A good joke is a wonderful thing. Humour binds people together and builds community – the sense of connection you get with someone when you’ve shared a joke is a strong bond, because it says you see the world the same way. It’s why making my wife laugh on our first date was a really important step in our relationship. A shared joke says, “We share values, we agree on what’s serious and what’s ridiculous, we have something in common”. A good joke is fundamentally about sharing a world view, seeing things the same way.
Of course, a really good joke can transform how we see things. Having watched Bill Bailey’s Part Troll, I will never be able to go into a branch of Argos again without paying homage to “the laminated book of dreams”, and walking around the shrubbery section of a garden centre almost always makes me think of the Knights who say “Ni”. Transforming humour presents the familiar as unfamiliar, as bizarre, as ridiculous, and you never see it the same way again.
Jesus’ teaching was very like that. We often think that his parables were about communicating deep theological truths in ways that ordinary people would understand, about making God simple and accessible, but he didn’t see them like that. “The reason I speak to them in parables”, he said, “is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13).
The parables are like jokes – they test your world view. To people who don’t “get” God’s Kingdom they are odd, strange, bizarre, or downright offensive and outrageous. To those who already understand God’s values, they bring recognition, a knowing smile, a point of connection around a shared view of the world.
And sometimes the parable transforms the way we see the world. Suddenly we experience a moment of revelation, not because we see something we had never seen before, but because we see the familiar differently.
“Therefore,” said Jesus, after a particularly long session of telling parables, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).
Sometimes, people resist the suggestion that they should learn more about God, especially if the word “theology” is used. This fear often comes from a worry that some of our most precious understandings about God will be shown to be wrong, or stupid, and we’ll have to replace them with strange new ones. This matters, because for most of us the way we think about God fundamentally affects the way we see ourselves. The fear is ultimately about losing our sense of identity.
Jesus’ teaching, though, says that Christian learning is not really like that at all. Most often, our learning about God isn’t about taking bad ideas and replacing them with good ones, or correcting errors. It’s about receiving a new insight which makes us rearrange our mental furniture, so that things we thought were important suddenly become less so, and things we thought didn’t matter become central to our thinking. Learning more about God doesn’t invalidate our most precious values and beliefs, it just changes the way we see them. And if, as Jesus taught, our actions flow from our core beliefs, then seeing the world differently will change the way we live in the world, and so bring the kingdom of heaven to be where we are.