This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Yoder-Short: Jesus the joker

Have you tried any tasty camel recipes? In this time of physical distancing, people are doing more experimental cooking. I have yet to try a camel roast, but I did read that carefulness is required, or the meat will become tough.

Jane Yoder-Short

People confined to home are cooking more and laughing less. Now is not the time for humor. Or is it? Humor gives perspective and helps us through challenging times. Humor and cooking create a therapeutic break from pandemic pessimism.

It’s easy to get stuck in a humorless fear-filled box stuffed with well-meaning platitudes. What better place to uncover underused humor than reviewing some Jesus wit?

We don’t typically look to Jesus for humor. Is our Jesus image too shaded by piety? Do we forget Jesus was a party person? He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). This sounds like someone who enjoyed a good laugh.

Catching on to humor requires cultural understanding. In another culture, it can be easy to miss a joke. Mr. Data, Star Trek’s android, couldn’t understand jokes. His literalism resulted in an absence of humor.

Jesus used exaggerations to make a point. Removed from Jesus by time and culture, we miss his words’ nuance and punch. Too bad the Bible doesn’t come with emojis and voice-tone side notes.

Back to camels. Let’s look at a couple of Jesus’ camel jokes — not side-splitters but caught-you witticisms. In the list of woes aimed at the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus declares, “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (Matt. 23:24). Imagine the scene. Someone unable to see is straining out a tiny gnat from his drink. He then gulps down a whole camel. Swallowing a dead gnat is insignificant compared to devouring an entire unclean animal, even a well-cooked one. Jesus is pointing out the inconsistency of worrying about inconsequential regulations while ignoring crucial issues of justice and mercy.

The Aramaic word for gnat is galma and the word for camel is gamla. Was Jesus making a pun? Regardless, Jesus was trying to free the Pharisees from worrying about gnats while not seeing their entanglement with greater injustices.

Another camel joke is in Matt. 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” One explanation is that a hole in the city wall was called “the eye of the needle.” Camels scrunched through on their bellies.

Religion professor James McGrath prefers another explanation. The Aramaic gamla is both “camel” and “thick rope.” Was it mistranslated? He believes Jesus was making a pun. He suggests Jesus was saying something like, “It’s easier to add an antelope to your fruit salad than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ words debunk wealth as a sign of good standing with God.

What gnats are we straining out while we dine on camels? What wealth prevents us from threading into the New Kingdom?

We still live in times of inconsistency. Do we notice that we are repulsed by eating even a gourmet camel dish while thinking nothing of eating pork tenderloin slaughtered by marginalized laborers sacrificed to the god of economic wealth? Can we let humor reveal our inconsistency?

Let’s notice what we are blindly swallowing. Try seeing beyond gnats. Try some new recipes. Now, does anyone have a good camel recipe?

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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