I’ve always admired great curmudgeons: men—they are always men; there is no polite word for a woman curmudgeon—who are at once witty and wise and aloof. They have both inspired and excused my own grumpiness. Of course, there’s more to being a curmudgeon than grumpiness, but an ungrumpy curmudgeon is as oxymoronic as a gloomy Pollyanna. Grumpiness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a curmudgeon.
Showering is a good time for thinking deep thoughts, and I was meditating on the character of the Bishop of Digne in Les Misérables, when a question popped unbidden into my head.
Was Jesus ever grumpy?
This question had nothing to do with Victor Hugo’s saint.
Clearly Jesus became angry. He overturned the tables where the bankers were exchanging money. He drove the sheep and goats out of the temple. He laid into the people who were buying and selling with a whip made of knotted cords. But anger is different from grumpiness. Jesus’ anger had a well-defined object. The Jews were effectively barring Gentiles from the one area of the temple where they were permitted to worship. Grumpiness is a diffuse irritability. It has no particular object but tends to take whatever comes. Someone who is grumpy does not want to be bothered, and nearly everything is a bother. It’s hard to see Jesus as grumpy.
However, it’s easy to see God as grumpy. In fact, most people, Christian or not, have had an impression of God as an irritable old man, sifting through people’s lives like a fastidious beggar going through other people’s trash. They see him take a discarded chicken leg, sniff it, grimace with disgust, and toss it aside. Or maybe he’s like your own father, always searching out your flaws, never satisfied with you, muttering under his breath when you come in the room and exuding an air of fault-finding and pickiness wherever he goes.
Jesus demolishes these images. (One of his favorite pastimes is smashing idols.) “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” “I do nothing except what I see my Father doing.” Or my favorite: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” God is not grumpy.
Maybe my admiration for grumpy old men is misplaced.