“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Matthew 15:26
Have you ever lost your temper and then regretted doing so? When we read Saint Matthew Chapter 15, it seems that might even have happened to Jesus; the Gospel reading offers us insights into his character and mind.
Earlier in Chapter 15, Jesus has annoyed the Pharisees and has become frustrated with his disciples. “Are you also still without understanding?” he asks Peter in verse 16. Perhaps we remember teachers in schooldays who would have slapped the desk in frustration when they asked such a question.
“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.”
What is Jesus feeling at this point? We do not know for 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 would not include stuff like this, you would not include the words that Jesus then speaks.
“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 should not be given to the Gentiles, to those who were not Jewish. The word he uses has been suggested by some Bible commentators 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”.
Jesus recognizes the woman’s sincerity, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish”, he exclaims 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 that we should be people who are never cross; 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 is fine just to accept wrong things, but when we feel cross, when we feel bad-tempered, what is important is that our anger achieves something positive. 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.
Christians 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, 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 things.