When you think of Jesus in the gospels, what images come to mind? Maybe, like me, you think of Jesus in the way we all know and love: He has compassion on the crowds, heals the lepers, raises the dead and endures the cross, identifying with us all the way to death. As God incarnate, He is both acquainted with being human and a model for being human.
But in one extended passage from the Gospel of Mark, this comforting image goes off the rails. Starting in chapter 7, He proceeds to:
- Use an ethnic slur (7:24-30)
- Sigh under the weight of exasperation and stress — twice (7:34, 8:11-13)
- Go into a tirade over a misunderstanding (8:14-21)
- Ask a question that may indicate insecurity about His mission (8:27-30)
You don’t hear this perspective from the pulpit very often. It’s not the way I’ve read these passages in the past. But taken together as a narrative, they present a picture of Jesus considerably more unsettling than,“gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”
That picture, in turn, raises an equally unsettling question: If this is God become human, what does it say about God — or about us?
Jesus and the Price of Fame
Context first. The opening chapters of Mark deal a lot with the dynamics of celebrity. Jesus casts out one demon and heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and instantly crowds are pressing on Him. They seek Him so ardently that He can’t even enter towns. They pack His house so tightly that four people have to cut open a roof just to lower down their paralytic friend. He has a message for the ages, but communicating it is difficult in the constant crowds looking for healing and miracles. His fame draws the wrath of the Pharisees, who seek to destroy Him.
That’s enough to knock anyone off his game.
So it may explain the oddities in Mark 7:24. First, this Son of God, specifically called “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), goes to …Tyre? A Gentile city? It makes no sense in terms of His mission. But maybe the next sentence provides the key: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know He was there.” It sounds like a retreat, an effort to escape the maddening crowds so He can center Himself.
Then comes the ethnic slur. Despite His best attempts at solitude, a Syrophoenician woman begs Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He calls her a dog. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27).
Other signs of exasperation soon arise. The Pharisees ask Him for a sign from heaven, “and He sighed deeply in His spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign?’ ” (8:12). When His disciples realize they have forgotten to bring bread, He tells them to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Herodians” (8:15). They take Him literally, and He lets them have it: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (8:17-18)
Shortly thereafter, He asks His famous question: “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). I have often heard this passage (like the story of the Syrophoenician woman) interpreted as Jesus testing the people before Him — gauging the depth of their faith and understanding. But the ruminations of author and editor Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic have always haunted me:
“This is one of the most resonant questions in the whole of the New Testament. It is the question, it seems, of a man who wishes to disturb but who is also Himself disturbed; of a man who has somehow found Himself in deeper waters than anticipated; of a man at once baffled and intrigued by a destiny that He may have begun to glimpse but of which He is not fully aware. And thus, seeking guidance, seeking perhaps to ken the range of possibilities, Jesus put the question to His followers. It is an affecting and very human moment.”
It’s easy to assume that Jesus, being God, knew His full destiny beforehand, right up to the empty tomb. But what if Jesus, being human, couldn’t see the whole future? Or what if, at this difficult point in His mission, He started questioning what He did know?
Disturbed by Whom?
If this Jesus makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. I would much rather deal with the healing, compassionate, truth-speaking Jesus who surrendered His life in the ultimate act of love and rose again to give us eternal life. Yes, it’s true that Jesus came not only to comfort but also to unsettle. But I expect His truth to unsettle, His penetrating words — not these accounts in which Jesus is all too, well, human.
Maybe, though, it’s not Jesus I’m uncomfortable with.
In this cranky Jesus, I see myself — the parts of myself I like less. Take the issue of bias and prejudice. As God, Jesus surely cherished the value of all people, Jew or Gentile; as human, He grew up immersed in a human culture, with all the built-in biases and prejudices and filters that human cultures transmit from one generation to the next. Often, people don’t even know they have a bias until some event brings it to light. So when I read the story of the Syrophoenician woman, it reminds me that, despite all my efforts to eradicate my biases, they still rise to the surface on occasion, and I realize how far I still have to go.
Similarly, the other parts of this Mark passage call my “less honorable parts” to mind. I have felt sigh-inducing exasperation in the face of stress and human stupidity. I’ve lost my temper more times than I care to count. I spend way too much energy questioning God’s call on my life. Did He really ask me to write articles like this one, or work with my current employer, or take on the other commitments that make up my life? Did I completely misunderstand him?
None of these behaviors is particularly praiseworthy. It is easy to call them sin, and often we do. But then how could the sinless Son of God act in these ways? That conflict leads me to wonder whether the line between sin and frail humanity is less clear than we sometimes think. Perhaps Mark is presenting these behaviors as residing in a gray area of our souls: less than the ideal, but quintessentially human.
Part of growing toward God, then, is working through attitudes and behaviors like those in the Mark passage. But even while doing that, I strangely take comfort in this cranky Jesus. When I see Jesus knocked off His game, I learn that getting knocked off one’s game is human. This gives me the freedom to be gracious with myself in difficult times, to receive God’s grace more fully. Jesus “learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Why should I be any different?
As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes on Christian spirituality, conflict and dialogue. He authored Why CanÕt We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart, and his articles have appeared in numerous Christian publications.