The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Mean Jesus?

Who got up on the wrong side of the bed?

by Mike Stavlund

Gospel Reading: Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

For Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011: Year A—Ordinary 20

Did Jesus ever have a bad day? You know, one of those days when events and emotions conspire against us and we realize we’d be wise to go right back to bed? When considering the vagaries and mysteries of the Incarnation, we have to wonder about Jesus’ emotional state and experience of humanity. If he was infallible, was he necessarily unflappable?


It’s not a languid Tuesday that Jesus walks into in Matthew 15.

The day begins when a group of Pharisees hunt him down to criticize him, and Jesus calls them “hypocrites,” then condemns them by invoking their own prophet right back at them.

In the Lectionary passage for this week, things get even uglier.  The pressure’s clearly rising.

The Evidence.

First, Jesus ignores people– both the Pharisees and the Canaanite woman as she makes loud appeals on behalf of her daughter. He’s so apparently ignorant, in fact, that he needs his otherwise clueless disciples to inform him of the relational effects of his behavior: the Pharisees are offended, and the woman is irritated, shouting so much that she is disturbing everyone’s peace.

When Jesus is brought up to speed on the world around him, he gets even more aggressive, calling the Pharisees nasty names and dismissing the woman to her face. As if that’s not enough, he employs a nauseating metaphor involving feces (in the first case) and contemptuously compares the poor woman to a dog (in the second case).

Has the Lord just boiled over?

Mixed Messages.

The Pharisees have made a special trip from Jerusalem to speak to Jesus, but Jesus goes out of his way (and perhaps their way) to retreat into Tyre and Sidon (see Matthew 11:22).

Once there, he asserts to the woman that he has been sent to Israel, though he has in fact just walked “out” of Israel, so as to what:  Escape the Pharisees?  To ostensibly engage with the ancient enemies of Israel? To bring judgement? Grace?

Even if we assume the best, that Jesus intended to be playful and/or jocular with the woman, surely he could have found a kinder way to do it than by calling her a “dog” (an offensive designation in our day, and way worse back then).

On this day that seems to go from bad to worse, Jesus isn’t even trying to make friends or influence people. The only positive response Jesus gives in the whole passage is his final affirmation of the woman who he has just insulted.

Ironing out the Wrinkles.

It is a confounding passage, to be sure.

Where I normally want to dig in and sift out some historical/Biblical/political/theological rationale for Jesus’ behavior—where I start with the assumption that Jesus Meek-and-Mild (or at least Midwestern polite) couldn’t possibly be so dismissive of eager listeners (i.e., potential converts)—today I’m wondering if he’s just plain tired of being beleaguered by all of these critics and petitioners and would-be followers.

Is he so harried that he’s grumpy and argumentative with everyone? Why else would Matthew cast him in such a negative light?

The Hardest Question

Is Jesus having a bad day? Why is he being so mean?


Mike Stavlund writes from a 5-car pile-up at the intersection of his Christian faith and real life. A husband of over 15 years and a father of 4 children, he lives with his wife and 3 daughters in a small house outside Washington, DC. He’s a part of an innovative emergence Christian community called Common Table, a co-conspirator with the Relational Tithe, and a proud part of the collective called Emergent Village. He is the author of the manuscript “Force of Will”, and blogs at


  1. Lori Anne says:

    I do read some passages in the Bible as Jesus showing anger, irritation, and exasperation. Often I “feel” a sense of his irritation in certain passages when Jesus asks his disciples the same questions, and repeatedly gets the same wrong answers. Or when they keep firing the same questions at him, and he has to repeat the same answers. Or when Peter loses faith and begins to sink on the water and Jesus says “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”. I read those with the feeling of exasperation as the parent of five children that I am, feeling that familiar irritation of, “No matter how many times I tell you . . .

    And so, yes, I do see the Jesus of my faith as having a range of human emotions while living in human form, among humans who cannot fathom the gift he is offering. He seems to worry, get angry, feel fear on the eve of his crucifixion, and he weeps with sadness. It is obvious he feels physical, human pain when he suffers during the crucifixion, he obviously feels love too, so why are we surprised when he exhibits a full range of human emotion? The thing is, I don’t necessarily see this as a sign of him being less divine. Maybe more so because he feels all of it. Because in spite of all the injustice and pain and suffering he endures at the hands of those he is trying to help, he chooses to go through with all of it, and in the end, he loves and forgives everyone and offers it all up to God.

  2. Lori Anne says:


  3. David says:

    Just a thought….I believe that the totality of the gospels excludes prejudice from the character of Jesus. What if he was high lighting his disciples prejudice by mimicking them through exaggeration. Feigned contempt, they had just remarked that “she cries after us” as if they were personally offended. It was a set up. I can see them standing there after the dog remark glaring “yea woman get away from us you filthy beast…. And then we find the only place in scripture the words “great faith” is recorded. In its context Jesus had just been discussing that it is what comes out of a person that determines clean…what came out of this female dog was the greatest faith Jesus had ever seen…..That must have left the boys scratching their heads…….She knew who he was, she knew God was merciful, and she was not leaving until she received his mercy, despite the circumstance, the evidence, and his harsh words. She stood fast. Now that is faith. It is easy to claim faith when times are good and you are hearing soft pleasant words, but what about when God does not seem to be listening or worse he just called you a dog. would you drop your head turn away in shame or would you say God you either is or you ain’t and I am saying that you is…Lord have mercy, you are merciful, have mercy on me now.. that is the faith of the Canaanite woman…..Faith=Belief in what is unseen and hope for what has yet manifested.

    • Suzanne says:

      David – interesting.
      I know this website is only an archive but..thought I would reply anyway. I will preach my first ever sermon on this scripture in August – and what you write is sort of the feeling I get.

      A part of me believes that Jesus was teaching the disciples a lesson. I want to believe that, as He called her a dog He turned to the disciples and thought: “Is this who you think I am? Is this how you want me to be? Are you going to stop me or just stand by?” But, can we envision Jesus doing so by demeaning this woman?

      IN a way I can because I believe that Jesus already knew that she could take it and would fight back and show true faith.


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