“Faithfulness to the Joke: Theological Reflections on the Gospel of Mark”

by Jason Kerr

How might humor be a key component of faith in Jesus? My paper will explore this question by considering what might be called a structural joke in the Gospel of Mark. The joke’s setup is the motif known as the Messianic Secret, in which Jesus commands someone he has just healed not to tell anyone about him, whereupon the healed person blabs immediately to everyone they know. The punchline is the original ending (attested in the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus), where the young man at the empty tomb commands the women to go tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them into Galilee, whereupon the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (NRSV 16:8). This ending is funny because finally someone is supposed to proclaim who Jesus is and they can’t but also because, in context, the original audience of Mark’s Gospel has obviously heard the good news.

This joke’s theological significance consists in the way that it holds together the unlikely pairing of communal self-criticism and joy. The first turns out to be key to the second. The story of Jesus can be told in many ways that get God wrong, as early Christians worked out through centuries of painful debate. Popular ways of doing that included overly Platonic conceptions of God that privilege immaterial spirit over flesh, making God ultimately distant from humans (docetic or gnostic options) and conceptions of God’s supremacy that rendered Jesus a subordinate creature (the Arian option). Telling Jesus’s story as a joke presents a third option in which the person of Jesus, as human, reveals God precisely by critiquing conceptions that render God distant and inaccessible. The fruit of this critique is joy: God with us!

Rowan Williams has argued that speech about God can only really be about God (as opposed to using God’s name in a human play for power) if it undoes itself in the name of God (“Theological Integrity”). This is what the Gospel of Mark does (as do the other Gospels, albeit in less pointed ways): it makes an ability to laugh at oneself into a mark of discipleship. Mark’s story invites readers to see themselves in the stupefied disciples, for who among us has not kept silent when called to proclaim, but it presents that judgment within a larger context of joy: the tomb is empty, and Jesus has already gone on ahead. Disciples should proclaim instead of not proclaiming, all the while avoiding the idolatry of believing that everything depends on their proclamation, believing instead that it’s precisely when their proclamation breaks down that God will break in.