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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

You Have To Laugh

Under the cover of darkness an elite group from the Special Boat Service – including my uncle Ken – was inserted onto the French coast with the task of blowing up some key installations. Mission accomplished, they silently disappeared into the darkness. Just two problems. The Royal Navy had landed them on the wrong coast. And more: it was 1965. An exercise which involved landing on Jersey had gone wrong. This was one of the stories recounted at my uncle’s funeral this Monday, at St Alban’s Copnor, in Portsmouth, where he had served as a church warden. I had the privilege in taking part in his service. But such humour was typical of uncle Ken, indeed of most military. It is a means of coping with stress not just within the individual but among the whole group. For essentially humour has a social context. It is how we handle life. The problem is that humour is very difficult to define – once you have to explain a joke, you’ve lost it already. And context is everything. My friends find it very difficult to understand my Liverpool humour. That is because they both live in Wigan. In fact, to describe someone as humourless is to consider them defective in an important area. Novelist Martin Amis often comes across as humourless but he observes: “Let me assure you that the humourless as a bunch don't just not know what's funny , they don't know what's serious. They have no common sense, either, and shouldn't be trusted with anything.” So where is Jesus’ humour? The answer is everywhere. The problem is that New Testament scholars simply don’t get it. In fact, most of us don’t. Like when he pricks the pomposity of the Pharisees. “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24) We completely miss the word play of the original Aramaic. Similarly, the log in our eye stopping us seeing the speck in the eye of someone irritating us. This is a cartoon in words, according to Sister Rosemary CH. Or when he calls foot-in-mouth Simon “the Rock.” Or John and James “the Thunderers” Here we see the banter of close friends. My uncle Ken was known in the Royal Marines as “Robbie” because he didn’t come from Scotland. Above all Jesus was a story teller – and as any story teller will tell you humour is an essential ingredient in gaining and holding attention. His parable of the guests invited to a wonderful banquet for one in Luke 14:15-24. You know how three guests fail to respond to the invitation. And it is so easy to miss the humour as they give their excuses. (Notice incidentally how his parables often have groups of three – just like humour today: Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman, for example). The first guest said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.” ‘Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.” But Jesus leaves the best one until last Still another said, “I have just got married. (Pause) So I can’t come.”

“No man can be an agnostic,” observed E. M. Forster, “who has a sense of humour.” For in Jesus we see someone at ease with himself despite the awesome mission entrusted to him, one who enjoys being with people and delights in giving them funny names, one who held crowds spell-bound with his story-telling to deliver a powerful message. Here we see God with us, living our life and handling our stresses. And above all enjoying our company! For this reason the church is described by the apostle Paul as the Bride of Christ. Well, she must have a lovely personality.

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