On my walk home from the Post Office today, I saw an acquaintance who is an emergency room doctor. I paused to ask, “Are you staying healthy?” He said, “Yes. Amazingly. I am around COVID patients all the time, but I have not been sick.” I said, “I think doctors must have very robust immune systems from being around sick people all the time.” He smiled and replied, “I’m like Westley. I just take a little iocaine powder at a time.”
I laughed—but only because I have seen The Princess Bride multiple times, and I immediately remembered that scene from the movie about the fictitious “colorless, odorless, and deadly poison from Australia.” Westley explains in the film that he spent two years building up a tolerance to iocaine powder, and he used his immunity to trick Vizzini in their battle of wits. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMz7JBRbmNo)
If I had not seen The Princess Bride, I would not have had that immediate response to the doctor’s humor. Humor only works if the other person knows enough to get the point. If you have to explain to someone why what you said is funny, the humor is gone. Without shared experience, most humor falls flat.
I never could teach a class without cracking jokes. I don’t plan humor for my lectures. Things just come to mind and out they come. Early in my teaching career, I found that international students were at a disadvantage. I would tell a joke, and the American students would be laughing; but the international students would just sit there looking confused. Humor often differs between cultures. As I grew older, however, I began to realize that clever allusions to movies or sayings that used to be common knowledge would confuse my young, American students. If I made reference to a well-known line in a popular movie that was more than a decade old, there was a good chance they had not seen it. Increasingly, I had to think about whether or not my students would get the punch line of some humorous comment I made. If they did not get the allusion, the impact was gone.
Many of Jesus’s parables are like jokes. Often they turn listener expectations upside down. Like jokes, they only work if the punch line takes us by surprise. But if we don’t know the cultural details that give a parable its punch, we simply do not feel the major point. And if someone has to explain the point, parables fall flat. Parables, like jokes, work best when there is a sense of immediacy with the stories. If they punch us in the gut, if we feel the impact, then we get the point. But our life experience differs so much from Jesus’s cultural context that we often do not feel the impact of his stories.
Consequently, when teaching Jesus’ parables, I needed to provide historical and cultural background information first. After my students understood more about Jesus’ cultural context, they began to feel the power of his parables. In future blog posts, I will comment on a few of Jesus’ parables to illustrate this point. For a much longer explanation of parable interpretation, see “Chapter 15: Jesus’ Parabolic Speech Forms: Turning Expectations Upside Down” in Interpreting Biblical Literature, pages 319–343.