On Hearing the Laughter of God

What sort of shepherd is he that the recovery of one wretched sheep should bring greater delight than the remaining 99 who had sense enough not to get lost?

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), “The Annunciation to Sarah”
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), “The Annunciation to Sarah” (photo: Public Domain)

In the final paragraph of that great barnburner of a book called Orthodoxy — written in 1908 in defense of a Church he hadn’t yet joined — Chesterton tells us that there were two things in the life of Christ that he never hesitated to reveal, and a third he somehow managed to conceal. There were, to begin with, the frequent occasions for weeping and wrath, whether from the death of Lazarus whom he loved, or from the faithlessness of men he obviously loved but whose behavior he could not abide. Leaving, then, this third thing, which Christ would not share. 

“He never concealed his tears,” Chesterton explains. “He showed them plainly on his open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of his native city.” And he certainly did not restrain his anger. “He flung furniture down the front steps of the temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell.” 

And so there was never a moment when one or the other was not freely shown. And yet, for all the copious exercise given to each, there was yet this other, mysterious thing, the disclosure of which he strangely withheld. “I say it with reverence,” Chesterton tells us, but say it he does:

… there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that he hid from all men when he went up to the mountain to pray. There was something he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.

Was it thus God’s laughter we were spared having to see or to hear? But is that entirely true? I only ask because throughout the Scriptures there are moments when it rather looks as though God were laughing. Or, at the very least, the inference may be drawn that here were things so hugely funny that even God should be permitted to laugh at them. That it should not be thought unseemly for him to do so. Think of the hippopotamus, for heaven’s sake! Was it not Chesterton himself who said that its creation was the result of God wanting to prove that he had a sense of humor? What’s the point of having a sense of humor if you can’t externalize it from time to time? And how it must have amused God to have taken the trouble to fashion a beast as fat and funny-looking as the hippo! 

And what about Abraham and Sarah? Could there ever be a story more sidesplittingly funny than a couple of ancient ruins producing a child? I mean, here you have two hapless geriatrics, each about as long in the tooth as Methuselah himself, actually bringing forth the child of the promise. How God must have laughed in pulling off that prodigy. Sarah certainly did, and no doubt her husband got the joke as well. And since it was God’s joke to tell, he was surely not angry or annoyed by their reaction. Besides, how could he have been the least put out when it was he who told them to name the child Isaac, which means laughter in Hebrew. You can almost imagine the three of them sharing in the story, chortling together round the same table. Why shouldn’t they all laugh at the sheer over-the-top absurdity of it all, the astonishment of a God who, pursuant to his plan for making Abraham the father of a great nation, provides as down payment the birth of a son?

“Abraham was a hundred years old,” we are told in Genesis 21:5-6, “when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.’”

And, of course, it is true. One has only to look at Israel herself, the chosen vessel intended by God to carry the destiny of the world across the great sea of history. God must surely have had a sense of humor in launching that particular flotilla. “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people,” we read in Psalm 149. And it is to the humble of heart that he grants victory. One begins to understand the hoary claim, “How odd of God to choose the Jew!” Which means, of course, he favors those whose virtues are so few, who prospects so slim. Only a God given to humor would undertake the world’s salvation on the strength of a reed so thin, of a people with so little to commend.

God’s comedic touch would seem to be altogether unsurpassed. For no sooner has he laid out his covenant of grace — “I will be your God,” he tells them in Exodus 6:7, “and you shall be my people” — than we witness the chosen of God whoring after false gods. Disporting themselves before a golden calf just like the pagan peoples they left behind. Why should God have to put up with such perversity? Why not, like any sensible businessman, pull the plug at once? It is, after all, in God’s best interest to rescind an arrangement that yields so little profit. 

But there’s nothing sensible about the God of the Jews. I mean, what sort of shepherd is he that the recovery of one wretched sheep should bring greater delight than the remaining 99 who had sense enough not to get lost? Or the father whose complete wastrel of a son goes off to squander everything he’s ever been given, breaking his father’s heart, yet on whose return will hear only the repeated refrain, “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24)?

Maybe in order to appreciate the story of salvation, of God’s literal re-creation of the world, we might try and first hear it as this wonderfully wild and reckless joke told by God for our benefit. And, of course, laugh most uproariously on hearing it. Like the little boy in that most magical of all movies, Life Is Beautiful, who, on climbing onto the tank at the very end, exclaims out loud, “We get to keep green tank. Couldn’t you just die laughing?”

And be grateful, too, knowing that it was because of his father’s death, offered in exchange for the boy’s life, that got him that seat.