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St. John Chrysostom on laughter and jokes

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From “Discourses on the Epistle to the Ephesians”, XVII:

And fornication and all impurity or selfishness should not even be mentioned among you, as befits saints, nor shameful and empty words and jokes that do not resemble you, but on the contrary, thanksgiving should be heard… Let no one seduce you with empty words, for because of all this the wrath of God comes upon the sons of unbelief; and therefore do not become their partners (Eph. 5:3-7).

Having spoken about the gross passion – anger, the apostle moves on to the lesser evil. And as there he destroyed shouting, that instrument of wrath, so now he forbids blasphemy and jesting, that instrument of debauchery. Shameful and empty words and jokes are not like you – he says – but, on the contrary, thanksgiving should be heard (Eph. 5:4). Speak neither empty nor shameful words, and do not act on them – and you will extinguish the fire of sin. Even if they are not mentioned – he says – between you. He says the same, writing to the Corinthians: It is heard from everywhere that there is fornication among you (1 Cor. 5:1), that is, be pure, because words lead to deeds. Then, in order not to appear cruel and harsh, and cutting off the tendency to jokes, he adds the reason, saying, They are not like you, but on the contrary, that thanksgiving may be heard.

What’s the use of telling a joke? You will only provoke laughter with her. Tell me: will the shoemaker take up any work that does not belong to his trade? Will he get the wrong tool? No, of course, because the unnecessary is worth nothing to us. Let no idle word be heard between us, because idle talk can easily turn to shame. Now is not a time for rejoicing, but for sorrow and weeping. Are you kidding me? Which wrestler, entering the arena, abandons the fight with the opponent and tells jokes? The devil walks around you, growling to devour you, turning everything against you and bringing it down on your head, plotting how to drive you from your refuge, gnashing his teeth against you, and kindling a fire against your salvation – and you sit and you make jokes, gossip, and talk obscene things? Can you beat him this way?

We are having childish fun, beloved! Do you want to learn how the saints acted? Hear what Paul says: For three years day and night I did not cease to teach each one of you with tears (Acts 20:31). And if he cared so much for the Milesians and Ephesians – he did not tell jokes, but with tears in his eyes he taught the doctrine – then what will you say about the others? Hear what he also wrote to the Corinthians: Out of great sorrow and troubled heart I wrote to you with many tears (2 Cor. 2:4), and also: Who faints, and I do not faint? (11:29). Hear what he says in another place, wishing every day to depart from this world: For we who are in this lodge groan (5:4). And you laugh and have fun? It’s time for war – and you’re doing what the clowns do? Do you not see the men who fight, how harsh they are, how severe they are, how frowning and full of terror their faces are? You will see in them a stern face, a cheerful heart, a brave spirit, quick, restrained, careful and anxious, great order, slenderness and silence in their ranks; not to say that they do not utter an empty word—they say nothing at all. And if they, fighting with physical enemies, and not threatened by words, keep so stern a silence, how can you, who must wage war both for your words and your thoughts, allow this side of yours to remain bare and unprotected? Don’t you know that right here we are under a lot of attack? Are you partying, having fun with friends, eating and drinking, looking for entertainment and pleasures? Is that what you were sent to this world for? We are cast out by sin in this valley of death – what fun is there in that? Do you think you have free time to waste in this life? Don’t you know we are at war? Now is no time for fun at all, because this is no time for peace. Hear what Christ says: The world will rejoice, but you will weep (John 16:20). Christ was crucified for your misdeeds, and you laugh? He endured torment and suffered so much because of your abominations and fall, and you rejoice? Aren’t you angering God with that? In this life the sinner laughs and amuses himself; the righteous mourns and weeps for his sins. No one who gossips is righteous. This is only suitable for clowns on stage; where there is shamelessness, there are jokes; where there is life without the fear of God, there are also empty stories. Hear what the prophet says: Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice before him with trembling (Ps. 2:11). A penchant for jokes makes the soul weak, lazy, lethargic; it often stirs up quarrels and gives rise to wars.

So what? Aren’t you a man? Leave then that which is characteristic of children! You do not like it if your servant wastes his time in street talk; how then do you, calling yourself a servant of God, waste your time in idle talk? It is good if the soul (of your interlocutor) is sober – you cannot get carried away with it; and who wouldn’t drag her away? She will deceive herself and will not need the attacks of the devil. And in order to better understand what it is about, pay attention to the concept itself. A joker (ευτράπελος) is a person who is fickle, ready for anything, frivolous, fickle. But this is not characteristic of people who serve the Stone. Such a person is easily twisted and changed, because he must imitate the facial expression, words and gait of others; at the same time, he must invent witticisms, because that too is necessary for him. But this is not characteristic of a Christian – to play comedies. If this is a good thing, why do they give it to jesters and clowns? You become such a joker, and you have no shame? Do you not thus testify that this is a foolish custom and an indecent act?

Many vices are contained in the joking soul, great distraction and emptiness: order is disturbed, the fear of God and piety disappear. You have been given a tongue, not to mock others, but to give thanks to God. Don’t you see the so-called comedians, clowns, clowns? There, these are the pranksters. Banish, I beseech you, from your souls this foolish pleasure: it is work for vermin, jesters, dancers, and public women. Far be it from the free and noble soul! Anyone who is dishonest and mean loves jokes. There is nothing more shameless than the joker, and therefore his mouth is full, not of sweetness, but of bitterness. Some teach it even the poor. Oh, ridiculousness! They turn people living in the midst of suffering into jesters! I say this to show how ridiculous this shameful custom is, because such talk proceeds from a soul alien to godliness. Therefore, I beseech you, let us banish this shameful custom, and speak that which resembles Christians, and let not holy mouths utter words that belong to dishonorable and shameful mouths. What fellowship is there between righteousness and iniquity? What does light and darkness have in common? (2 Cor. 6:14) A man prone to jokes quickly becomes mocking and slanderous; and the slanderer is capable of innumerable other vices. And so, bridling these two passions of the soul, and subjecting them to reason as docile horses—I mean lust and anger—let us set reason as a charioteer over them, that we may receive a reward in the age to come, with which God grant that we may be worthy all in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Source: S. Joanni Chrysostomi In Epistulam ad Ephesios homiliae 1-24, PG 62. Col. 9-176.

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