My first teaching position was at a small university in Memphis. My department was the “Department of Religion and Philosophy,” housing four theologians and two philosophers. I taught most of the philosophy courses (five classes per semester—that’s a lot, in case you’re wondering); the other philosopher on staff had a reduced teaching load because he was also the Dean of the School of Humanities.
Peter was also the most awkwardly, painfully introverted, and shy adult human being I have ever met. Every time I describe myself as an off-the-charts introvert (which I am), I remember Peter and am thankful that I’m not that introverted. Peter was a fifty-something bachelor (there were rumors that he had been on a date once a couple of decades earlier). One of his passions was trains. In the basement of his small house, Peter had a model train village that rivalled anything I had ever seen in a large museum. Before long, I learned about Peter’s other passion.
During my first year at the university, I attended an in-house production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a powerful play about the Salem witch trials. Written in the 1950s, it is also clearly an allegory for McCarthyism. Perusing the program as I waited for the play to begin, I was astounded to read that the important role of Reverend John Hale would be played by Peter. “This will not be good,” I thought. I could not imagine anything more incongruous than this guy—whose introversion and awkwardness were legendary on campus—playing a major role in a famous drama on stage.
Long story short, Peter was brilliant. By the end of the first act, I had completely forgotten that the actor playing Hale with such nuance, insight, and fervor was my strange, mousy colleague. It was Peter, but it wasn’t. Whatever internal depths he was reaching into on stage were deep waters that I had never suspected the existence of. Peter had not been temporarily invaded by a thespian spirit—what I witnessed on stage was just a Peter no one ever saw except when he was acting.
For the remainder of my three years in Memphis, I often wondered why Peter never brought the “Peter” I saw on stage, so confident and comfortable in his own skin, into his “real” life off stage. I suspect that everyone has been urged by someone in their lives—an authority figure, parent, grandparent, significant other, boss—to “be your best self,” or to “put your best foot forward.” These can be annoying clichés, but they reflect our general awareness that each of us chooses to conceal as much as we reveal.
The idea is that an integrated person is a healthier person than one who compartmentalizes, only allowing certain aspects of themselves to emerge in rare and narrowly defined circumstances. But what if there are some parts of my “self” that I hide because I don’t like them, because they might reveal character flaws and weaknesses that I would prefer no one know about? Does my “best self” include even my feet of clay? These are central questions in one of my favorite texts from the gospels; Mark’s version of the story is next Sunday’s gospel reading.
As is typical in Mark’s gospel, the account is relatively brief and sparse. Permit me to use Matthew’s slightly extended version, in which a number of things are going on. We learn from the disciples that the Pharisees are offended by something that Jesus recently said; Jesus’ lengthy response essentially reduces to “Big deal. That’s their problem.” Jesus is still pontificating as he and his entourage hit the road for the next town, undoubtedly still heated by self-righteous energy.
As the group presses forward, a woman elbows her way to within shouting distance of Jesus. Her accent and clothing show that she is a Canaanite, a non-Jew, but that doesn’t stop her from doing whatever she can to attract Jesus’ attention because she has a big problem. Her daughter is “tormented by a demon,” and she knows by reputation that this itinerant rabbi is also a healer. He has cast out demons before.
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” she screams at the top of her lungs. And she keeps screaming—her daughter’s health and well-being matter more than the fact that as a woman and as a foreigner, she has no reason to think that anyone, let alone Jesus, will take notice of her.
At first, Jesus simply ignores her. He’s too busy, too tired, too annoyed by the crowds, too something to be bothered with this woman. But she continues screaming for his help, so much so that now it’s getting embarrassing. “Send her away,” a disciple or two mutters to him. “She keeps shouting after us.” “Jesus Christ” (really), Jesus finally sighs. “Enough already.” Turning to the annoying foreigner, he says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Ignoring this rather gentle dismissal, she simply gasps, with tears flowing down her cheeks, “Lord, help me.” That should work, right? This is Jesus, after all, the ultimate good guy who never turns down an opportunity to help the needy who come across his path.
But no. Jesus counters that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Oh my. That’s not very nice. And we know from other stories that Jesus has often addressed the needs of non-Jews without hesitation. The hero of one of his best stories, the Good Samaritan, is a non-Jew. So, what the hell’s his problem?
The simplest explanation is that he just isn’t in the mood. Just as all human beings are prone to have—and he was one, after all—he’s having a tough day and he’s not at his best. He doesn’t feel like helping this foreign person, and has provided a perfectly good rationalization for why he doesn’t have to. End of story—the demons can have your daughter.
Not quite. This woman is not only insistent, but she’s also as quick on her feet as Jesus is. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!” Touché! In your face, holy man! This is impressive—her retort is the sort of thing that I always come up with hours after the conversation is over and I’m alone. “Man, I should have said . . .” But despite her panicked concern for her daughter, the unnamed woman is able to match Jesus one-liner for one-liner with her daughter’s health, perhaps her life, at stake.
And even more impressively, it works. Something here, her persistence, her intelligence, her lack of regard for propriety, cuts through Jesus’ bullshit. “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” “And her daughter was healed instantly.” The Jesus posse continues on its way and we never hear of this woman again.
What’s the takeaway? Without the exchange between Jesus and the woman, this tale would be indistinguishable from dozens of other accounts of persons healed by Jesus. Why does Mark, then Matthew, choose to tell the story in this fashion? In the estimation of many, Jesus is the ultimate and cosmic “Mister Perfect”—their faith depends on it. So why make a point of showing that even Jesus had off days, could be rude and judgmental, and had clay body parts just as we all do? In addition to driving home the “Jesus was a human being” point, one the Nicene Creed tells Christians every Sunday but that we tend to ignore, there’s a more direct behavioral lesson to be learned here.
Jesus listened. Even on a bad day crowded with distractions and annoyances, he was able to hear the truth, recognize he was being an ass, and wake up. We all have bad days, many more than Jesus did undoubtedly, and we tend to use “I was having a bad day” as a justification for all manner of bad behavior, even to those we love the most. The story of Jesus having a bad day lets us know not only that the best of us occasionally fail to live up to expectations, but also that such failures need not be debilitating. Each of us can hear the truth and change a bad day into a not-so-bad one. Even Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I appreciate that the lectionary-masters include this story every year as a Sunday gospel text during Ordinary Time. I find it refreshing, after weeks of evocative parables and blockbuster miracles, to encounter Jesus as a human being struggling with, and getting on top of, a bad day. Putting one’s best foot forward and seeking to be one’s best self is all well and good, but sometimes it’s helpful to hear that managing to be human is also a reasonable goal.