Sometimes Jesus says things we don’t want to hear. You know, things like, we should love our enemies, or forgive those who wronged, or stop ogling other human beings. Sometimes he’s not just giving us difficult instructions, but calling us out on our BS. I’m probably not the only one who has cringed in recognition when Jesus proclaims, “You hypocrites!” Here is a whole list of mean things Jesus said to people (followed by some apologetics.)
That list doesn’t include the passage that shook me as I’ve been making my way through Matthew, though. After Jesus explains that it isn’t what goes into the body but what comes out of it that makes it unclean, Peter asks for a better explanation. In the New International Version, Jesus responds, “Are you still so dull?” (Matthew 15:16)
I found myself wondering, “C’mon, Jesus, was that really necessary?”
Nobody likes to be talked to like they’re stupid, and I think that’s why this stung more than anything in the “mean things Jesus said” list does. Even though I can see myself in the hypocrites that Jesus uses harsh words upon, even though I understand that sometimes harsh words are necessary to shake people out of their comfort and smugness, this struck a different nerve. It doesn’t feel like Peter is doing anything wrong. I’m reminded of marriage advice that makes a distinction between a “complaint” (calling out a behavior that makes you unhappy) vs. a “criticism” — making a personal attack. This seems like the latter, an attack on Peter’s whole self. And this is not the Pharisees or the nameless masses, but at one of Jesus’ closest friends.
I looked up the passage in my other two Bibles to see if they all carry such a tone of Holy Irritation. They don’t.
From my Catholic Bible (Today’s English Version): “You are still no more intelligent than the others. Don’t you understand?”
And from my Inclusive Bible, the gentlest interpretation of all: “Do you still not understand?”
Goodness, translations matter. The NIV has me wondering why Jesus is being such a jerk. Today’s English version seems appropriately chiding: Just because you are my disciples doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone else. And in the Inclusive Bible, Jesus merely paraphrases what Peter has said: He still doesn’t understand.
But it’s Jesus’ harshness in the NIV that sticks with me, much as we’re more likely to remember criticism than compliments. It’s convenient to write it off as a bad translation (and I’ve heard that the NIV is not popular with Bible scholars). Still, I had some serious wrestling to do before I pulled out the translations that gave me a Jesus I found easier to live with.
In any Bible story, I think there are so many layers that we miss thousands of years later. I am very likely missing something about this interaction with Peter.
Yet, before I found gentler translations, I found myself thinking of something Anne Lamott says about Jesus in her book, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. In one essay, she explains that she fell in love with Jesus because he “had to figure things out just like the rest of us.” She uses the example of his meeting with the Canaanite woman to show that he had to learn to overcome his culture’s prejudices. Interestingly, this story follows the one in which Jesus essentially calls Peter a dullard (according to NIV).
We’re taught that Jesus was “like us in all things except sin.” For a while, it was hard for me to wrap my head around Jesus’ harsh response to Peter without counting it a sin. Isn’t it sinful to verbally abuse someone?
But is it a sin to make a mistake?
Perhaps this story, occurring fairly early in Jesus’ ministry, catches him on his steep learning curve. Perhaps he was still learning the best way to teach, to talk to people, to bridge the gap between what he understood and what the rest of us did. Perhaps this moment of impatience, like the passages where Jesus weeps or begs God to spare him the crucifixion, is simply one of his most human moments.
This is an interpretation, this is a Jesus, that I can live with. Like Anne Lamott, it’s Jesus’ humanity that draws me most to him. Impatience, contradictions, messiness and all.