The 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.
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?