Trinity VIII 2011  

What faith you have

From the Oxford English Dictionary “Forward in speech and behaviour, unbecomingly ready to express an opinion or give a sharp reply; saucy, bordering upon cheeky. Said usually of children, young people or persons in an inferior position.” The answer, for which I cannot give a prize, is “pert” and the definition also perfectly describes the woman who accosts Jesus by the sea side somewhere between Tyre and Sidon.

Matthew succinctly describes Jesus as “withdrawing to the region of Tyre and Sidon“ after a very hectic series of encounters with crowds and questioning Pharisees, so we can imagine him with some of the disciples walking along the promenade looking at the Mediterranean but not going into or even on it, for ever since their encounter with the Red Sea the Hebrew people kept the sea well at bay. Perhaps the example of Jonah was also before them! Into this peaceful stroll, possibly accompanied by the first century equivalent of ice cream, there is an interruption, a woman crying out “Son of David, have pity on me, my daughter is tormented by a devil”. The disciples are horrified; the woman was a local, not even a Jew and here she is pushing her way towards Jesus and crying out ever louder “help me” so that Jesus replies with those hard words about only coming to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Just think what it must have been like for her, driven to distraction by her daughter’s affliction, being manhandled by the bodyguard of Galilean fishermen and her only hope seems to turn his back on her with cruel words.  All this drives caution and courtesy to the wind and pertness takes over in her instant reply to Jesus’ second response likening the inhabitants of Tyre to dogs. Things cannot get much worse than that; there is only one good dog in the bible and that is Tobias’ or perhaps the Archangel Raphael’s. It is not of this Jesus is speaking; these are the dogs who licked up the blood of Jezebel. So, out of her pertness comes the astonishing reply that even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Jesus is blown away by this and her wish is granted and we hear no more of this heroic lady. The disciples, not for the first time, are confused and bewildered at their master.

Jesus had a lesson to learn. John has him learn it at the well in Samaria and again from a woman who was not a Jew. His mission was to the whole world, to Samaritans and Canaanites and ultimately to Romans and Saxons and Masai and Chinese and Huns, which rather overthrew the teaching of the synagogue and the expectations of the Hebrew Messiah. The woman teaches us a lesson too. Sometimes we need to bombard God with our prayer and this has particular significance for, as I write this, London seems to be falling apart into violence and people I know and love are being threatened. Of course the Lord knows that we are concerned but we need to tell him and to tell others that we are telling him, for it is unlikely that there will be a selective lightening bolt destroying everybody in Tottenham or Hackney or Manchester under the age of 21. God tried that with Sodom and Gomorrah but the world doesn’t seem to be a better place as a result.

The woman was commended for her faith. Would our faith make us put ourselves in jeopardy, or even avoidable pain? Of course we cannot know how we would react but I have always thought that I would deny everything if the pincers were even put near my toe nails! But the woman wasn’t bothered about herself, she was consumed with anxiety about her daughter, about someone else; this is the difference.

Blundell’s school, with which I had a 20 year connection, once had as its head a remarkable man called Neville Gorton, an educational revolutionary who, in 1938 or thereabouts, engaged Eric Gill to work with the boys in the creation of an altar in the chapel: stone, square, carved and coloured. I was told by one who was at school in Gorton’s time that he breathed fresh air into every corner of the school and, in spite of a common room revolt and petitions from the staff to the Governors, he remained until preferred to the diocese of Coventry in 1942. There he had a vision for a new cathedral but here too he was frustrated by the cathedral authorities, who went instead for a very church shaped building where only the presiding clergy have the benefit of the wonderful windows. Gorton, however, made a great impact on the battered diocese and at his funeral it was said of him that “he forgot himself all over the place.” Many, in the company of Jesus, or even only seeing him in a crowd or at a distance, have “forgotten themselves all over the place”. If that happens we forget our toenails and the pain in our preoccupation with others, or just another; self is forgotten. If we don’t love anybody or, worse even, don’t think that anyone loves us, the prayer of faith inevitably becomes a dry and unreal activity, while praying for people we love and who love us illuminates our prayer, for often it is all that we can do. So we must persist and, even if there is no visible result and there is sadness and tragedy, it won’t be because we haven’t prayed hard enough, nor because our faith is lukewarm. As we persist maybe and please God, we shall have some intimation of the words of Jesus to the pert lady, “what faith you have”. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

            Aidan Mayoss CR