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Jesus's Humor - Part Six - Exaggeration
A lot of humor is based on exaggeration. This exaggeration often suggests the funny physical gestures that accompanied it when it was delivered. Much of what Jesus says is "over the top" and it wouldn't have convinced anyone at all if the people of his time didn't see the humor in it. A lot of his words would have simply come across as crazy to a general audience if it wasn’t made entertaining.
People clearly "got" Christ's exaggerated humor for centuries and centuries. Remember, the movement was started with Jesus’s words written in Greek. People read it and understood his exaggerated illustrations as entertaining. It wasn't until Christianity was "tamed" by an established dogma that the humor and exaggeration were largely filtered out of his words. The Greek Bible became the Latin Vulgate and, in the process, more formalized. That process continued as the Vulgate gave birth to the various translated Bibles including the KJV, with every version focusing on the "religious" issues of its particular age.
Humorous exaggeration can be very simple, sometimes so simple that people miss the humor in it. Repetition, the topic of my last article on Jesus’s humor, is a simple form of exaggeration. I recently watched an interview with Elon Musk on the Babylon Bee, and they discussed Musk’s tweet that he was starting a candy company. He followed this tweet with another tweet saying, “I’m really, really serious.” He explained that the repetition of “really” was a giveaway that he was joking.
In hearing this, I instantly connected it with Jesus’s repetition of “amens” in the Gospel of John (an example here). Since the word means “honestly,” exaggerating it by repetition is a clue that it was offered as self-deprecating humor. Notice, however, how this gets translated out of the NIV, which translates “honestly, honestly,” as “very truly.” This hides the humor making Jesus’s words seem more “normal” and less quirky. Personally, I prefer the real Jesus, the quirky one. Since this repetition of “amen” is seen consistently in John and missing in the other Gospels, I suspect the other Gospel writers edited out the repetition as unnecessary, not realizing the importance of its humor, even though it is a small thing.
More Foreful Exaggeration
No one can read Jesus’s verse about seeing a speck in our brother's eye while missing the beam or plank in our own without being struck by how exaggerated it is. It is easy to imagine this being performed in front of a crowd with Jesus acting as if he has a "beam" in one eye. This is very broad humor, slapstick, but Jesus wasn't afraid of embarrassing himself by seeming childish or, as he said, “the child of the man.”
Unfortunately, people reading Jesus today take every humorous exaggeration as serious. For them "a beam in the eye" is something that has to be explained logically, rather than as something absolutely typical of Jesus’s humorous exaggeration. So, people don't hear the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" as a humorous exaggeration to make a point, as much as the Truth, with a capital "T."
Taking such phrases seriously makes Jesus sound like a really grim character, but that is not the way he acts. He acts as though he was the groom at a wedding feast. His first miracle was changing water into wine. People had already drunk all the wine, but Jesus saw it as important that the party continue. Not only that, they needed better wine! This is not the action of a grim, judgmental person.
An exaggerated grim phrase is converted into a light-hearted one. A great repeated example of this is the phrase translated as, "Woe to you." Jesus uses this phrase many places, most noticeably in his response to religious leaders in Matthew 23:13-39. "Woe to you" sounds properly judgmental, but does its exaggeration in repetition give it away as being said light-heartedly? The Greek term translated as "woe" is ouai, oὐαί, which is an exclamation of grief, but see how close this is to the Yiddish, oy-vey, which expresses both sadness and humor. In English, we might use "boo-hoo to you" in a similar way. Knowing this, I cannot help but hear this speech to Pharisees as anything but a humorous takedown, performed in the style of a Yiddishe momma. Oy-vey to you who hear Jesus as delivering this as a cold diatribe.
The Most Extreme Exaggerations
Jesus's discussion of getting rid of “members” from the Sermon on the Mount is a great example of extreme exaggeration with clearly sexual overtones. We may miss the humorous sexual overtones today, but at the time, everyone listening understood exactly what he was saying.
"So, if it is your eye ," Jesus said,"that trips you up. Pluck it out! Toss it away!"
It is easy to imagine him acting out this plucking and tossing. But then he goes on.
"Because it is altogether better to have your ‘member’ destroyed," he said. The Greek word "member" doesn't describe an eye, any more than our word “member” does, so he likely paused here as his audience figures out the member to which he is referring. "Than have your whole body tossed into the Gehenna!"
Gehenna is the perpetually burning trash dump outside Jerusalem. It was a real place that people knew about. It was clearly an analogy for having your life destroyed, but, it was more. This was where diseased bodies were burned. This statement had the punch of being a subtle reference to social diseases. It would not have been heard as a reference to hell, though it is often translated that way today.
Where does Jesus go from there? Where does the imagining of having sex with someone go after it starts in the eye? That is where Jesus goes.
"And if your right hand," he said, "trips you up, you should cut it off and toss it away.”
Again, we can easily imagine Jesus acting this out. Then he employs the magic of repetition to make his point through exaggeration.
“It is SOOO much better to have a member destroyed than have your whole body tossed into that burning trash heap."
Generations of grim preachers have read these lines as a scary warning of hellfire, but was the man who originally said them being grim or was he being entertaining? Does a gloomy man start his talk by calling everyone “fortunate” or “lucky” when everyone condemns them and lies about them? Only a light-hearted interpretation of such lines works with the general tone of Jesus’s words and actions.
On any given Sunday, we hear a very limited set of Jesus’s words. Those were have been toned down through the centuries of translation because so much of what Jesus said was not nearly so serious or mild or loving as the religious professionals require. Today’s religious professionals are much less grim than those of a hundred years ago. They often use their own humor to promote Christianity. Strangely enough, however, this means that we are even less likely to hear Jesus’s most exaggerated lines because, without seeing their humor, they are difficult to appreciate or explain.