THE comedian Ricky Gervais recently came under fire for using “mong” as a term of abuse, with faces to make his point. But the best comedy exposes rather than abuses. It exposes hokum, hubris, self-deception, and twisted power. So how did Jesus do in perhaps the most famous stand-up routine in world history?
1. He could do straight abuse. He called Herod a “fox”, for instance. On one level, it is a fairly cheap shot, as is all abuse. But we must mark him up for bravery, because making a joke against Herod was the first-century equivalent of making a joke against Islam today. And, of course, Herod was twisted power personified; so 7.5 out of 10 overall.
2. Jesus borders on racist/sexist comedy with the woman of Tyre. She is not a Jew, but still she begs Jesus to heal her daughter. The story emphasises her desperation, but Jesus asks only if it is right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.
So where is the comedy here? The Woman of Tyre is a dog because she is not Jewish? Perhaps he is testing her to see if she is really serious; he did that, sometimes. But my sense is that she had been tested enough by life; so 2 out of 10 for this one.
3. Jesus calls the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs”. This is abuse again, but clever stuff. It is a bleak and killing image, which gets to the nub of the religious enthronement of outward appearance above inner truth. This is an assault on hokum, hubris, self-deception, and twisted religious power. So 9 out of 10.
4. On another occasion, Jesus suggests that it will be “harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle”. Another great image, which provides a shocking take on the ephemeral and debilitating effect of financial power. I cannot give it less than a poor-affirming 8.5 out of 10.
5. Possibly my favourite of Jesus’s jokes: a woman caught in adultery is about to be stoned — not the man, obviously, just the woman. Jesus watches, and then, as the stone-gripping hands are about to launch their hate and fear, he says: “Hold fire a sec. — let the one without sin be the first to throw.”
Here is a brave joke — they must have hated him for it — that changes a moment in history, saves the life of a human being, and exposes deep psychological sickness in religious and male society. 10 out of 10.
6. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Words said by Jesus on the cross about his murderers. It sounds like a joke, but, in fact, he is deadly serious; so it is not included under the comedy umbrella. And, for different reasons, neither are Gervais’s “mong” jokes.
Solitude: Recovering the power of alone by Simon Parke is published by White Crow.