Is it okay to notice that Jesus can be a jerk sometimes?

peter_rescued_slideThe lectionary reading for this week is the familiar story of Jesus walking across the water in Matthew 14:22-33. It’s very easy to let your eyes glaze over when you’re looking at the story for the hundredth time. But there’s something about the text that bothered me reading it through this time and I’m not sure that it isn’t supposed to bother me. Peter has jumped out of the boat and done something that required way more faith than I would ever be able to muster: walking across the water to Jesus. And when he starts to sink, Jesus pings on him: “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Little faith? A man who just walked on water for the first time? Really Jesus?

Sometimes Jesus really does act like a jerk. When he’s on the road to Emmaus and he comes across two downcast disciples who are devastated by his death, what does he say in response to their expression of grief? “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25). Because the necessity of the crucifixion and resurrection of Israel’s messiah is entirely self-evident to any non-fool who isn’t slow to believe the words of the Hebrew prophets? Really Jesus? Sure, you can connect the dots retroactively so that the whole story fits together, but why would it make anyone “foolish” and “slow to believe” that they didn’t connect those dots on their own without Jesus’ help?

I would say there are two ways that we can domesticate the Jesus we meet in the Bible and make him into our little God-puppet. One way is to simply ignore the passages where he taunts and rebukes people in ways that seem unfair and to focus entirely on his tender words for children and tax collectors and prostitutes. This kind and sweet Jesus is never mean; he never calls people out on their sin; he just oozes with vague omnidirectional good-naturedness saying to us like Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley that we’re good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like us.

The other, much more subtle way to domesticate Jesus is to rationalize things he says that really should trouble us, like when he calls the Syrophoenician woman a bitch in Mark 7:27 since she had the nerve to ask him for her daughter’s healing when she wasn’t a Jew like he was. We think that we’re supposed to defend Jesus and show that we’re so enlightened that everything Jesus says makes sense to us. Peter clearly had little faith or he wouldn’t have fallen into the water after walking across it however many dozens of steps. Those Emmaus Road disciples sure were foolish not to know that the messiah had to be crucified and resurrected. Didn’t they read Isaiah’s suffering servant passage? It’s so obvious! That Gentile woman was so presumptuous to ask for healing from a Jewish rabbi. How dare she? This other kind of domesticated Jesus validates us in a different way; he gives us the mandate to be self-righteous jerks to other people, since we understand him perfectly and they don’t.

People who try to rationalize everything Jesus says no matter how abrasive are like the “friends” of Job who try to rationalize his suffering and ultimately get rebuked by the God who let Job suffer in order to win a bet with Satan (which is not at all morally problematic!). So many people who read the Bible want to become its master by making it completely make sense. I think Jesus messed with his disciples and messes with us as readers by saying things that should make us uncomfortable in order to see if we’re going to have the guts to talk back to him.

When Jesus rebukes Peter or the Emmaus Road disciples or the Syrophoenician woman unfairly, I don’t think it’s wrong to say: Really Jesus? How is it Christlike of you to talk that way? I have a feeling that he would wink and smile if we pushed back like that. I don’t think yes-men and yes-women are terribly useful to Jesus as disciples. Pretending that he makes perfect sense is actually a form of dismissing him because as long as we’ve got him all figured out, we don’t really need to change anything about ourselves.

I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “Wow, that’s pretty damn good for your first time walking on water.” Maybe it was arrogant of Peter to have to be the super-disciple who jumped out of the boat when everyone else was scared, and Jesus felt like he needed a little bit of ribbing to put him back in his place. He was probably laughing or winking when he said it. But I’m not allowed to say that conclusively because the text doesn’t say! The bottom line is that he helped Peter up, he explained the scriptures to the “foolish” Emmaus Road disciples, and healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. So all three stories end well, but there’s a jagged edge in each of them that ought to indefinitely resist our explanation.

Jesus is allowed to be subversive as a teacher. That can include saying rude and ridiculous things. Naming them as rude and ridiculous is a legitimate part of our learning process. There is a line of mystery that separates us from being able to completely understand Jesus. Those of us who try to domesticate or rationalize him are trying to play God. You might say we’re trying to be the ones who walk on water with Jesus while everyone else is scared and perplexed back in the boat. Maybe Jesus’ words “Oh you of little faith” are actually for those of us who try to make him make sense all the time. Do we trust him enough to admit that he doesn’t always make sense?

About Morgan Guyton

I’m the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA.

  • summers-lad

    Many years ago I was driving home from a truly excellent evening during a mission week at my church, and singing praise songs as I drove. I got home but stayed in the car, still singing. About half way through the second verse of one song I realised that it only had one verse and inspired creation of song verses just wasn’t something I had a gift of. The result is that the second verse was never finished, and the story of Peter walking on the water came to mind. Little faith? Yes, because he (like me) had been doing it until he realised he couldn’t.
    But I agree with you that there was likely a smile and a friendly teasing when Jesus spoke to Peter as well.

  • Paul Koopman

    We’re going through a sermon series by Bruxy Cavey (The End of Religion), and a thought occurs to me as I’m reading this. A central part of the story of the fall of Adam and Eve is also the origin of religion; Satan planted a seed in the human psyche that has persisted through centuries – that we are separated from God. Bruxy calls this a sort of divine separation anxiety. This might be a good way to understand what Jesus is doing in those examples where he’s dealing with his disciples, of whom we must admit exhibit much more faith than we typically do (at least here in North America). I think about it like this – we know those same disciples became the backbone of the early church; and most of them were willingly martyred in an effort to both preach the gospel, and inspire future generations. That doesn’t seem typical of their character prior to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection; something transformed them into the early pillars of the faith, the Christlike examples of self-sacrificial love. I would suggest that those gentle rebukes were not really rebukes, but reminders that the best they could do was still not enough to fulfill the purpose Jesus had in mind for them. They needed the sort of faith that could cut through that illusion of divine separation.

    The example of the Greek (or Syrophoenician) woman with the possessed daughter is similar in that it deals with a response of faith. I don’t think Jesus was xenophobic – that doesn’t seem consistent with his character. I suspect the language “toss it to the dogs” is more for the benefit of the people in the house with him. This woman didn’t even care about the insult – she just needed her daughter healed, and knew Jesus could do it. That would be a powerful illumination to the close friends that Jesus was likely relaxing with in private that evening.

    Not trying to rationalize, per se. But I think Jesus was *always* teaching something to someone. We all get that teaching in different ways. It doesn’t always make sense to us, because it may not always be meant for us. I think we all have the “ears to hear” some things, but not others. That’s how the gospel hits us all where we’re at.

  • http://snommelp.tumblr.com Joe

    Your final line reminded me of a conversation I had back in college: one of my buddies from choir half-jokingly threw one of those philosophical cliches at me, “could God create a rock so heavy that He couldn’t lift it?” To which I could only think to respond, “yes, and then God would lift it anyways.” My friend paused, gave me an appraising look, and said “thank you. I’m so tired of people trying to rationalize it.”

  • sharon peters

    “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”MATTHEW 15;27
    ever since I’ve read this I’ve been curious about jesus mission. was it up until this point that j defined his mission as to jews only and the syro woman was sent to remind him that he came for all ppl?

    • JoFlemings

      In Dante’s Inferno the lowest level of hell, the ones closest to Satan Himself are for those who betray their country, their families, their friends and their masters. Not murders or perverts or warmongers- betrayers. This is a concept long lost on us, but perhaps it has something to do with what Jesus was trying to teach this woman. She might have been someone who had attitude galore about the Jews, and had persecuted them in some way- even decrying the concept of a Messiah. The place she was from was THE Cosmopolitan locale in the region- like NYC might be to us in the US and Jesus was some podunk Jew prophet from Galilee- ew! For this woman to walz up and get her request might have fed in her some idea of entitlement- and with God we cannot approach Him on those terms- we aren’t bringing anything to the relationship because we are Americans, in designer jeans and blinged out with high tech gadgets. This woman needed to be humbled in order to receive what God had for her, which was not just the restoration of her child, it was the salvation of their souls- way more. In order to receive that… she needed the understanding that this reality was actually that- Jesus came from the Jews, and His people, His countrymen do have a special privilege before God because He chose to make this so, and we are duty bound to honor that in that context. This woman had done nothing with her life to serve God in anyway according to what was acceptable to Him- she had not worshipped Him according to any law He established and she had NO claim on His response to her except if He should desire to give it to her- and it was critical for her to realize that, to change her heart and to line her life up with that truth in order to really receive what He came to give her. That is why He spoke to her in this way. And her desperation and her love for her child overcame her pride as that light pierced her mind and grace moved her with faith to beg for mercy and compassion… not a shred of entitlement there, only complete dependence upon His kindness and condescension…He could not help but be moved! He is always hoping for love to win out in us-

  • Mike Ward

    Jesus is real. Jesus is alive. Jesus is Lord.
    Which of these do you disagree with? Because no one who believes all three would call Jesus a jerk.

    • murciano

      We have to be honest in acknowledging that there are passages that should give us pause with respect to Jesus’ behavior, particularly the passage with the Syrophoenician woman. Thinking through and grappling with them is a good and necessary thing. And, why resort to this kind of patronizing rhetorical questioning? If this really is your point of view, why not phrase it with love and with some forethought, and not as an accusation?

      • NonEuclideanGeometry

        murciano said: “We have to be honest in acknowledging that there are passages that should give us pause with respect to Jesus’ behavior, particularly the passage with the Syrophoenician woman. Thinking through and grappling with them is a good and necessary thing.”

        I agree. Acknowledging and looking into the behaviors of Rabbi Yehoshua (Jesus) which puzzle, shock, or otherwise disquiet us is a good thing. In fact, that’s probably what he wants–he wanted to get our attention and get a lesson across to us.

        But calling Rabbi Yehoshua a “jerk”–come on. You can’t view him with faith in him in your heart, then turn around and accuse him of doing frown-worthy and/or just plain wrong things when he doesn’t operate by your standards. That’s double-mindedness at best and what Mike Ward implied at worst.

        • murciano

          Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
          I agree the word choice is a little provocative. I admire your commitment to honoring the name of Jesus. I think I could learn some humility from you. (I know sometimes a person’s tone is difficult to gauge in these comments, but I do mean this genuinely) However, I also feel that religion should be able to stand some provocation. After all, the Bible demonstrates a rich history of godly people questioning God’s behavior.
          I think the goodness of the savior we are so familiar with, which is so well-established throughout the text, is really the reason that this striking event, this apparent display of xenophobia, makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps we’re using our own standards to some extent, but also we’re attempting to operate by a standard that he himself appears to set through all four books.

          • NonEuclideanGeometry

            Hi, murciano. Thanks for the good conversation–I’m getting good vibes from it so far. :-)

            - – - – - – - – - -

            murciano said: “I think the goodness of the savior we are so familiar with, which is so well-established throughout the text, is really the reason that this striking event, this apparent display of xenophobia, makes us uncomfortable.”

            Under the Covenant of Mount Sinai (the Old Covenant), Israel did not exist purely as a nation of ethnic Hebrews or ethnic Jews. The Law did indeed allow for non-Jews to join Israel (i.e. Exodus 12:48-49, see also Isaiah 56:3-7) and, pursuant to this, many did (i.e. Deuteronomy 29:9-14, Ruth 1:1-18). So, as a result, Israel was composed of Jews and non-Jews and, moreover, accessible to non-Jews, even before the New Covenant–the amended Covenant of Mount Sinai–was instituted by YHVH.

            So, when Rabbi Yehoshua (Jesus) talked about
            ● only being sent to Israel (i.e. Matthew 15:21-28),
            ● only helping Israel (i.e. Matthew 10:5-7), and
            ● the like,
            such statements still included helping both Jews and non-Jews who were legally recognized as Israel by YHVH. After all, Israel was supposed to be YHVH’s chosen people who would serve as YHVH’s priests (Exodus 19:5-6) and YHVH’s example (Deuteronomy 4:5-8) to the world.

            So no, Rabbi Yehoshua did not display any xenophobia–that is a conclusion which is based on a lack of facts. Frankly, but with all due respect, this is the kind of misinformed misinterpretation of the Bible which fuels things like the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. As believers, we’re supposed to be better than this.

            But, even then, many skeptics who adhere to egalitarianism still see the use of “chosen people” as unacceptable behavior by their standards regardless, even though this is an ideological nitpick at this point. So, they demand that Rabbi Yehoshua’s words be “updated” accordingly or, if necessary, Rabbi Yehoshua’s behavior be condemned. But, as I previously indicated, the problem lies with their standards, not the content of Biblical Scripture.

            - – - – - – - – - -

            murciano said: “However, I also feel that religion should be able to stand some provocation.”

            Yes, true, but what type of provocation? There is a difference between genuinely seeking answers with bigger measures and trying to appease skeptics and/or compromise with secular skepticism by using “seeker-sensitive” tactics.

          • murciano

            I am enjoying our exchange as well, thanks :^)

            I think your approach here is helpful. You are moving beyond the single text in question and describing a picture of Jesus that is painted holistically by his influence throughout all scripture.

            However, the next step that you seem to take is where I think I would (amicably) part ways. I’d say an approach that says “the problem lies with their standards, not the content of Biblical Scripture,” which attributes to scripture a certain invulnerability, is not a sustainable one, even though it does have its positive aspects, namely, a deep respect for scripture stemming from a deep respect for God. Though I respect this point of view, I don’t think this is a mantra that can be applied to every part of the Bible (we probably won’t ever be able to convince each other on that point). We are forced to explain (often uncomfortably) how every moral difficulty that confronts us fits into God’s character. To some extent, that is what is happening in Morgan’s post, so I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing at all; sometimes it reveals a deeper truth about what is in the text. But how does it look to the outside world to try to make something like genocide in Joshua fit into the character of the outsider-loving, enemy-forgiving Jesus? That’s my concern. Perhaps in addition to “provocation,” I should have mentioned self-scrutiny (not you, but religion in general).

          • NonEuclideanGeometry

            I’m glad to be of assistance, murciano. I’ve always found that edification is a two way street. :-)

            - – - – - – - – - -

            murciano said: “But how does it look to the outside world to try to make something like genocide in Joshua fit into the character of the outsider-loving, enemy-forgiving Jesus? That’s my concern.”

            First and foremost, we must recognize a critical, brutal truth: YHVH is a sovereign Creator King (Psalm 103:19, cf. Proverbs 21:30, Daniel 4:35, etc.)–the Earth and everything in it belongs to YHVH (Psalm 24:1, Deuteronomy 10:14, etc.). So, if and when YHVH deems something important and necessary to carry out, then he’s going to do it, regardless of if the affected people approve of it or not (ref. Isaiah 45:9, i.e. Romans 9). But, this idea runs in stark contrast to current-day Western society’s definitions and notions of “human rights” (including a fixation on using democracy) and, because of this, many people cannot stomach it. They would rather rationalize YHVH away as not existing, as if that solves the problem.

            Having said that, YHVH gave the fertile Promised Land (Exodus 13:5) to Israel–as YHVH’s priests (Exodus 19:5-6) and YHVH’s example (Deuteronomy 4:5-8) to the world–by right as Creator King. The location of this land and Israel’s presence in this location probably affected history in a certain, critical sense–I’ll look more into this later (I don’t have all the answers, lol).

            As for the conquest of the Promised Land in the Book of Joshua, before Isreal entered the land, the inhabitants were already aware of Israel’s presence and what YHVH did for Israel (Joshua 2:8-11). They could have joined Israel (see my previous post on this issue). Or, at the very least, they could have left the land. But, instead, most–by free will–chose to stay and fight. And, just as he did with Pharaoh (ref. Romans 9:17), YHVH used these conflicts to demonstrate his power to the ancient world. This fit right into the “our gods vs. your gods” aspect of ancient conflict which affected the ancient peoples’ beliefs.

            As for the issue of ending the voluntary conflicts with genocide, you have to remember that, unless a people were totally destroyed, their women would bear children who would grow up and continue the fight against Israel. The conflicts in question, if left to male combatants alone, would have persisted indefinitely, generation-by-generation, possibly even to the point of risking Israel’s very existence.

            But again, based on what I know right now, this issue boils down to accepting or rejecting YHVH’s authority in the matter of land ownership, both for the participants in these historical conflicts and the observers of history. If accepted, honoring YHVH’s authority as Creator King would have avoided this whole mess.

            Of course, I think that we’ll have to agree to disagree amicably here. Today’s sensibilities simply cannot understand or stomach such things.

            - – - – - – - – - -

            murciano said: “We are forced to explain (often uncomfortably) how every moral difficulty that confronts us fits into God’s character.”

            Yes, just like I tried to do immediately above. :-) But, unfortunately, current-day Western society is not always interested in understanding YHVH and why he does what he does before being outraged at what he did in the Bible. You just have to explain what you can and let the rest go.

            But, as difficult as this may be to do, you cannot resort to granting that YHVH makes mistakes and/or has character flaws according to the world’s standards, even in the most minor sense. As soon as you cross that line, then, systematically speaking, YHVH and Messiah Yehoshua become unreliable in general and your faith in him goes down the toilet.

            - – - – - – - – - -

            murciano said: “I’d say an approach that says ‘the problem lies with their standards, not the content of Biblical Scripture,’ which attributes to scripture a certain invulnerability, is not a sustainable one, even though it does have its positive aspects, namely, a deep respect for scripture stemming from a deep respect for God. Though I respect this point of view, I don’t think this is a mantra that can be applied to every part of the Bible (we probably won’t ever be able to convince each other on that point).”

            When I said “the problem lies with their standards, not the content of Biblical Scripture”, I was simply speaking about the specific case at hand.

            As for the status of Biblical Scripture in general, I think that we could agree that the original copies were inerrant and infallible. But, over time, certain errors have crept in through the different circumstances under which different people have handed Scripture differently. However, even so, I think that it has maintained a pretty high level of reliability.

            I think that the background behind the preservation of Biblical Scripture is this: YHVH preserves it. But, he uses fallible men to preserve it. So, there is a balancing act going on there which produces a certain consistent level of reliability and, at the same time, a certain consistent level of error. And, through having believers sort this out, he uses this unfortunate reality to train believers up in various ways

            - – - – - – - – - -

            murciano said: “Perhaps in addition to ‘provocation,’ I should have mentioned self-scrutiny (not you, but religion in general).”

            I agree that appropriate self-scrutiny is important. But, determining who needs what self-scrutiny is ultimately an individual matter. In the end, one’s journey is one’s journey. You just have to take your own spiritual journey–or not–and deal with the consequences when YHVH calls for an accounting of your life.

            That’s it. Blaming “religion”–collectives, monoliths, etc.–only goes so far before it becomes an excuse.

            Anyways, take care. It’s been fun. :-)

      • James M

        How about Matthew 23 :) ? It’s not exactly a very Christian way to talk – at least on the face of it. One sometimes wonders whether Christians try to be more Christian than Christ Himself…

        As for the SPW – my impression is that He was testing her.

    • JoFlemings

      You might be right- in those moments when I get frustrated with God, it is because of my lack of faith my secular preferences, my weakness and sometimes rebellion- so technically you are right. But these stories show us people who were right there with Him in person who struggled with those human issues and overcame them through His grace. Thankfully, He still works the same way!

  • Thomas Crichlow

    Are we only willing to be around Jesus when he feels warm and fuzzy?

    Why and when Jesus pushes back at the people around him does become part of the mystery of faith. And it is too easy to think of mystery as something soft and misty, but there are times when it has a ragged, raw edge to it.

    Do we simply turn away from Jesus when he pushes back? Or are we willing to abide in the midst of a rawness that we don’t understand?

    Continuing to ask what you seek, even after being rebuked, is something that requires a greater fullness of humility and determination; both Peter and the Canaanite woman have that.

    I needed to read your post now. I needed that reminder that sometimes Jesus pushes back.

  • GaryLyn

    A different take on at least one of these passages.
    When Peter responds to Jesus’ invitation to come to him by getting out of the boat, I picture Jesus thinking, “Oh my, that goofy many is going to actually do it.” To me, Peter’s question is a test of Jesus. This is the lack of faith that Jesus is rebuking.
    Anyway, a different perspective…but yes, I do think we have the tendency to domesticate Jesus with our rationalizing.
    Enjoyed the post!

  • JoFlemings

    I was just praying about this same thing this past week. He doesn’t always make sense, and He is confusing and frustrating at times… and there is a lot of room for in a relationship with Him for working through those issues and sentiments. But I want to share with you and your readers what my personal experience is so often when I fuss at Him about this kind of thing…. He gets hurt when I cross over the line and question His affection for me because He is doing something that is not the way I prefer, and He gets ‘offended’ with me when I judge Him rashly. What I mean by this is when I entertain the possibility that He might be other than He is– other than He has revealed, declared, acted, testified, and proven Himself to be, both through revelation, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit through His Church, and even in my own personal experiences or ebenezers, if you will. And what I mean by offended is that He is disposed to give Himself entirely to the soul that is willing to receive, and to deny something about Him is to set up a type of blinder or barrier to the work He is about- and it is incredibly rude, and disordered- and if He were not SOOOO patient– sometimes we just make a mess of ourselves, and it is not according to His preference for us. I hope this makes sense to someone.

  • NonEuclideanGeometry

    Morgan Guyton said: “Sometimes Jesus really does act like a jerk.”

    Morgan Guyton said: “Jesus is allowed to be subversive as a teacher. That can include saying rude and ridiculous things. Naming them as rude and ridiculous is a legitimate part of our learning process.”

    These are bad choices of words at best, even while offering disclaimers and qualifications to these comments. Applying names like “jerk” and adjectives like “rude” to someone implies that the said someone did something worthy of a frown and/or something plainly wrong.

    This issue depends on the angle in which you view Rabbi Yehoshua’s (Jesus’s) actions. Specifically, if you are applying your standards to his actions, then, yes, I suppose that you could reach those conclusions. But, if you are just trying to open-mindedly seek the truth behind what he does, then I don’t see how you could get to this conclusion–you’d be too busy reorienting and expanding the horizons of your perspective via spiritual growth.

    Similarly, this is why debating any skeptics who firmly don’t believe in the existence of “God” in general is pointless. They’re so busy evaluating and condemning “God” for not meeting their standards that they’ll never get around to open-mindedly seeking and freely understanding YHVH for who he really is.

    Listen, I’m all about questioning what is commonly accepted in order to get to the bottom of things and find the truth. But, with all due respect, your approach here comes across to me as–and there’s no easy way to say this–sloppy pandering to skeptical audiences.

    - – - – - – - – - -

    Morgan Guyton said: “There is a line of mystery that separates us from being able to completely understand Jesus.”

    When I read this, it feels like you are recalling the lesson of Isaiah 55:9, yet, at the same time, still turning around and judging Rabbi Yehoshua’s actions by your own standards. It’s like you can’t decide what point of view you are approaching the content of your blog post from.

    • pl1224

      Jesus was equally human as He was divine. Human standards are, to a certain extent, applicable to His words and actions. Denying Jesus His humanity is to attempt to limit the fullness of His being.

  • Guest

    Is it ok to notice YOU are a jerk? And a liar?
    Are you actually complaining that Christ isn’t ‘Christlike’ enough?
    If you don’t see how ridiculous that is, is it ok to notice you’re an idiot?

    • murciano

      Seriously? Before spewing venom all over the author, how about trying to understand some of the considered arguments he’s made here? Did you even get beyond the title?

      • Guest

        Yes, seriously. Of course I read it. Now if you’re all done fan-girling..

        • murciano

          Point me to your blog, and perhaps I’ll be your fangirl too ;)

    • pl1224

      Boy, did you ever miss the point!

      • Guest

        Explain.

        • Guest

          On second thought never mind, I see how you are.

        • pl1224

          Mr. Guyton is making the point that by smoothing out the rough edges of some of Jesus’ words and actions, we limit our ability to truly know Jesus in His full humanity. We also limit His ability to communicate with us, His fellow humans. By insisting upon understanding Jesus’ words and actions solely through the prism of His divinity, we deny Him the capacity to express fully one half of His nature, the half with which He communicates most intimately and effectively with us.


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