Ruining the Moment
Poor Thomas. He had a really bad week and is forever known as Doubting Thomas. A life as a faithful disciple and apostle is forever overshadowed by a few moments of skepticism. He’d missed Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples and insisted that he wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead unless he placed his fingers into the nail marks. Read John 20 and you’ll see how Thomas was embarrassed by his words. It’s a very emotional scene. One can imagine the disciples standing there and marvelling at their risen saviour. It was the perfect time to crack a joke.
But why be so fatuous? Why allow comedy to ruin such a poignant moment? I can’t help it. I’m a comedy writer, and any comedian knows that the time when things are most serious is when jokes have the most impact. Is that sacrilegious? Quite the reverse. I think Jesus would agree with me. Let me explain why.
There is a similar scene to the one in John 20 in Luke 24. The disciples ‘disbelieved with joy and were marvelling’ (v41). It’s another magic moment. But that’s when Jesus says something hilarious. It’s not a joke as such, but is so prosaic and bathetic, that it reads comically. He says this: ‘Have you anything to eat?’
I did warn you. It’s not a joke as such, but it really punctures the moment. Clearly Jesus is keen to prove that he is not merely an apparition or a spirit, but that his resurrection body is physical and real. But the moment is comic. Sadly, as I argue in The Sacred Art of Joking, Christians don’t ever expect to laugh when reading the Bible and yet it’s packed with funny moments like this.
To show what I mean, let’s find a similar joke in popular modern fiction. I’m sure there are plenty of examples in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but let’s turn to another funny religious sceptic, Terry Pratchett. There is a superb moment of incongruity where cosmic wonder meets earthly banality in probably Pratchett’s finest work, Mort. It’s already a funny scene because a young man called Mort meets Death, the Grim Reaper, in order to be his apprentice. For a moment, it all turns metaphysical and wistful and it’s beautiful. But Pratchett doesn’t let that go for too long. The conversation at one point runs thus: (Death speaks in capital letters, by the way.)
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Mort, softly. ‘What is it?’
THE SUN IS UNDER THE DISC, said Death.
‘Is it like this every night?’
EVERY NIGHT, said Death. NATURE’S LIKE THAT.
‘Doesn’t anyone know?’
ME. YOU. THE GODS. GOOD, ISN’T IT?
Death leaned over the saddle and looked down at the kingdoms of the world.
I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, he said, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY.
Terry Pratchett, Mort (London: Victor Gollancz, 1987), p. 25
When I first read that exchange in context, it made me laugh out loud. One could read Jesus’ request for food in this way.
But the comedy continues. The disciples give him broiled fish, and you imagine them all gawping at Jesus as he eats to see what will happen. Will it go into his mouth and pass through his ethereal body and land on the floor? Reactions, which are frequently not spelled out for us, are often comic. Comedy TV directors know that showing the joke isn’t enough. One needs to see the reaction to the joke from the other characters. Luke doesn’t spell it out here.
Luke does give us some hints about reactions in other places. Read Luke 9 and how Peter starts babbling when he sees Jesus with Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration. He gibbers about building some booths, but in v33 Luke points out that Peter wasn’t really in charge of his faculties at the point.
Throughout the Gospels, we read about people trying to come to terms with the man who is God. Here, in the upper room, we see them processing how a dead man can be alive. And it’s Jesus who changes the mood. Such a scene is hard to play any other way than comically.