In Search of the Hysterical Jesus

By Paul Thomas Zenki

The lighter side of Jesus of Nazareth …


When comedian Alan King was asked “What is the essence of Jewish humor?” he answered with a story.

A guy’s having lunch at a Jewish deli. He flags down the waiter and says, “Taste the soup.”

The waiter asks, “Is something wrong?”

“Taste the soup.”

“Is it cold?”

“Taste the soup.”

“Is it too salty?”

“Taste the soup!”

The waiter looks at the table and says, “There’s no spoon.”

“Aha!”

The essence of Jewish humor, said King, is that “Aha!”

I sometimes think of that joke when I walk into my friend Joanne’s house and see the sketch of “Jesus Laughing” hanging by the door to her kitchen. I like it because it’s a side of this iconic figure we don’t see all that often.

And sure, Jesus had a lot of serious things to talk about — getting right with God, doing right by our neighbors, the eventual apocalypse, all of that. But the man had his “Aha!” moments, too.

Take the story of the man who asks Jesus, and I’m paraphrasing throughout here, “Rabbi, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus tells him, “You know the commandments. Don’t commit murder, don’t cheat on your wife, don’t steal, be honest, honor your parents.”

The man says, “I’ve done all that since I was a boy.”

“One other thing,” says Jesus. “Give all your money to the poor, then come and follow me.”

The man goes away dejected because he was quite wealthy. Then Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Now most people stop there, with that famous line. But they’re stopping at “Taste the soup”!

After Jesus says this, his disciples ask, “Well, how can anyone be saved then?”

And Jesus answers, “God can do anything.”

Aha!

You see, that was the whole point of the story. And the rich man missed it because he left too soon.

Our earliest records of Christian communities come from the letters of Paul to his congregations, two or three decades after the death of Jesus. And what we see from then forward is, for the times, a surprisingly economically diverse group of believers. Paul even chastises the Corinthian assembly for humiliating “those who have nothing” because the early arrivals were eating all the food and drinking all the wine before the others could get there, presumably the poorer members who had to work “from can to can’t,” as we used to say, and so couldn’t arrive till evening.

So this question of who can be “saved” dates back to the very roots of the religion. Jesus’ message in this parable is that God can save anybody, rich or poor. The man was asking a badly formed question, because righteousness is not a matter of checking off a to-do list.

There’s also the story of Jesus arriving at a wake for the daughter of a local rabbi. Entering the home, he commands the girl to get up, which she does, to the amazement of her parents. As they sit there slack-jawed, watching their young daughter putter around the room, Jesus remarks, “Could you get the girl something to eat?”

Once again there’s that redirection, taking the audience’s eye off what they’d been focusing on and moving it elsewhere to create an aha moment, just as the customer at the deli does to the waiter. In the story of the rich man, the motion is from the mundane to the heavenly, from what people can do to what God can do. In this case it’s the reverse, snapping the parents out of their astonishment at the miracle and bringing them back down to earth. The subtle theological message to the story’s audience is that the affairs of God and the affairs of people are not separate, reminding them to tend to the needs of others as God has attended to their needs.

Jesus had his one-liners, too: “When you give to charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” It’s been a cliche for hundreds of years by now, but I’m sure it brought a smile to the people who heard it first.

Of course, this isn’t actually possible, but it’s the very absurdity that creates the “Aha!” which drives home the point. The humor makes us get the message intuitively in a way that dry discourse never could.

The fact that Christianity, which began as a rejected sect of Judaism, became the world’s most popular religion is truly one of the great wonders of history. And while there are many factors playing into that course of events, Jesus’ way with words is certainly one of the most prominent.

Consider, for example, the parable of the mustard seed, in which the Kingdom of Heaven is likened to wild mustard planted in the ground which becomes an enormous bush. We don’t think much of it now, but it would be like a preacher in my day and time saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is like morning glory that someone planted in the ground.

Mustard, like morning glory, was a plant no farmer would intentionally grow. In my youth, I spent many a hot summer weeding morning glory vines out of soybean fields, because if you let it take hold it forms a web that will uproot entire rows of crops as you try to harvest the adjoining rows. And once it gets a foothold in a field, it’s a stone bitch to get rid of.

So the Kingdom of Heaven is like a weed? According to Jesus, yes.

Remember, in first-century Jewish apocalyptic thought, the Kingdom arrives with the Day of the Lord, when the world is violently transformed. And just as the world must suffer these “birth pangs”, so too each individual must be reborn. And who in their right mind would want to go through that again?

The Kingdom in ancient Jewish theology is disruptive. It’s not something anyone necessarily wants. We’d rather just keep on as we are. But once that seed is within us, it takes over. And in the place of our plowed fieldrows, there is God’s natural landscape where birds can make nests in the shade of the thickets.

So again, it’s that shock of the unexpected that makes the original audience of these parables sit up and pay attention.

Christianity began as a religion which was at the same time literary and anti-authoritarian. From Paul forward, the very early Christians were prolific writers and copiers and traders of books. Yet their religion was aimed at the common person, even slaves and day laborers. And the many saying of Jesus, as well as those later attributed to him, were at the heart of the faith and its transmission.

These days, it’s all too easy for us to imagine Jesus in the way he’s so often portrayed in the movies, as an etherial mystic with the thousand-yard stare that we see in Dafoe’s portrayal from The Last Temptation of Christ or Caviezel’s performance in The Passion of the Christ. But to those he actually spoke to during his lifetime, with whom he ate and drank, sometimes invoking the criticism of his contemporaries in so doing, he was entirely on their level — earthy, passionate, and yes, at times funny.

I like to think of Jesus laughing, given how he ended up. I don’t want to remember him only as a figure nailed to a cross and dying a painful death. I can’t claim to see the world the same way he did. But I do see value in a lot of what he had to say.

For me, anyway, I’d rather remember his life than his death. I like to think of him vibrant and alive, sitting with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, pausing as he raises a cup of wine and saying, “You know, that reminds me….”


Header image by Roy N

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.