Recently I was struck by one of the Beatitudes in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. For in there Jesus’ third Beatitude reads, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6.21).
The first thing I noticed was that it is significantly different from Matthew’s form of the Beatitude which reads: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt 5.4) By contrast Luke says that when God’s Kingdom comes tears will be replaced by laughter.
I checked my commentaries and was struck by a remark by John Nolland, an Australian New Testament scholar. He said: “Laughter is the release of joy as tears are the release of sorrow”. Laughter is the release of joy. Or in the words of Terry Lindvall, a professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, “Joy is the laughter of heaven”. Time and again in the Gospels we find Jesus likening heaven to a great banquet (see, for instance, Matt 22,1-14//Luke 14.15-24) – and where there is good food and drink along with good friends, then there must be laughter. Heaven is surely not going to be a place where everybody has long faces! Indeed, I am told that one of the original deadly sins was deemed to be the sin of sadness!
I find that a wonderful thought. The fact is that this life is not always a bundle of laughs – far from it in this time of Covid-19. I think of all the lives lost, the livelihoods lost, the schooling lost, the freedom lost. When will it all end we wonder? Thank God there is a new world coming when Covid-19 and all the associated sadness will be no more – and there will be laughter and joy.
I then asked myself: did Jesus laugh? Jesus, in words taken from Isaiah 53, has been called a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. Undoubtedly there was a serious side to Jesus, and not surprisingly, for he came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45). And yet, if as the Scriptures stress, he was fully human (Heb 4.15), there must have been times when he laughed. According to Aristotle, laughter is what distinguishes us from the animals: “Of all living creatures only man is endowed with laughter”. Laughter is a distinctive characteristic of what it means to be human. Indeed, it has been said that no one has fully learned another language and culture until they know how to laugh and tell jokes in it.
However, we have no record in the Gospels of Jesus’ laughing – apart from the Gnostic Gospel of Judas where Jesus is constantly laughing in a sardonic fashion at those he met. Instead, we only read of Jesus weeping – we know, for instance, that he wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11.35). In this regard G.K. Chesterton at the very end of Orthodoxy commented that although Jesus did not conceal his tears, he was never truly open with his friends:
I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that he hid from all men when he went up a mountain to pray. There was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.
On the other hand, we do know that Jesus was a party-goer – from which we can infer that he enjoyed the company of partygoers (see, for instance, Matt 11.19 //Luke 7.34). Jesus surely had a sense of humour. I think, for instance, of the wedding feast in Cana (John 2.1-11): at the very least I believe there must have been a big smile on his face when the Master of Ceremonies discovered that the water had turned into wine.
However, the laughter of which Jesus speaks in Luke’s Gospel has more to do with joy, rather than mirth. To return to Terry Lindvall, “Joy is the laughter of heaven”. Joy is not the same as happiness. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of port would do that” (God in the Dock). The happiness found in a bottle of port only last for a brief season; by contrast God does not any settled happiness in this life, for we are but pilgrims, strangers in a strange land (see Hebs 11.13; 1 Pet 2.11). Our home is in heaven – described in the Scriptures not as an interminable church services (perish the thought!) but rather as a festive wedding feast, a place of laughter.
I was moved to consult Strong’s Concordance to see how many times, and in what context, laughter is mentioned in the Bible. The answer is not many, and in most cases where it appears it expresses cynical doubt (e.g. Sarah), scorn, or exultation in the discomfiture of an enemy.
Why is this, especially seeing that Jewish humour is famous and appreciated throughout the world? I think a Jew would probably say that God gave us a sense of humour to make life bearable.
But is there perhaps another term somewhere for the kind of spontaneous laughter that comes with joy -“mirth that has no bitter springs”, as the hymn has it.? My guess is that it is bound up in that word “joy” itself – and the verb “rejoice” that goes with it – both of which are present in abundance in the Bible.
We cannot allow our calling as strangers and exiles in this world to insulate us from the world’s sorrows. Avoiding both shallow optimism and black pessimism, we can be realists who experience both deep anguish and deep joy in a tension which is a necessary part of our Christian experience.