I’ve never heard my father shout or mutter a “four-letter word.”
Only once has he knowingly and intentionally “flipped-off” another in my presence. Though it happened when I was ten or twelve, it’s vivid for its startling uniqueness. He drove. I sat in the passenger seat. Along a Sacramento-area freeway, another driver swerved in front of our car. That abrupt act caused Dad to jerk his car into the next lane, speed past the offending driver, and then angle back into the lane, ahead of the other car. He raised his right hand and gave the classic middle-fingered gesture.
The 9th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 14, 2011
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 16:26)
Didn’t think Dad knew what it meant. I knew because of friends who “flipped people off” in the schoolyard. Friends’ parents also did it, some with great frequency. So I knew right away what my father had done. And yet, how had he known?
My father became physically angry around me . . . once. Other than an occasional spanking—all of which I probably deserved—I was never hit, struck or harmed by Dad. Nada. Zilch. But there was that single time, during Christmas holidays, when we played at the dining room table with a new chess set. On our third or tenth game I checkmated him. He exploded with a roar and his hand swept across the board, knocking the remaining pieces across the table and onto the floor. We never played chess again. I still wonder what really bothered him on that day. Until his dementia in recent years, his anger rarely surfaced in my presence.
Dad batted a million flyballs to hone my baseball skills. When Mom was away, he cooked his famous silver dollar pancakes. He took our family on trips across the country. We went to San Francisco Giants games. I’ll always remember traveling to visit his far-flung clients, spending the whole day together. The adventure always included lunch at a special diner, like Hal’s Grubstake in Yuba City.
In the infrequent times he became angry, where I heard him say something mean, he had a favorite phrase: “That _________ (man, woman, person at church, an acquaintance or a stranger) is a dog in a manger.”
For the longest time, I didn’t know what it meant. Dogs were good. Right? Based on his childhood stories, Dad owned dogs as a kid. And the manger? While a strange place for a birth, the Prince of Peace was born there so it had to be a good place. Right?
Eventually I learned how “dog in the manger” became an insult. First used in the 16th century by William Bullein, the phrase referred to a dog selfishly keeping food from other animals. It summed up churlish behavior, a spiteful reaction to another’s need.
Did my Dad, away from me, curse like the proverbial drunken sailor? Was the sweep of his hand across a chessboard a singular incident or the awful tip of a cruel iceberg? Don’t know. Around me he carefully measured the words of anger or frustration that he felt. That’s why his brief flare of anger or the one-time-only extension of his middle finger became etched in my memory. Like most children I eventually discovered my parents weren’t perfect. And yet I’m thankful to have been raised in a home where everything Mom and Dad did involved making sure their kids were loved and protected. We kids were treasures. But moments unfolded, events took place, statements were made, confrontations occurred, and I began to see my parents were flawed. They were, gasp, human.
Once, according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus called a woman a dog. When a Canaanite mother seeks help for her ailing daughter, Jesus berated her by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In reading Matthew 15:21-28, it doesn’t take a Biblical scholar to figure out the “children” are Jews. The Israelites. The chosen. It also doesn’t take much to figure out Jesus understood this woman, this stranger, as no better than a dog. But she persisted, turning Jesus’ own words against him, challenging him to see a different way.
Is it not the most human of encounters for Jesus? Using my father’s phrase, Jesus acted like “a dog in a manger.”
From the beginnings of the Christian faith, believers have struggled about Jesus’ divinity vs. humanity. Sadly, literal blood has been shed over this debate. And certainly now, two thousand years later, there’s no agreement among Christians about Jesus’ status.
But this I believe . . . Jesus was fully human, and one of the most telling, and humbling, hints comes in his confrontation with a woman in need. How grateful I am that Matthew (and Mark) had the courage to include this moment. Jesus acted churlish. Then, through the bold words of a stranger, his mind and heart were changed. For my sense of faith, this scene matters immeasurably more than walking on water or feeding five thousand. I glimpse a flawed Jesus who still can boldly and singularly reveal a God of incredible compassion at work within him and always for us.