Sermon for Sunday, 14th August 2011 (Eighth Sunday after Trinity/Proper15)
‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ Matthew 15:12
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 Matthew Chapter 15 has some fascinating insights the character and mind of Jesus.
Jesus has annoyed the Pharisees and has become frustrated with his disciples. ‘Are you also still without understanding?’ he asks Peter in verse 16. ‘Still without understanding’, says Jesus. They have still not learned. 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 wants to escape, ‘Jesus left that place and went away’, says verse 21. He just wants some peace and quiet; he wants to shut out the world for a while. But as soon as a woman hears he is in her area, she ‘came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’
Jesus’ response to the woman is to ignore her. ‘But he did not answer her at all’, says Saint Matthew in verse 23.
The disciples are embarrassed at the woman’s demands. ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us’. The woman is creating a scene and she is not going to be easily deflected from getting a response from Jesus. Jesus’ answer to the disciples in verse 24, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, is not going to an answer that the woman accepts.
The woman is determined. Verse 25 tells us, ‘she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me’ and 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. ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’, he says in verse 26. 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 their culture it was still very offensive to be compared to a dog, look at canine references in the Scriptures.
The woman responds with an equally sharp reply in verse 27,’Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table’.
‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish’, exclaims Jesus in verse 28. Is there a sense there that he has put his hands up in acknowledgement that he has not treated the woman as he might have done? 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—And her daughter was healed instantly.
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 Canaanite 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 turned on to Saint Matthew Chapter 17:17, we would again encounter Jesus feeling angry, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?’ he says to his disciples who have failed to respond to a man who has brought to them an epileptic boy. 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, ‘Bring him here to me’ he says, and the boy is healed.
The late Senator Bobby Kennedy had a motto, ‘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, instead,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.
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