“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.” Mark 7:24
Did you ever think about what makes bad tempered people the way they are? Did you ever wonder why some people are cross?
As Christians, we are brought up from our earliest age to be polite, to smile, to be tolerant, to accept whatever happens to us, to turn the other cheek. Anyone familiar with the television series The Simpsons will probably have seen Homer Simpson’s Christian neighbour Ned Flanders, Flanders accepts everything that happens to him with good grace. Ned Flanders is a drip, he is completely wet, Ned Flanders never ever hits back, even when he’s in the right.
We have taken Jesus’ command, that we shouldn’t judge others in case we are judged ourselves, to the extreme where we feel we shouldn’t say anything to anyone about anything. We’ve probably heard the saying that we shouldn’t criticize another man until we’ve walked a mile in his shoes. It has been so overused that it has taken on a humourous form, “Don’t criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes, because by then he will be a mile away and you will have his shoes.”
There sometimes seems to be almost an expectation that Christians are to be doormats for everyone. Amongst the politically correct people in our world, Christians are the villains. We are to accept every insult and every attack and must not protest when the media make little of our faith. When Jesus talked about turning the other cheek he surely did not envisage that would include meekly turning a blind eye to things we knew were wrong.
Are there times when it’s OK to be cross about things? Are there things we should be bad tempered about?
The Gospel reading from Saint Mark chapter seven has some fascinating insights the character and mind of Jesus.
Jesus is tired and feeling jaded—if we believe in what we say in the Creed we accept that Jesus was fully human and that tiredness and world-weariness were part of what it meant to fully take on being human.
Jesus goes to a house and he doesn’t want anyone to know he is there—he just wants some peace and quiet; he wants to shut out the world for a while. But as soon as she hears he is there, a Syro-Phoenician woman comes bursting in and wants Jesus to heal her daughter.
Jesus gives her a sharp reply. I always find it to be one of the reassuring things about the Gospels that they never leave out the awkward bits—if you were making the story up, you wouldn’t include stuff like this. “You don’t give the children’s bread to the dogs”, he says. What he means is that he has come to teach and to heal the Jewish people and what is meant for them shouldn’t be given to the Gentiles, to those who were not Jewish. The word he uses is suggested by some to mean puppies rather than dogs, but in the Middle East it was still very offensive to be compared to an animal.
The woman responds with an equally sharp reply—even the dogs get the children’s crumbs. “For such a reply, you may go,” says Jesus, “the demon has left your daughter”.
“For such a reply”, says Jesus. He is acknowledging that his words deserved the response they got. The irritation and the frustration he felt at being disturbed at the very moment when he needed rest and quietness are redirected in a positive way to addressing why the woman has broken into his quietness—”you may go; the demon has left your daughter”.
In his humanity and in his tiredness, Jesus has felt cross. He has been irascible. We cannot tell from the words on a page what his tone of voices was like, but it’s possible, just possible, that he may even have sounded rude to those who heard his words.
What matters is not how he felt but how he responded to those feelings. When we read the story of the temptations in the wilderness, we see Jesus having feelings of temptation, but when he recognizes those feelings he responds by rejecting the power of Satan. When he recognises that he has spoken crossly to the Syro-Phoenician woman, he responds by directing his anger towards the cause of her pain and distress, by directing his power against the power that was holding her daughter.
If we read through the Gospels we see Jesus becoming enraged on a number of occasions, the most famous moment being when he went into the Temple and drove out the money changers who were making a profit from poor people.
The Gospels do not teach us to be like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, they do not teach us that we should be people that everyone walks over. What the Gospels teach us is that we should be cross in the right direction.
There is nowhere in the Gospels where Jesus says that it’s OK just to accept wrong things, when we feel cross, when we feel bad-tempered what is important is that our anger goes in the right direction. If we move on through Mark Chapter 7 there is the healing of the man who could neither hear nor speak and when he is healed we are told that Jesus, “looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh”. To me those words suggest that Jesus felt a weariness and a frustration with the world, but he focuses himself not on expressing his feelings, but on changing the things that cause those feelings.
The late Senator Bobby Kennedy once said, “Don’t get mad, get even”. Christians aren’t in the business of revenge, but we should be in the business of changing things that make us mad. We should be in the business of changing things that are wrong. When things aren’t right, don’t be like Ned Flanders and smile sweetly, complain. When things aren’t right, don’t moan to the person next to you at work, sit down and write a letter. When things aren’t right, don’t store up all the crossness and anger inside, ask yourself why you are angry and what you are going to do about it.
Jesus felt tired at times, he felt weary, he wished people would go away and leave him alone, but he gets his anger focused in the right way. It’s OK to feel bad tempered, it’s OK to feel cross, what matters is being like Jesus, what matters is changing the world.
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church at 9 am on Sunday, 6th September