The Second Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 6, Track I), Year A.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
[The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”]Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
What does it mean to laugh? Why is it that when we are confronted with the absurd or the unexpected, we respond with laughter? How strange that we even seek out the strange, the outlandish, the absurd for our entertainment. We crave the ridiculous to such a degree that companies spend enormous amounts of money on providing comedy, Netflix has paid nearly a billion dollars to retain the licensing rights to comedies like The Office and Seinfeld. It is rather incredible that a multinational corporation would dedicate so many resources to retain decades-old sitcoms. Why is it that that we value the absurd, and our absurd reaction, laughter, so much to create such a demand?
The more we think about laughter, the stranger it becomes. When animals are confronted with a situation they don’t understand, or at least seems absurd to them, they react far more logically: fear, sadness, or even anger. Take those viral videos dogs freaking out when their owner runs into an adjacent room after dropping a blanket in front of them. The dogs expect that when the blanket falls, the human will be behind it, as they had just seen their face, when the human disappears, they are stressed by the absurdity of the situation, either whimpering, barking, searching for the human, or cowering in response. At the same time, we humans laugh at the dog’s reaction, as it seems absurd to us that they haven’t figured out the trick. When computers are confronted with absurd situations, such as logical paradoxes, or inputting commands that contradict one another, they respond in the most logical way: completely freezing and becoming inert. Why then, do humans, when confronted with the absurd, the stressful, or the unexpected, have laughter as a perfectly legitimate response?
Turns out like most things in life, laughter is something far more complex than we take it for. There several fields of study devoted entirely to comedy and laughter, with branches in evolutionary biology, psychology, and even philosophy. Like any complex behavior, there are many theories about its origins and efficacy, what we are sure of is comedy and laughter’s intricate relationship with Truth.
The best kind of comedy, the kind that stays relevant and funny, are the jokes that speak Truth. Good comedy examines our everyday expectations and assumptions of the world and points out the absurdity of those expectations. It will set up a scene where we expect something to happen a certain way, then circumvent our expectations from either the situation or a character. What makes it funny is not the absurdity of the character or the scene, but rather our assumptions in the first place. It makes us laugh because we realize all along that we have been the absurd ones. We find joy in the absurdity because there is joy in realizing the Truth, and the unexpected self-examination brings us closer to the Truth
When someone says “Old Testament God”, the first thing that jumps to mind for most people would probably be the horrific plagues of Exodus, the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, the wrath-filled hand of judgement that inspires awe and terror in His followers. This is a largely exaggerated interpretation, one promoted by generations of priests and preachers who reasonably assumed that the best way to teach about God’s kind and loving ways would be to use fear, legalism, guilt, and shame. This method of preaching/teaching is the same reason why action movies make three to four times the profits of comedies. Comedy requires context and subtlety; in most cases, both the writer and the audience must understand cultural conventions, cues, and assumptions to subvert them. Action, fear, excitement, outrage, salt pillars, and explosions are easy to understand, are memorable, and are great for sales. The truth of the Old Testament is that it is more complicated than a wrathful deity cycling between blessing and punishing a remarkably self-centered and stubborn people. Within its stories and revelations are far more than what meets the eye on a face-value reading; primarily, and surprising to most people, is the amount of comedy. Because we are inclined to take ourselves too seriously, and don’t always understand the cultural context, we often miss the humor scattered throughout the Old Testament. Genesis and Jonah are the most up-front with their humor, but nearly every book in the Old Testament, from Exodus to Job and beyond, contain some humor.
The story of Sarah’s laughter, and the origin of Isaac’s name, is one of many examples of humor in Genesis. Much like St. Thomas who is mainly remembered for doubting the Risen LORD, Sarah has been unfairly remembered for her laughter. She is often depicted as a skeptic, a doubter of God’s power, especially in comparison to the hospitality of Abraham to the heavenly strangers. Those who lift up Abraham’s faithfulness at the expense of Sarah’s faithfulness are quick to forget Abraham’s doubts (Genesis 15), laughing to God’s face (Genesis 17), questioning God’s motives (Genesis 18), and his deceits (Genesis 12 & 20). Sarah has been dutifully going along with Abraham’s wanderings and schemes for decades at this point. Travelling together, they have become shrewd and wise in the ways of the world. They are survivors and nomads who lead a difficult life in the desert, for all the adventures they have had and wonders they had seen, they are immensely practical people.
Having spent some time with them as the reader, by this time in Abraham’s story, having God show up as an unexpected guest is not the subversion of expectation that makes comedy. Abraham’s communications with the Divine are always intense, but he and us the readers have become accustomed to them at this point. The hospitality Abraham provides is culturally appropriate, though with extra vigor since Abraham and Sarah seem to be aware that their guests are no ordinary travelers. The situation begins to escalate into the absurd as everyone continues to behave as if this were a totally normal encounter, even though everyone seems to simultaneously know that the absurdity of the Creator of the Universe dropping by for some pancakes. Things become strange when the visitors ask where Sarah is, they are heavenly visitors, of course they know where she is! Why would they need to ask other than to keep pretending to be nondescript travelers? Sarah finally loses it when the guest says when he returns she’ll have a son. Not only is it comical considering her and Abraham’s age, but that is the very promise they’ve been hearing from God for years. Again and again God promises Abraham that he will be the father of many nations, at this point God has dragged them all over the region with that promise. Abraham’s own impatience with God’s promise led them to cut a covenant a few chapters earlier (Genesis 15), and here again is that promise, though still unfulfilled.
The scene bursts into comedy with Sarah’s unintentional laughter. With her understandable reaction, suddenly all the façade of normalcy drops, and everything devolves into chaos. Sarah laughed and made her snide comment in what she assumed was privacy, listening to their conversation through the tent. Of course assuming her reaction was private is ridiculous, as anyone who has ever been camping knows tents offer the mere illusion of privacy, and also the fact that the omnipotent, omniscient God is just outside. God drops the pretense of being a band of travelers, acting surprised and immediately questioning Abraham, as if He did not already know why Sarah would laugh at such a proposition. The situation spirals even more out of control when Sarah denies the fact that she laughed, as though she could hide anything from God, as if He were a normal person she might have a chance to save face with.
At this point, based on how God has acted before with those who have deceived or denied the Truth in front of Him, namely Adam and Eve, who hid themselves after they ate the fruit, we as the reader would expect God to punish Abraham and Sarah. Yet our expectations are subverted, instead of the wrath of an all-powerful deity, Abraham, Sarah, and God bicker with one another as if they were on a sitcom. The NRSV translators take pains to illustrate the comedy by translating God’s response to Sarah as “Oh yes you did!”, reminding us of the petty squabbles of children.
This encounter between God, Sarah, and Abraham is even more absurd in light of the disturbing scenes that follow: God’s condemnation of Sodom & Gomorrah, Lot paralleling Abraham’s hospitality with his own heavenly guests, and other scenes that are rather shocking for modern readers. When we do return to Sarah in Chapter 21, like most ancient comedy, the story of the heavenly visitors by the oaks of Mamre has a happy ending. Sarah gives birth to a son, and remembering the embarrassing encounter, names him Isaac, meaning “He laughs” as her own joke. What had been an absurd situation, and an absurd promise, turns into joy, and a fond memory all involved can laugh about.
What does this ancient sitcom episode offer us today in our current troubles? A light-hearted relief from the troubles of the world is nice, but as the wider world begins to feel more like Sodom and Gomorrah rather than the campsite at Mamre, even light-hearted stories don’t seem quite as funny.
“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” of all the absurd moments of this scene with Abraham, Sarah, and God, this is the most absurd question. It is nearly a logical paradox, as God being all-powerful and all-good, nothing is too wonderful for God to do. But this is not a situation entirely grounded in logic, but absurdity that is hope. In our everyday experiences, and the increasingly chaotic world, we want to hope. We want to believe that things will turn around, and we can return to normal, live in a peaceful community and be near our families, friends, and neighbors once again. Yet that would be too wonderful for us, as that “normal” that we so desperately wish to return to is another lie we tell ourselves. That “normal”, “peaceful”, and “connected” world we had before the plague and righteous fury that grips our nation now was absurd, violent, and increasingly isolated. It was a society built on exploitation, suppression, and arrogance disguised as “social” media. We laugh at ourselves now, looking back just a few months ago, the idea that people would respond to a health crisis by hoarding rice and toilet paper was too absurd for reality. Yet here we are, laughing at ourselves that we did not see it so obviously.
The absurdity is not in the hope that things will get better, but the belief that things will “go back to normal”. Nothing is too wonderful for God; we can be confident that the Holy Spirit is working even in these crises. No matter how terrible or difficult things become, God will redeem this time and turn it toward the Good. The world is changing, we can cry about the lies we lost, mourn the false “normal” that was only kind to the fortunate; or we can laugh at ourselves, finding the joy, goodness, and hard truths that have been thrust upon us.
A common mistake, especially when criticizing humor, is assuming that making jokes or having funny scenes about serious topics is minimizing or disrespecting the subject. This is why we often miss the jokes in the Old Testament, because we are talking about God, the most important and powerful person, we mistakenly assume that to poke fun or laugh at our own absurd reactions to God is somehow demeaning God.
The core of comedy is to lead us to Truth, to strip away the lies that we tell ourselves, about what’s really valuable in life, what’s “normal”, and the lie that we have mastered and ordered the universe. Comedy leads us to the Truth, which because of our sinful state, can be difficult for us. We have become so accustomed to sin and wrong that we believe them to be “normal”, while the grace and miracles of God to be absurd. Humor is another grace from God, as it lets us wrestle with these bitter and difficult truths about ourselves and the societies we create through joy rather than suffering. Laughter is sacred, as humor done thoughtfully and well leads us to the Truth, the Truth of course is God, the source of all Truth and Goodness.