Ken Evers-Hood: 'The irrational Jesus'

Detail from book cover "The Irrational Jesus." / Wipf and Stock Publishers

In this excerpt from his new book, a Presbyterian pastor writes that the full, ‘irrational’ humanity of Jesus that causes him to make mistakes and regrettable statements is the same humanity that generates his compassion and hunger for justice.

Do we really believe Jesus is fully human? And if we do, what do we mean by fully human? Even though here and there I hear people acknowledge Jesus’ full humanity, most of the time in the church when we talk about Jesus we are long on his divinity and very short indeed on his humanity. And when we do talk about his humanity, it’s through such a stained-glass lens the picture we see feels about as real as a Hollywood action hero. This is a problem. When we overemphasize Jesus’ divinity, we betray the surprising and radical orthodox claim that Christ is mysteriously fully human and fully divine, which is indeed a problem for those who care about tradition and our connection with our grandmothers and grandfathers in the faith. And when we don’t have language to describe Jesus’ humanity, we wind up making tortured interpretations of the Scriptures in the attempt to explain away Jesus’ less heroic moments.

I believe in a predictably irrational Jesus. By describing Jesus as predictably irrational, I’m arguing that the evangelists offer portraits of Jesus honest enough to show the presence of powerful emotion, a limited ability to foresee the future, physical limitation, and a remarkable lack of self-interest. I’m not saying Jesus is entirely unhinged. But in his full humanity, Jesus is limited by time and place and by imperfect information, and he experiences the same heuristic shortcuts and predictable blind spots as the rest of us. An irrational Jesus may sound like bad news, but it isn’t. While Jesus is as constrained by his humanity as we are, it isn’t all negative. In line with Dan Ariely’s view of irrationality as having an upside, I will show that the same irrational humanity that causes Jesus to make mistakes and regrettable statements is the same irrational humanity that generates his compassion and hunger for justice.

To give us a clear outline of where we’re headed, irrationality in Jesus’ life falls into four major categories: the presence of strong emotion in Jesus’ life, the limited knowledge Jesus possesses, the mistakes Jesus makes in the Gospels, and the adaptive behaviors Jesus employs that are consistent with the actions behavioral theorists would expect of humans subject to cognitive limitations. The self-emptying that marks the teachings of Jesus and his sacrificial death and joyous resurrection merit their own discussion in the next chapter. …

… Few pericopes in the New Testament inspire more defensiveness and indignation than Jesus’ conversation with the Syrophoenician woman. While Jesus is seeking some peace and quiet in Tyre, a local woman with a suffering daughter discovers Jesus and requests his help. Jesus delivers this chilling response: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). Referring to the children of Israel and the Gentiles, Jesus tells the woman that he is interested in helping Jews first. It is only possible to understand “dogs” as a slur aimed at Gentiles.

The interpretive gymnastics inspired by this ignominious moment testify to the anxiety a fully human Jesus provokes. One of the more daring interpretations is that Jesus was not actually saying anything harsh to the woman at all. These folks point out the word Jesus uses for dogs here is tois kunariois, the diminutive form of dog. In this reading Jesus is not calling her or other Gentiles dogs but something more like little puppies. In this interpretation Jesus is really just using a literal pet name for the woman, which should be heard by the reading community as endearing. William Barclay hypothesized that Jesus was playing with the woman, using a jesting tone, and smiling to let her know he was not intending his words with cruel intent. Others attempt to salvage Jesus by arguing that while what he says is cruel, he only means it to test the woman. While this interpretation at least acknowledges the harsh tone used by Jesus, scholars such as David Lose point out that Jesus’ statement doesn’t sound like a test. Rather, it seems his statement was a thoughtless remark offered without reflection -- something all human beings are prone to doing (especially when discovered while hiding out on sabbatical).

The better reading is that Jesus in his full humanity makes a thoughtless statement. Perhaps due to the strong short-term emotion of being bothered while lying low, Jesus speaks rashly and angrily. Perhaps because of the representativeness heuristic, Jesus falsely assumes this Gentile woman was not intellectually or emotionally worth his time. Perhaps it is simply because Jesus is exhausted. Remember those Israeli clemency hearings and what happened to the judgment of the parole board as the day wore on? When we’re tired, we’re simply not our best selves -- and that goes for Jesus, too.

Whatever the reason, the woman surprises Jesus and the reader by giving back as good as she gets. Called an unworthy dog, the Syrophoenician woman spits back, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). The woman deftly accepts the label of dog given to her by Jesus, pointing out that the dogs in his analogy are still fed. Realizing himself bested, what else can Jesus do but respond, “For saying that you may go -- the demon has left your daughter” (7:29). At this point one can sense Barclay might have been right about Jesus smiling; it was just that Barclay was wrong about why and when Jesus smiled. One can imagine a knowing smile crossing Jesus’ face as he responds to this woman’s brilliant riposte, a generous acknowledgment of his mistake.

Peter Hawkins of Yale notes the full humanity of Jesus on display in this passage: “There is one occasion, however, that stands out among these human moments -- an occasion when we see him learn something new and, as a result, become someone different; as recorded by Mark as well as Matthew, Jesus is brought up short by an unexpected truth. Not only does he change his mind, but does so in a breathtaking 180-degree turn. Most astonishing of all, it is a pagan woman who makes him do it.” While initially it may be difficult to accept that Jesus in his full humanity is capable of weak moments, ultimately it makes for a more spartan exegesis with a strong ability to preserve the plain sense meaning of the text.

Excerpted from “The Irrational Jesus: Leading the Fully Human Church” by Ken Evers-Hood, published by Wipf and Stock Publishers. Copyright 2016 © by Ken Evers-Hood. Used by permission. All rights reserved.