In his table talks, many of Martin Luther's merry quotes and rough jokes have been passed on. From the very beginning, humour has been a theological topic for Luther, embracing the dramatic scope of his whole world view. He himself explains: "When I was unable to chase away the devil with serious words of with the Scripture, I often expelled him with pranks." For many church officials of his time, this must have sounded like a blasphemous contradiction.
In religious orders, laughter had been frowned upon for a long time, due to a one-sided, misunderstood theology of the cross, which mainly venerated pain and suffering. Only in the 7th century, the monk John Climacus explained: "God does not want human beings to be sad due to pain in their soul, but rather that their souls may laugh and be joyful out of love towards him." The monk Martin Luther was also part of this tradition, which had been continued in particular by Francis of Assisi. He had a sense of humour, especially because he was very much a theologian of the cross.
This might be because there was hardly anybody who understood more radically than Martin Luther what the Apostle Paul had meant with his message of justification – the verdict of "not guilty" in the last judgement for everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and is baptised – a verdict, which already becomes effective in the present time. This is why the Reformer can still laugh when laughter has drained from everybody else's face, because he finds his standpoint in eternity, beyond the last judgement (see John 5:24). He anticipates the pardon during the last judgement as well as the promising laughter that comes with it.
Thus, humour and laughter of a free Christian stem from the peace that has been given by God. This is the foundation of a sort of world mastery that lets humour grow, as Otto Bierbaum understood it: "It is humour, if you laugh in spite of everything". To laugh "in spite of everything" is what Luther does, time and again, in his difficult life. The deeper level to which such a kind of Christian humour may, and shall, relate, is constituted out of God's love, which endures all tribulations of the world and promises to overcome them. This is why the Reformer did not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the reality of the world.
To cock a snook at the devil
Luther often suffered from a headache with a tinnitus. He told himself: "Why should I scold the good head! What it does, is understandable. It has ventured to deal with me, and it may rightly say that it has been here, and now it may go to sleep with all honour." Martinus cocked a snook at the devil as the spirit of sadness: " A poor man, entangled in sin, death and hell, can not hear anything more comforting than this precious, dear message of Christ. His heart must laugh deeply and become joyful about it... Sadness is hereditary to us, and the devil is the spirit of sadness, but God is the spirit of joy, who saves us." Against sadness and worries, Luther therefore advised: "If you are moody, you shall remember that the Father now smiles at you. But our heart does not want to understand this, especially when we are challenged. We then think the opposite: that God is our enemy, that he does not esteem us and wants to beat us with the club." Due to his faith of justification, Luther relied on the friendly, laughing God, who gives perfect joy, dispelling such "God complexes".
As a spiritual director, Luther makes it utterly clear that the good news of a sinner's justification must be taken more seriously than every kind of guilt of sin: "Laugh at the enemy and find someone to whom you can talk... or drink more, or make a joke, some merriment or any other joyful thing. Sometimes one must drink more, play, make merriment and even risk a sin during all this, in order to show abhorrence and disdain to the devil, so that he is not given any opportunity to make a thing of conscience out of small matters... If only I had something like an obvious sin, just in order to annoy the devil, so that he realises that I do not recognise, and am not conscious of, any sin!"
"Pray, and let God provide"
Like Francis before, Luther was able to clearly oppose all worldly worries. Several days before his death he wrote to his wife, full of the careless joy of a Christian humour, and with irony: "We thank you very sincerely for your great worries, which do not allow you to sleep! Since the time you took care of us, the fire was about to devour us in our guest house, right before the door of our room, and yesterday – doubtless because of your worries – a stone almost dropped on our head, about to squash us like a mousetrap! … I worry about that you do not stop worrying that, ultimately, the earth will swallow, and all elements will chase us. Pray, and let God provide; you have not been ordered to worry about me or yourself."
When rumours about his death had spread around the country, Luther mocked them in a "Letter about his funeral": "I, Doctor Martinus, acknowledge that I am totally in accordance with the devil, the Pope and all my enemies. For they would like to be joyful about my death, and I would totally love to grant them such joy and would have liked to have died in Schmalkalden, but God has not yet wanted to confirm such a pleasure."
His marriage continued to be happy, but when problems occurred, he knew how to put them into perspective in a humorous way: "If I am able to bear the grudge of the devil, of sin and of conscience, I will also be able to bear the grudge of Kathy von Bora." The sociologist of religion Peter L. Berger is right: "On examination of the great figures of church history, one could perhaps say that Luther was the one with the greatest sense of humour."
Half a wing of the archangel
Perhaps the best example for the Reformer's satirical tongue is found in his last treatise against Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz, "Latest News from the Rhine", published in 1542. To the Cardinal's announcement of planning to exhibit his collection of relics every year in Mainz, Luther responded ironically by advertising that new particles had arrived to the collection, for example three flames of the burning thorn, a lovely piece of Mose's left horn, a remnant of the flag with which Christ had opened the realm of the dead, half a wing of the archangel Gabriel, and five shining strings of David's harp. Even Albrecht himself was said to have bestowed to the sacred assemblage a pinch of his faithful, pious heart and a whole lot of his truthful tongue.
What was later said by the philosopher Sören Kierkegaard also holds true for the Reformer: "The Christian humorist is like a plant of which only the root is visible. Its flower unfolds before a higher sun."
Prof. Dr. theol. habil. Werner Thiede is a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria and a publicist. Since 2006 he works as theological consultant for the regional bishop in the church district of Regensburg. Since 2000 he teaches systemical theology at the theology department of the University of Erlangen. (www.werner-thiede.de).
More about this topic by Werner Thiede: The promised laughter. Humour in a theological perspective, Göttingen 1986.