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The joke about the Kingdom of Heaven

“If God would stop telling jokes, I might act serious.”
– Tukaram (Muslim poet)

“My Lord told me a joke
And seeing him laugh had done more for me
than any scripture I will
ever read”

– Meister Eckhart (Christian mystic)

I think Jesus is one of the top comedians of all time.

He makes you laugh hard.

You are slapping your thighs, jaws unhinged with laughter until you realize the joke is on you. For Jesus’ comedy has a sharp edge to it: It exposes your contradictions, and comedy’s oxygen for laughter is the exposing of contradictions.

You can choose to laugh at yourself, which is the beginning of transformation because people who take themselves seriously fear change. People who can laugh at themselves have taken the first step towards change.

Comedy is also a great way to get past defensiveness. Laughing relaxes your body, and relaxed body is a relaxed mind. It is Trojan Horse of sort, except that what it wants to sneak past the impenetrable wall of defensiveness is truth. Once truth is in, you can’t stop it from its work of dismantling lies.

I think parables work very much like a stand-up comedy routine. They build on common assumptions until the unexpected punchline upturns all of the previous assumptions. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s so knee-slapping funny! How else do you explain 5,000 people listening to Jesus while deaf to their growling stomachs? No teaching, no matter how good, can sustain a crowd that long without humor. At the end of many parables, people clapped and said, “That’s a good one!” They went back home and said to others, “Hey did you hear the one about the slave who buried his treasure?”

The humor in parables is lost to us because no matter how we reconstruct the historical context through commentaries, we simply don’t get all the cultural references in Jesus’ words. There was a wealth of common stories, tropes and assumptions Jesus plumbed when he shared parables. For example, when he says, “The kingdom of Heaven is like …” he was accessing the common memory bank of all previous Kingdom of God stories told by other rabbis. We can only explain ourselves into the common assumptions that are the piano keys of parables — and when you explain a joke, you have lost the punchline.

Another thing that keeps us from fully understanding the humor is that we are usually reading the parable with our eyes alone. Even the material of great comedians of our day isn’t as good on paper as it is in the air where it hits our ears. Part of the humor is the physicality of the comedian, the body of the comedian and the air-vibrating words themselves, spoken and inflected. Comedy is a physical experience.

Take for example, when Jesus says, “Before trying to take out the speck from your friend’s eye, why don’t you take out the lumber on your own?” Reading it with the eyes, it reads like a violent moral lesson. Read it out loud and it’s hilarious. It’s no longer a moral lesson, but an observation of truth. Comedy is funny only because it’s true, though it takes exaggeration to recover the truth from all the lies of respectability and decorum.

So, it was only when I was reading Matthew 25 out loud with others, that this thought occurred to me: What if I’ve been misreading Matthew 25? What if the three consecutive parables Jesus uses to tell the story of the Kingdom of Heaven is one comedy routine, building upon each other, until the unexpected punchline?

We often experience Scripture piecemeal. Most of the dosage we get is as verses. If it is a parable, then we fortunately at least get the whole of a parable. But what if a parable wasn’t mean to stand alone? What if a parable was part of a series of parables and the right understanding of a single parable depends on you hearing all the parables that follow?

A parable’s power depends on shared assumptions of the listeners. With a descriptive word, you have already created a full character in the audience’s mind. The clichés (the 10 virgins, the master and their talents) lulls the reader to believe that they know where this story is going.

A good parable will make a listener believe that she absolutely knows the parable and will get real comfortable with it because she’s confident the story is going to affirm all her assumptions and that she will come out not just intact but more fortified in the views she has used to structure her world. In that huge existential investment in the story, the listener will find herself suddenly implicated in the unexpected twist and find she can’t wiggle herself out of it with any of her assumptions intact.

This is what is happening in Matthew 25. Jesus starts his talk about the Kingdom with parables everyone is familiar with.

The first one is about the wise and the foolish bride waiting for a bridegroom who is late to his own wedding. The wise were ready with extra oil in their pantry. The foolish were not. When the bridegroom arrives and the foolish don’t have oil to light up their candles again to make their way to the bridegroom, the foolish beg the wise to share from their abundance. The wise refuse to share — good neighbors might share cooking oil, but not candle oil when it comes to marriage. The foolish rush to get oil and don’t make it back in time and the doors are shut their faces. It’s a harsh parable, and the only way to get past the cruelty of the wise is to accept that the foolish had it coming and for the listeners to identify themselves as the wise. Most of Jesus’ audience saw themselves as the wise. So they heard the parable as praise of their lifestyle.

The second is about the master who gives a different amount of talents to each servant; each servant does different things with them. The one with a single talent buries it and returns it without return. He is banished. It sounds like a warning to be ready for the return of the Kingdom by working hard — even taking risks! There’s no space in the Kingdom for the risk-averse. The listeners must’ve been pumped up by now. They have been investing in God’s work at the cost of social niceties.

So, when Jesus gets to the sheep and the goat, well… the listeners are primed to see themselves as the sheep. For they saw themselves as the wise servant ready with oil, holding in their hands the material (theology? doctrine? way of life?) that will guarantee them entrance. Then they saw themselves as the shrewd investing servant, doing the work of the master (evangelizing? teaching Bible study? Leading a summer short term mission?). But Jesus says that both the sheep and the goat are surprised at where they find themselves. The sheep are surprised because they don’t think they belong there as sheep. The goats are certainly shocked because they never thought themselves as goats. Suddenly the lessons of the first two parables don’t make any sense. While the first two were about getting ready so you can be sure where you will get lined up when the roll call is made, this one is about the reversal of every expectation.

The surprise doesn’t end there though. The criteria for lining up is given. Mother of all shockers! It has nothing to do with any preparation for the end. It has nothing to do with religious duty, purity code or, in our case, with correct doctrine. Apparently, salvation isn’t guaranteed by the simple confession, “Jesus is my lord and savior.” You can be born again and be a goat. To enter Jesus’ Kingdom, it’s simpler than putting faith in a doctrine and a confession. You simply have to be a human person who cares about what happens on earth, especially to the “least of us.” The sheep never stored extra “oil” to prepare for the afterlife. The sheep were too busy living now.

The parable isn’t teaching a new path to the Kingdom. It’s saying not to worry about the path by redefining our whole notion of the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not about getting saved, but what salvation looks like. Because the danger here is for us to believe we “got the joke,” and then fit the sheep-and-goat parable into the same mold of the first two parables. This parable is just redefining what the “oil” is — namely, caring for the vulnerable. Visit the prisoner and clothe the naked and you are guaranteed to make it to the right side of the judgment seat. We are going to air the wine a bit and put it in our old wineskin.

The Kingdom belongs to the “least of us.” It’s already here. The Kingdom of Heaven is where we have fellowship with Christ. Well, Christ is already here; he is those that society believes aren’t worth of any concern. You enter the Kingdom of Heaven in the ghettos and prisons.

“The resurrection of Jesus,” says Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farm, “was simply God’s unwillingness to take our ‘no’ for an answer. He raised Jesus, not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that he himself has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth. He is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life. The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers with him.”

When you hear a joke and realize it’s on you, you can do two things. You can clamp up and get angry and storm out. Or you can laugh your way into a new worldview.

SAMUEL SON is the manager for diversity and reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville.