Marklarkey: or, What’s So Funny About the Second Gospel?

Humor from the pulpit is a delicate thing.

Some deem it impertinent: preaching the gospel is serious business. Nevertheless, it is the preacher’s job to hold listeners’ attention for longer than fifteen seconds in a culture whose sound-bites are the most we have been conditioned to consume. Theologically regarded, a gospel eviscerated of mirth is no gospel at all–a harangue at worst; at best a dull drone. Properly injected, laughter unites preacher and congregation with a joyful God. But is there anything funny in scripture?

I come bearing witness that Mark’s Gospel is a hilarious book. Yes, Mark: that somber story of the Suffering Messiah. But Mark’s is a wry, understated humor whose recovery relies partly on the same discipline of patient, careful reading that is sine qua non for good exegesis.

Let’s consider only one among many examples: Mark 11:1-11, the classic Palm Sunday lection. What some preachers may not appreciate, and no parishioner could be expected to know, is that underlying this text is a type-scene common in antiquity: “Hail the conquering hero.” First Maccabees 5:45-54 recounts such a story with a straight face: the return of Judas Maccabeus to Israel following a triumphant massacre. In ancient Jewish literature the details vary, but the format is predictable. Amid cheering throngs a military victor enters a city and offers thanksgiving at a religious shrine. This kind of tale was as familiar to Mark’s audience as our sagas of the two–fisted marshal who canters into Tombstone, outdraws Bad Brad on Main Street, and strides into the saloon for a shot of rotgut.

Mark 11:1-11 twists the Maccabeus story into a pretzel. There’s no blood on Jesus’ sword. (He doesn’t carry a sword.) Jesus rides in, not on Champion the Wonder Horse, but on somebody’s ass. The crowds do not hail him as “the Son of David” (Matthew), “the King who comes in the Lord’s name” (Luke), “even the King of Israel” (John). Mark plays his trump card at the story’s end, when we expect Our Hero to do something dramatic. It’s time for the general to head for the shrine and offer sacrificial thanks to God for having slaughtered hundreds. Not in Mark 11:11: “Then he entered Jerusalem”–that’s right–“and went into the temple”–here it comes–“and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” What?

Get the picture? We expect Jesus to march into the House of the Lord and do the religious thing. What we get is Jesus the tourist, looking the place over. Well, it’s late. Let’s pack it in, fellows. What would the Twelve make of that? How about the exuberant multitudes? Do they pick up their garments and leafy branches with a shrug? “I guess the party’s over.”

The entertainment, such as it is, is postponed until tomorrow (Mark 11:12). Even then, however, people won’t get what they anticipate (verses 13-19). Jesus curses a fruitless fig tree out of season–in itself pretty zany–then returns to the temple, where he does something other than we expect of General Pious. Mark, I am sure, knows exactly what he’s doing. He leads readers through all the clichés up to the Great Climax, before pulling the rug out from under us.

As we pick ourselves up, wondering where the denouement went, Mark flips the story again with Jesus the Mad Horticulturalist. And while we’re trying to figure that out, there’s the final fillip: Jesus not only turns the tables on legitimate moneychangers and religious vendors but also “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (verse 16). Commander Jesus is not there to offer any sacrifice. Moreover, he won’t allow anyone else to do so. The fig tree isn’t feeling well, either (verse 20).

Were this story less familiar, we might suppose we had wandered into Monty Python. If you know what the Evangelist is lampooning–even if you don’t, but are willing to read it with a sense of humor–Mark 11:1-11 frolics in one non sequitur after another. The comedy is there, not for its own sake, but to lower our defenses long enough for the truth to get through: This Jesus, whom we think we know, is not your everyday liberator. He doesn’t act the way he’s supposed to. Judge him by ordinary conventions of what God’s anointed should be and do, and you will get him wrong every time. The joke is on us.

For this we may thank God: If ever we managed to pen Christ in, there would be no gospel, only the stale clichés with which we keep trying to build a sermon or a life. Mark’s genius lies in conveying good news in a way that doesn’t merely say that. We experience it–laughing all the way into God’s upending grace. Does this teach us anything about the craft of preaching?