Someone asked me last Sunday after church whether Jesus had ever told any jokes. Often the picture we have of him is rather a serious one, it's true. There didn’t seem a lot to laugh about in today’s Gospel reading, for instance, not at first sight anyway. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off!” Well, that’s not going to have them rolling in the aisles is it? Sometimes, though, as I said to the questioner, it is the way you tell them that matters, and I think that what we see in cold hard print often misleads us. The fact is that people flocked to hear Jesus. Children loved him, and as someone who works a lot with children, I know that they are a very discriminating audience. If they are bored, you will rapidly have chaos on your hands. It might not always come across on the page, but if Jesus didn’t have a sense of humour, I don’t think they, or anyone else, would have bothered to listen to him.
It’s not just Jesus who I think we sometimes take more seriously than he meant us to, though. There are many other places in the Bible when we are in danger of missing the message by being too pious about the whole thing. Some Christians insist that every word has to be literally, factually true and are then forced into the deadening exercise of making it all add up as a scientific, historic document, something its writers never intended it to be. But even those of us who don’t think that way can squash the life out of it by approaching it with too devout an attitude. Just as we might have a telephone voice, quite different from our normal one, we can also put on a “Bible” voice – reverent, solemn and very dull... But the Bible wasn’t born in a hushed church, or in an ivory tower among academic theologians. It came out of the oral storytelling cultures of the Middle East, cultures which also gave us the folk tales of the Arabian Nights, stories of myth and magic, sex and violence, love and justice, stories which people were eager to hear and tell. In those cultures, folk-tales, shared around the hearth or in the bazaar, were the most common way of passing on the values and insights that people held dear. Storytellers, professional or amateur, were skilled at holding the attention of their audience, making the stories live through suspense, drama, and humour too. The stories we read in the Bible come from that tradition. That’s why they are so often full of ridiculous exaggeration, extraordinary characters, prat-falls for the pompous and unexpected victories for the small guy, tender moments and terrible tragedies. It’s stories like that which I tend to choose as “Stories of the Week”, not for their deep theological meaning, but because I like them. I hope those who read them will let them be what they are, let them live as stories. You can argue with them, or disapprove of them, but if they are allowed to live, then I am confident that God will be found alive in them too, sparking a new thought, giving you something to pray about, lament about, or laugh about.
Anyway, all that is really just a long-winded introduction to our Old Testament reading today, a story which, I am sure, would have been a crowd pleaser, a story which is far more “Monty Python” than Royal Shakespeare Company.
Moses has finally managed to haul the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. It’s been an epic struggle against a Pharoah who has cruelly oppressed these people, forcing them into heavy labour, goading them on with whips. There has been high drama, mass slaughter, and finally they have got away by a whisker into the safety of the desert. Poor old Moses has had to fight every step of the way, and it wasn’t even a job he wanted in the first place – in fact he had tried as hard as he could to run away from it.
But now, here they all are, with Egypt behind them, heading for the freedom of the Promised Land. And are they grateful? Are they heck! The author pulls no punches. “The rabble among the people had a strong craving…” It’s not a polite description, but it’s an accurate one. “Freedom is all very well, but what’s for supper,” they say? Guess what? It’s manna, again! Boiled manna, baked manna, fried manna, manna kebabs, manna surprise…except there’s no surprise about it, because manna is all there is, all there has been, and all there is going to be as far as they can see, forever and ever.
“I could kill for a nice, thick, juicy steak” says someone, and that opens the floodgates of nostalgia. All of a sudden their taste buds have taken them straight back to Egypt, the Egypt of their fantasy anyway – in reality it was never like this. “…and the fish we used to get for nothing...” pipes up someone else. “… and the cucumbers…and melons…and leeks… and onions…, and garlic…” They can smell it. They can taste it… but actually it is just manna again for them, dry, tasteless manna…
And they all start weeping and wailing, howling their eyes out for that lost land, a land of fear and back-breaking labour. But what was a bit of oppression if it was accompanied by a tasty range of fruit and vegetables? Better that, they think, than this endless manna. They weep and wail till the sound of it all brings Moses out of his tent to see what’s going on.
We are told at this point that not only is Moses displeased, but that God is very angry too. In the world of this storyteller, Gods were expected to be angry so this is no real surprise. We’re not actually told who God is angry with. But Moses leaps to the conclusion that it must be him.
One of the things I love about Moses is that, by this stage in the story, he has entirely given up on being polite to God. He just tells it like it is. “It’s no good being angry with me, God” he rants – missing the point that God never said he was. “Am I their mother?! “ “Did I conceive this people? Did I give birth to them that you should say to me , “carry them in your bosom like a nurse carries a sucking child,” to the land that YOU promised on oath to their ancestors. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once so that I don’t have to see my misery…”
And God waits till he’s finished, then ever so gently says. “Moses, have you ever thought of delegating a bit…?” It’s not rocket science, but no, somehow that thought had never crossed his mind. Moses gathers up seventy of the elders and God shares out the work, and the power to do it…Job done, problem sorted. Moses regains his sense of perspective, and his sense of humour too, because no sooner has he let go of his overactive sense of control than he has a chance to pass on that insight to others. People come running to him to tell him that there are two chaps prophesying who didn’t ought to be. They haven’t passed their Grade One Prophesying exam – shouldn’t someone stop them? Relax, says Moses – it’s God at work, and there’s really no point telling him what he can and can’t do… He always seems to have the last laugh.
Someone once said that there are only two things we really need to know in life. The first is that there is a God, and the second is that it’s not us. That's the lesson that Moses learns here.
So, what about that question I started with? Does Jesus ever tell a joke? Well, there’s nothing aloong the lines of “a Pharisee, a Samaritan, and a Roman went into a bar…” but the art of irony didn’t die with the person who wrote Moses’ story. Jesus tells tales of pompous Pharisees who pray ridiculous prayers in public places and don’t realise how silly they look, and rich men with more money than sense, who build ever bigger barns for their wealth, but haven’t cottoned on that they can’t take it with them when they die. There are tales of laughably extravagant love too – shepherds who abandon 99 perfectly good sheep in the wilderness to look for one that is lost, or women who sweep the house from top to bottom to find a lost coin, and then throw a party so huge that it surely must have cost them more than the coin was worth. These are stories which absolutely demand to be hammed up in the telling, and I am sure that Jesus did. My suspicion is that Jesus is hamming it up in today’s Gospel reading too. The disciples come to him, full of self-righteous indignation. Someone is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He’s not even one of us…! He’s not in our club. How dare he! … it’s disgraceful, Jesus. They want Jesus to put a stop to it, to rain down punishments on this man. I mean, what’s the point of them putting in three years worth of hard discipleship if this chap is just getting up and doing his own thing?
But Jesus points the finger straight back at them, and suggests that before they condemn this unfortunate, unauthorised disciple, they might first take a look at themselves. If they want people to be punished for their sins, here is a gruesome list of punishments for them to consider for their own sin, the sin of trying to police the boundaries of God’s love, the sin of trying to make their own rules about who is in or out of his kingdom, the sin of failing to see good just because it comes in a package they didn’t create. I don’t suppose for one moment he expected, let alone wanted, anyone to take him literally – it would have been completely out of character for him to do so, but I guess the disciples got his point, and since the material in the Gospels came originally from these same disciples, we have to assume that they eventually saw the funny side of their own self-righteous pomposity too.
So if we are tempted this week to take ourselves just a bit too seriously, to assume that everything in the world depends on us, let’s remember Moses, and these hapless disciples, and God, who longs for us to find our own sense of holy humour again. Amen