What a Joke


Since much of what I would’ve written about Isaiah 6 went up this morning at Trinity House, I think I’ll probably just expound one more point from the text tomorrow, and that’ll be the end of it.

Right now I’m reading the last chapter of Peter Leithart’s  Deep Exegesis, a fantastic book. I wanted to share a little something he wrote about intertextuality.

In Chapter 4, “The Text Is a Joke,” Leithart tells us a joke:

A priest, a rabbi, a nun, a doctor, and a lawyer all walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, a joke?” (Leithart, 113)


What makes this funny? Leithart says “the joke depends on a confluence of two joke traditions: jokes about diverse religious figures or professionals on the one hands, and jokes about barroom conversations on the other” (Leithart, 113). If you aren’t familiar with these joke traditions, then the bartender’s insight in perceiving that he is in a joke fails to connect. Leithart points out that the joke depends upon what is not said.

Scripture, he argues, acts in the same way. When Matthew records for us that Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), he does not continue on to say that Jesus was quoting Psalm 22. We must go outside the text to see it, and if we don’t see Psalm 22 in Jesus’ last words, we didn’t get it.

But there’s more.

Let’s say you and I plan to take a walk in the park to enjoy the sunshine, and as we’re getting our shoes on to go, we hear the boom of thunder followed by the sound of a million little raindrops. I look over at you and say, “The best laid schemes of mice and men,” and we decide to watch John Malkovich make a fool of himself instead.
How is my comment to you relevant in any way? What do mice have to do with anything? Our plan could hardly have been called a scheme, and much less one best laid. Yet when I said what I said, you nodded in silent agreement as though you understood perfectly what I meant.

If you went to high school, you probably had to read Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, and if your teacher was any good, she probably had you read the Robert Burns poem off of which it was based. So, you remembered not only the full phrase of which I quoted only a part (“The best laid schemes of mice and men/Go often awry”), but you also knew the context in which it was originally said, and so you recognized that I was simply lamenting our disrupted afternoon plans with a poetic allusion. What’s important here is that I relied on you to know the context in order for my lament to be understood. My communication depended on what wasn’t said, and it depended on you filling in the rest.

Reenter Psalm 22.

Even in the agony of death, Jesus is the true prophet, the greatest teacher in Israel, and so his words aren’t without meaning. Read the rest of Psalm 22 with the crucifixion in mind and it becomes plain that Jesus was affirming both that it was “necessary for the Christ to suffer these things” (Luke 24:26, see Psalm 22:16-18) and that he would rise from the dead (Psalm 22:22-26). In fact, in referencing Psalm 22 Jesus proclaims that his is a salvation for all nations and all generations (vv 27-31). Jesus knew his audience would know the Psalms, and with one breath he preached the whole of the gospel message. This line which initially seemed tragic turns comic when we realize that Jesus may have said verse 1, but he meant the whole Psalm.

Jesus knows that the best jokes involve misdirection and surprise, and so what seems a cry of defeat turns out to be a shout of victory. What a great joke.


One thought on “What a Joke

  1. Pingback: Worth Reading: Deep Exegesis | Flotsam and Jetsam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s