Lent (Day 6)

Reflecting on James Martin, SJ’s Between Heaven and Mirth, chapter 2 “Why So Gloomy?”

In the pages that I was just reading from Martin’s book, Martin discusses the relative “lack of humor” in the Gospels.  First, he notes that there is not a “lack of humor” as such in the Gospels, but that the humor of the often exaggerated imagery and scenarios of the parables would likely seem to a contemporary Jewish audience as funny in themselves. Second, he notes that in the non-canonical Gospels (there are quite a few Gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament [e.g. the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and so on]) feature a much more humorous Jesus.  He suggests that part of the reason for the more contained humor of the canonical Gospels may be due to the desire of their authors to fit in with the literature in the Hellenistic Greek world of the lives of wise teachers.  And if one thinks of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which are more about political and military figures, one does detect a much more serious tone.  That might very well fit the Gospel of Luke (Luke being a physician and very much part of the Hellenistic Greek world) or the Gospel of John, which very much shows the influence of Greek philosophy.  But I was wondering — wouldn’t the Gospel of Mark (the oldest of the four Gospels in the canon) and Matthew (the one which shows the greatest knowledge of Jewish thinking and tradition) demonstrate more humor relative to the others?  But do they?

Martin also suggests that we are familiar with the stories and we are familiar with their point.  So the statement about the inconsistency of dealing with the speck of dust in your neighbor’s eye, but ignoring the beam in your own, is a way of suggesting that one should not be so quick to point out others’ shortcomings, but to examine and address own own.  And, as we have heard that statement dozens of times, we jump to the point of the statement and gloss over the insane (almost Three Stooges) imagery.  He cites a biblical scholar who tells the story of sharing that speech by Jesus with his pre-school son, who had never heard the story, and who laughed uproariously at the silly image of a guy with a beam in his eye.  

I also wonder if the Gospels that ended up in the canon feature a less humorous Jesus because those making the selection at the Council of Nicaea (where the canon of the New Testament was determined) were themselves sourpusses who felt that levity was disrespectful and not proper to the Son of God.  We’ll see if Martin addresses that later in the chapter.  

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