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.
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?
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 MikeStavlund.com.