Jesus must have had a sense of humour - he wouldn't have been truly human otherwise - but the Evangelists do not seem to have been especially keen to show us what kind of a sense of humour it was. Today's Gospel, however, offers a hint that it might have tended toward the sardonic:
Fear not: you are of more value than many sparrows.
It is not immediately clear what comfort we might be expected to take from this. A sparrow might not fall to the ground without the Father's will, but this makes it no less likely that it will fall to the ground. We might be worth more than many sparrows, but if two sparrows can be bought for a farthing, as Jesus says they can, many sparrows might not be worth very much at all.
We seem to be being encouraged to have confidence that God keeps us in his care - numbering even the hairs of our heads - and yet being reminded at the same time that, like the sparrow that falls to the ground, we are, nevertheless, going to come to grief.
Sometimes it can be far from easy for us to be confident that God has us in his loving care. At such times we might want to cry with the Psalmist,
Lord, why do you stand afar off, and hide yourself in times of distress?
And when things are really grim, to cry out, as Jesus did on the cross,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
In such circumstances faith is severely tested. How are we to reconcile the experience of physical disease, or mental anguish, or wanton cruelty, with the belief that the whole universe is held in being by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God?
Here, surely, is a mystery that remains hidden. We will not bring much comfort to those suffering such a test of faith if we cheerily remind them that they are worth more than many sparrows. But there is a time for speaking and a time for silence, a time to weep and a time to laugh.
Jesus' words in today's Gospel are addressed to his twelve disciples immediately after their commissioning as apostles, and before they know what they are in for. So Jesus tells them what they are in for. He is sending them out, he says, as sheep into the midst of wolves: they will be betrayed, flogged, hated, persecuted, and put to death.
That is the context of Jesus' cheerful, upbeat remark that they are not to fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Jesus' black humour is bearable because he includes himself in the joke:
a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master.
Though he foresees his own cruel death, Jesus' confidence in the loving providence of God is unshaken. Jesus does not make light of human suffering - his own or anyone else's - but he invites his disciples to share with equanimity his own realism about what lies ahead, and his own confidence that the love God has for us will triumph over the mystery of suffering and death, which at present is hidden from our understanding.
These words of Jesus are best absorbed before the time of trial, when we can still smile at the notion that we are worth more than many sparrows. For a time to weep will come. If we are truly to be his disciples, if we are to be found worthy of him, we will not be able to escape taking up our own cross and following him.