The Prostitute in the Family Tree
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The Prostitute in the Family Tree


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The Prostitute in the Family Tree
Discovering Humor and Irony in the Bible

Copyright © 1997 Douglas Adams

The Prostitute in the Family Tree

The Telling Humor of Biblical Stories as Grandparent Stories

Remember the stories your parents told you about what it was like when they were growing up and how hard they worked? Now remember the stories your grandparents told you about what your parents really did when they were growing up. Both parents and grandparents tell stories, but the content varies: Parents tend to clean up their stories; grandparents tell stories that are more truthful and have many rough edges. Parental stories are solemn and can kill by prescribing an ideal we cannot fulfill, but grandparent stories are humorous and give hope and life by sharing a reality similar to our own.

Biblical stories are like grandparent stories. Jesus, Paul, and the Hebrew scriptures tell stories that include rough edges—unethical or ambiguous characters, unresolved or surprising endings—and so we laugh and know that we and others may live through the rough times in our lives, too. Biblical stories present patriarchs, matriarchs, and disciples not as perfectly faithful and ethical persons whom we could not hope to emulate but, rather, as persons who are often immoral, unfaithful, and thickheaded. Therefore, in spite of our own failings, we, too, can hope to be disciples.



Professor James A. Sanders at Claremont School of Theology believes that biblical stories are mirrors for identity and not models for morality. That is another way of saying that biblical stories are grandparent stories, not parental stories. If we clean up the biblical stories, we can no longer identify with them; if we share the full story, we can see ourselves in them.



By missing the humor in a biblical text taken out of context, we do more than miss the laughter; for by viewing a verse of scripture as solemn when it is meant to be humorous, we often get the opposite message than that intended. An example is the well-known verse (usually taken out of context) where Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). That verse was actually a punchline for a joke on some of the Pharisees who were later revealed in their impiety. But by taking it out of context, it has been viewed as an eternal statement of principle separating church and state, with results quite the opposite of what Jesus intended. [...] I have heard a southern judge use those words of Jesus to chastise Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mixing of religion and politics.



Jesse Helms and Jesse Jackson Together in the White House

The Mind-Boggling Humor of Jesus’ Parables

As Jesus dines with tax collectors and prostitutes and keeps a table open to all, his parables include both those people we call good and those we call bad. He takes the human beings we keep separate in our minds, and he puts them together and calls them the kingdom of God. The result boggles the mind and produces humor. [...]

For example, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matt. 13:33). We do not immediately see the humor, but for a first-century Jew the type of bread symbolizing the kingdom of heaven was the unleavened bread of the passover Seder service, which the father took and gave to them as they remembered the exodus. One would spend the month before the Passover sweeping out the house symbolically and literally to get rid of any leaven. In the popular mind, yeast—or leaven—had become a symbol of the polluted or immoral life; therefore, one aimed to live the unleavened life. for Jesus to say the kingdom of heaven is like yeast is to say it is like an immoral thing.

A Sack Lunch and Bathtub Wine

The Clowning Humor of Jesus’ Miracles

To see humor in the stories of Jesus’ miracles, look for the rough edges of each story as well as the wider context. The humor is in the dirtiness of the miracle and in the unexpected negative ending, characterized more by criticism than applause; in the poor quality of Jesus’ miracle, compared to the achievements of earlier biblical characters and the Greco-Roman miracle workers; in the declining productivity of Jesus’ miracles; and in the disciples’ duplicity and foolishness.

Role Reversals in Dialogues Between the Finite and the Infinite

Bringing the Humor of Hebrew Scriptures to Life
Presenting a large enough passage of scripture often provides the context as well as the text that is humorous in that context. In that way, the patterns of both sides of a dialogue are more likely to become apparent. In worship, I find it helpful to have two persons rather than just one read a scripture where God and a human being converse. There is inherently a smile in having God and a human being talking with each other, a juxtaposition of the finite and infinite.

text checked (see note) Jun 2013

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