the laughter. No one wants to look ridiculous. No one, except for God that is. He does not run from ridicule but invites it. He is far more willing to become the butt of the joke, all for the sake of a laugh. Faith, after all, is that double laughter — it is the laughter at man’s impossibility followed by the laughter of surprise at what has been made possible with God.

I invite you to revisit Thornton Wilder’s masterful three-page play Now the Servant’s Name was Malchus, based on the High Priest’s servant whose ear was cut off when Peter attempted to prevent the arrest of Jesus. Malchus, now in heaven, pays a visit to Jesus and sheepishly makes a complaint: “Because I’m in your book someone is always reading about me and thinking about me for a moment,” he says. “And what they think is, that I’m ridiculous.”

Jesus, listening carefully, knows that Malchus is requesting his name be erased from the Bible, to which Malchus responds eagerly, “Yes, sir. I thought you could just make the pages become blank at that place.” And then Jesus responds: “But, Malchus, I am ridiculous too. Ridiculous because I suffered from the delusion that after my death I could be useful to men. My promises were so vast that I am either divine or ridiculous. [Pause] Malchus, will you be ridiculous with me?” The astonished Malchus responds to Jesus’ invitation, saying, “Yes, sir, I’ll stay. I’m glad to stay. Though in a way I haven’t any right to be there.” In other words, his shame of being ridiculous has been covered by Christ’s own ridiculousness.

God’s wisdom is often hiding beneath the surface of the absurd. Whenever we find ourselves to be ridiculous, there is no better company in which to be than Christ himself. If you don’t believe me, look no further than the entire crucifixion narrative, which is a total farce from start to finish. Everyone who passes by reviles him. The soldiers mock him: “Prophesy!” The crown of thorns is a cruel joke. The sign above the cross is a joke. For everyone who was there, the whole scene was one big joke. It is a joke, however, that Jesus can take. “All those who see me laugh at me. They shout at me and make fun of me,” he says (Ps 22:7). He does nothing to quell our laughter.

Why did he volunteer to be the butt of our bad joke? To redeem us of our own foolishness and absurdity. Rather than take offense at our dark comedy, he took our offenses on the cross. Ultimately, the resurrected Christ gets the last laugh. As a comedian, however, he never executes “the flip.” He never turns the tables on us, which would expose us to be the fools that we are. Instead, we are all welcome to have a good laugh at his expense for all eternity. After all, he can take it.


One response to “Thank God for Jokes: How Christ Redeems Our Ridicule”

  1. Pablo says:

    Chesterton and Kierkegaard in the same post? This is what I’m here for 🙂 Thanks for this article, really inspiring

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