By Angie Chen
“A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar…”
This oft-quoted phrase—and the many jokes it has spawned—is one example of religion providing the basis for humor.
As Michael Tueth, S.J., pointed out in his talk, “Jesus, Are You Kidding?” the Gospels contain humorous elements that sometimes are overlooked.
Father Tueth’s discussion on Oct. 17 was part of Ignatian Week’s celebration of the Jesuit tradition, sponsored by the Office of University Mission and Ministry.
He began by pointing out that joy is a dominant theme of the Gospels.
“The world ‘gospel’ means ‘good news,’” Father Tueth said. “When the angels tell of Jesus’ birth, they proclaim that they are bringing ‘good news of great joy.’”
At times, however, Christians don’t express joy at hearing the Gospels.
“After the first reading [during Mass], the reader might say, ‘My heart overflows with joy,’ but with zero expression,” he said.
“You know, it’s all right to smile when you say that.”
To see the Gospels in a different light, Father Tueth suggested that the audience imagine the passages as foundations for comic incidents. Each of the five standard motifs in American comedy can be found in the scriptures, he said.
The first motif—the element of surprise—is exemplified by the resurrection.
After rising, the Lord appeared to his followers in several comic circumstances. Father Tueth drew an example from the Gospel of Luke, which described the disciples traveling to Emmaus.
“There is a certain lightheartedness to Jesus disguising himself, such that the disciples walked with him for a while without realizing who he was,” he said.
The second comedic theme—the downfall of the serious and powerful—is captured in the Gospel of Luke, when Simon, a noble, neglects to show common courtesies to Jesus during a dinner with the Pharisees.
“Jesus humiliates this Pharisee completely. It would be the equivalent of coming to a dinner party in the winter where no one takes your coat,” Father Tueth said. “That is what Simon did by not greeting Jesus like he should have. And Jesus didn’t miss it.”
Also in comedy, there is value placed on innocence and the wide-eyed wonder of children. Father Tueth pointed out child-like characters created by legendary comedians Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx.
“They are great examples of what Jesus said: ‘Unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven,’” he said.
The fourth comedic motif is the knowledge of ultimate victory despite the appearance of danger.
“Because it’s a comedy, the audience knows that the situation will work out in the end,” Father Tueth said.
For example, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. “When Jesus rebuked the sea, the wind fell off and everything grew calm,” Father Tueth said.
The final comic motif is the reversal of previously held assumptions and values. “That is the basis of most jokes,” he said. “It’s the last word of the joke that changes our assumptions.”
For instance, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, he reverses prevailing ideas about revenge through his mandate to love one’s enemies.