When I was in college, a popular cereal manufacturer made a feeble attempt at humor by printing funny sayings on its box.
The one-liners began with the words, “Confucius Say.” You may remember some of them.
“Confucius Say, ‘Best way to save face is keep lower part shut.’”
“Confucius Say, ‘’To make long story short, don’t tell it.’”
“Confucius Say, ‘Last will and testament is dead give away.’”
It may occur to you that none of these lines are particularly funny. Perhaps the “Confucius Say” was added so you wouldn’t notice.
I can’t remember the name of the company that used Confucius to shill its products in the sixties, but I remember one revealing reaction to the campaign. I was sitting sleepily in a history class on ancient China when the professor interjected, “What’s so funny about ‘Confucius Say’? Would we find it funny if an ad campaign used the phrase, ‘Jesus Say’?”
Well, back in 1968, probably not. Confucius, who lived 500 years before Jesus, was a respected Chinese teacher, writer, and politician. Like Jesus, Confucius advocated personal and public morality and justice. His teachings were enormously influential in China and throughout Asia. He wasn’t a stand-up comedian and he didn’t make jokes, any more than Jesus made jokes in the Sermon on the Mount.
Unless, of course, Jesus did make jokes in the Sermon on the Mount. Some contemporary scholars claim we miss Jesus’ humor because we don’t understand his times or his audience.
A foolish man built his house on sand? (Matthew 7:26). Jesus’ practical audience would have burst out laughing – just as soon as they caught their breaths following his hilarious lines about giving your kid a stone to eat (Matthew 7:9) or walking around with a log in your eye (Matthew 7:4).
Come to think of it, maybe the shtick has possibilities. “Jesus say: man who eat too much toast get stuck in jam at narrow gate.”
Back in 1968, when Confucius was quoted on cereal boxes, religion was not a rich source of humor. Today, Confucius thrives on the Internet in memes so vulgar they can’t be repeated in mixed company. And Jesus is no longer untouchable when it comes to humor, even in toy stores. Action Jesus rolls up his sleeves next to plastic effigies of GI Joe and The Rock, while bobble headed Jesus competes in stores with bobble headed Barack.
The question is, how much humor are you able to take with your religion?
One Sunday evening a few years ago I drove into the parking lot of White Plains First Baptist Church. As soon as they recognized my car, two women – mature mentors of teenagers – ran up to me in obvious distress. I asked them what was up.
“Are you familiar with Life of Brian?” they asked simultaneously.
Of course I was familiar with Monty Python’s irreverent movie about Brian, one of many two-bit evangelists who gathered small followings in Palestine at the time of Jesus.
The film pokes fun at the soldiers, Pharisees, and peasants who interacted with false prophets, although Brian’s story is obviously close to Jesus’. Even the Magi briefly attend Brian’s birth until they realize they have mistaken the hovel of the Virgin Mandy for the crèche of Mary. When they realize their error they rudely grab their gifts out of the young mother’s hands and beat a pious path to the manger.
Life of Brian, like all of Python’s offerings, is not for everyone, but the two women were shocked by what they had just shown to the adolescents. Literally wringing their hands, they asked, “Do you think we’re in trouble?”
Life of Brian is only offensive to people who mistake it for a spoof on the messiah, which it is not. In my own view, I think it’s safer to show the film to teenagers than to encourage them to Google the tasteless and generally lascivious offerings of Confucius Say.
If you watch Saturday Night Live, you may recall a brilliant sketch by three legendary actors: Sylvester Stallone, John Goodman, and Robert De Niro: The Three Wise Guys.
You have to keep reminding yourself that this was not a goof on the nativity but a light-hearted satire on an East Coast stereotype. Stallone identifies himself as the “King of Sanitation of Bayonne, New Jersey.” Goodman claims to be the “Furniture King of Massapequa.” De Niro is less specific: “I do a little of this, a little of that, don’ worry ‘bout it.”
The wise guys gossip along the way.
“I’m hearing things. This kid’s gonna be big.”
“His father’s in construction.”
“Little Joey from Nazareth. He’s all grown up.”
“Yeah, but I heard the kid might not be his.”
Funny? Again, it depends on your point of view. But it’s clear religion and Christianity are no longer hands-off topics when it comes to humor. A popular meme on the Internet shows Jesus annoying a bartender. “Just water please. But put it in a carafe.”
All of these witticisms show a steady trend toward the demystification of religion and, perhaps, the final secularization of society.
But it is becoming increasingly obvious, especially in Advent, that the biggest joke of all has been hanging over our heads for two-thousand years.
The punch line is the Messiah himself. The joke is in the vast difference between the Messiah we were expecting, and the Messiah we got.
Rabbis tell us the Jewish concept of Messiah has remained unchanged for 4,000 years: a human warrior descended from David who would rebuild the temple, and enable the world’s Jews to return to Jerusalem and live forever in peace.
The Messiah would emphatically not be the Son of God, because the very idea would be anathema.
The Messiah the people of First Century Palestine were awaiting was a Judah Maccabee on Steroids, a bigger-than-life, pumped-up superhero with a cape and an M embroidered on his chest.
The Feast of Chanukah celebrates Judah’s restoration of Jewish worship in the temple after he rescued it from from polytheistic Greeks, and for many it was the perfect precedent to set. After centuries of cruel oppression predating the Roman occupation by hundreds of years, people were longing for Messiahman the Mighty.
But what did they get?
Ha. They got a vulnerable baby too frail to lift his head.
They got a weakling who would grow to manhood indifferent to the political milieu in which he lived.
They got a gentle philosopher who talked incessantly about the reign of God.
They got a pacifist who called upon enemies to set aside their enmities and love one another.
They got a drifter who lived among the poor, engaged lowly women as equals, healed the sick, and expressed God’s compassion for all people.
They got a wise-cracking jokester who had no choice but to live out the irony he was: a vulnerable, puny, delicate human who personified the Almighty God, very man of very man and very God of very God.
And they got a Messiah who asserted his power in powerlessness, and who declared that God always honored the weakest and the last above the strongest and the first.
If the essence of humor is surprise, the utterly unexpected result of our assumptions and desires, then the coming of the Messiah is the funniest event in history.
For those who were praying for Messiahman the Mighty, the coming of the babe of Bethlehem was a warning to be careful what you pray for.
The coming of the Messiah is so different from all our expectations that all we can do is shake our heads in astonishment and delight.
And what else can we do when we hear the angels singing on high, when we finally get the great joke God is playing on us?
The Joy of Christmas, as always, is in the laughter.