Imagine Them Smiling
March 19, 2012
What if humor were the only way to understand the Bible? Often seeing humor improves our understanding, but in some cases, humor offers the only way to make sense of the text. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, argues that the story of Jesus’ dialogue with the Canaanite woman gives a prime example.
The story (found in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30) describes an encounter between a non-Jewish woman and Jesus, when he traveled outside of Israel to get some relief from the crowds. She was desperate to get healing for her demon-possessed daughter; Jesus was trying to hide. She found Jesus, threw herself at his feet, and begged for Jesus to act. He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” To which Jesus replied, “Good answer! Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” (Mk 7, mostly from the Common English Bible)
Jesus does act compassionately, but the dialogue is disturbing. Trueblood says that any alternative to seeing humor in this account is “intolerable.” Jesus appears here to be “rude…harsh…contemptuous.” “Above all,” he writes, “it is at complete variance with the general picture which we receive from the rest of the Gospel, particularly in connection with the poor and needy.” (122) For folks who want to see Jesus as angry or mean, this is a gold mine. However, if we can recognize the cleverness and boldness of her bantering with Jesus, we can see the story in harmony with all we know of his loving presence and action, including his sense of humor.
Over coffee with Chloe, this story came up. She said she had just been talking about this with a friend who was puzzled by it. Trying to help, she told him, “Imagine them smiling.” (By the way, Chloe gave permission for me to use her name and said she would be glad to receive donations.) “Imagine them smiling.” Brilliant, I thought. The text doesn’t give us facial expressions or vocal inflections; we bring those to it. Imagining Jesus smiling and even being a bit coy rather than being cranky makes a lot of sense, particularly when we remember Jesus’ response in so many other stories.
My colleague Ron also tells me that this passage is very important to missiologists. They see this as one of the ways Jesus was teaching the disciples the wide range of the Gospel. The sneaky gentleness of humor, as they watched, could well have had an enduring, powerful effect.
Since Chloe gave me this wonderful phrase, I have experimented with Jesus smiling in other stories. Though not always, often we smile with each other when we meet and talk. One occasion that intrigues me is the story of Jesus talking with another non-Jewish woman, the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. (John 4:4-42) I find reading with some sense of banter gives new life to the story. Perhaps while reading other stories about Jesus, you, too, can experiment with the phrase, “imagine them smiling.” And, please, let me know what you discover.