SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.
All those exaggerations Jesus used in his teachings probably shocked his audience at times, but it may have made his audiences laugh as well.
Jesus used creative exaggeration—i.e., hyperbole (just don’t pronounce it “hyper-bowl-ee”)—often and he used it well. We often read right past these without noticing them because the Gospel writers don’t give us any indications that his words are humorous. The Gospel writers don’t write anything like, “So, Jesus said with a smirk…” or “After Jesus said this, his audience burst into laughter.”
Saying hypocrites complain about specks in others’ eyes when they have logs sticking in their own eyes is pretty darn funny (Matthew 7:1–5). When he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:33), what’s translated as “three measures” is roughly 50–60 pounds of flour. That's a huge amount of flour! It would make enough bread to feed about 100 people.
When Jesus tells his disciples to forgive seventy seven times (Matthew 18:21–35), do you think he really expected them to keep a tally and when it finally hits seventy seven they were to declare, “You hit the magic number, bucko! Jesus says no more forgiveness for you!”? During the same lesson, he tells a parable where a servant owes his master 10,000 talents. A “talent” was worth twenty years of wages. This pitiful man owed his boss twenty years of wages multiplied by 10,000! That’s ridiculous! And funny.
In my opinion, the funniest thing Jesus said is less obvious. In Mark’s Gospel, we’re told a peculiar detail when the names of Jesus’ twelve key disciples are listed. Mark tells us Jesus called the sons of Zebedee, the brothers James and John, “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). When I first read this I couldn’t help wondering why. Were they loud? Was Zebedee a big guy who walked like a lumbering wooly mammoth? Did James and John dress up like Thor and act out scenes from Avengers: Endgame? Mark writes nothing more about it. Yet, when we turn to another Gospel—Luke’s—we come across a situation where the people of a Samaritan village reject Jesus and two of his disciples ask Jesus if he wants them to call down fire (likely lightning) from heaven to fry them all. Sheesh! These two disciples were—you guessed it—the brothers James and John (Luke 9:51–56).
James and John were probably thinking of the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament successfully calling down fire from the sky in his showdown with the prophets of Baal or when he did the same thing and grilled 102 hostile soldiers (1 Kings 18:36–39; 2 Kings 1:9–12).
It seems Jesus gave them the nickname “Sons of Thunder” because of this incident. Jesus rebuked their harsh attitudes towards the Samaritans, but later did he give them the nickname as a gentle rib?
I imagine James and John entering a room and Jesus saying with a smirk, “Be careful, everyone, here comes the Sons of Thunder!” I appreciate this as a lifelong resident of New Jersey, where teasing and “busting chops” is a form of affection.