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Jesus's Humor - Part Five - Repetition
In any long comedy routine, the repeated pattern becomes important. All humorists use this technique. The use of repetition trains the audience when to listen, what to expect, and when to laugh when their expectations are disrupted.
The simplest form of this humorous repetition is the catchphrase, which is nothing more than a line that is repeated over and over. A catchphrase can be anything from Simpson’s, “Eat my shorts!” to the Terminator’s, “Hasta la vista, baby!” to college football’s, “Let’s Go, Brandon!” The audience learns to laugh at the phrase, whether it means anything in any given context or not. It is simply fun.
Of course, Jesus had his own catchphrases. We have already discussed "Verily, I say to you" (KJV), his most common catchphrase, in this article on the word “Amen.” "The kingdom of the skies," "the son of the man," “the realm of the skies is like,” are three of his most common catchphrases. One of the funniest is "Boo-hoo to you!" or “Oy-vey to you!” which, unfortunately, gets translated as the remarkably unfunny, "Woe to you." Of course, we have a hard time hearing these phrases as funny because they are not translated or taught today as “good news,” but rather as “serious religion.” However, each one is rooted in humor. Even "the weeping and gnashing of teeth" is a good catchphrase, though it uses a different kind of humor: exaggeration. A topic we will discuss in the next article in this series on humor.
Repetition in humor builds the laughter as more and more people catch onto the joke. When a phrase is used the first time, it can be just a little funny, but through repetition, audiences learn to anticipate the laugh.
Other Form of Repetition
While catchphrases are funny, all forms of repetition add to the humor. Sometimes simply repeating a long list of words joined by "and" or "or" in a long series can be funny. Jesus uses this technique a lot, though it is often edited out in translation because the repetitive conjunctions are clearly unnecessary. Matthew 10:10 is a good example of an "or" series. Mark 12:1 is a good example of an "and" series. There are many others. While these repeated words may be unnecessary for meaning, they were absolutely necessary for the spoken humor. If we simply assume a pause before each conjunction, it is easy to see the humor build, as each pause simple continues the statement.
The twisting of two similar phrases to play against one another is another common form of repetitive humor. This use of repeated similar patterns of phrases is very common in Jesus’s speaking style. In the early part of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, Jesus uses three verses where a third-person command comes first, “it must be sanctified,” “it must show up,” and “it must happen.” In Greek, again, these are not phrases but single words. Each verb is followed by the subject in the pattern of “this (blank) of yours:” “this name of yours,” “this realm of yours,” and “this desire of yours.” This pattern is broken then in the next phrase, which twists the pattern, “this bread of ours.”
Jesus uses repeated patterns in many different ways. Of course, the most common is the pattern of the joke itself, discussed in the previous article on the first Beatitude. This pattern of “setup, punchline, punchline, tagline.” The entire series of Beatitudes uses this repeating pattern to create expectations, only to break that pattern to create surprise. Let us look at how the fourth beatitude repeats the pattern set up in the first beatitude.
The Fourth Beatitude
Again, we start with "Fortunate!" Now, when Jesus pauses, the audience knows what is coming next, and people are probably already tittering. This is the fourth time Jesus has used this phrase to start a joke. The audience’s thought during the pause must be, "Who is 'fortunate' this time?"
"The hungry and thirsty!" is an obvious laugh line in the same vein that “these beggars” was an obvious laugh line. By not, the laugh line is more obvious because it has been repeated. By now, of course, the audience is in on the joke. Of course the hungry and thirsty are every bit as lucky as beggars! But the pattern leads them to ask, "Okay, why are the hungry and thirsty fortunate?"
This is where Jesus throws them a curveball. He changes the meaning of “hungry and thirsty by adding "for justice!" Of course, this turns the meaning of "hungry and thirsty" completely around in an unexpected way. The audience expected an explanatory punchline after the “hungry and thirsty,” but instead, they get more of a setup. However, this setup is funny because his repetition causes everyone to expect the past pattern of an explanation. Breaking that pattern wins another laugh.
But the audience still knows how this works. They are set up now to again expect an explanation of why these people are lucky. But will Jesus do what is expected or add something new? Here, Jesus’s pause waits for the laughter to die down and curiosity to build.
Then Jesus says, "Because they will get their fill!"
This is a real payoff, a punchline that is a fun play on words. Those who want justice get justice in a way that they don’t want. It brings together both the ideas of being hungry and getting justice, but getting "your fill of justice" is clearly a double-edged sword, the sword of truth. We may say we want justice, but who among of us wants to receive justice for every mistake of our lives? Those who think they want justice may want to rethink what they are asking for. Of course, this plays into Jesus’s main catchphrase of, “Change your minds, the realm of the skies has neared.” (“Repent the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”)
This is also a great example of how a word at the end of the sentence works so well in humor. The last part "get their fill" is not a series of words in Greek, but a single verb right at the end. The perfect place for the pause to setup before it is revealed.
Jesus’s words were spoken in clever patterns. These patterns are not just disrespected in translation, but they are often intentionally erased. I have made an issue of it before and I will again. From his first words in Matthew, Jesus makes it his business to establish catchphrases. Not only can he use these catchphrases, but his followers can use them as well.