Come Holy Spirit, and enkindle in the hearts of your faithful, the fire of your Love. Amen.
“She is not as old as I – as I am old,” my grandmother would correct me. No matter if I tried to explain why my sister should not be allowed the same access to the piano, or if I argued for the larger piece of my grandmother’s skillet-browned “Sugar Candy,” my maternal “Gran” (as she preferred to be called) did not tolerate a first-person, objective-case pronoun when her grandson made a comparison to himself. All these years later, I now elicit my children’s eyerolls for correcting their grammar with equal fastidiousness and relentlessness – “I don’t care if it’s ‘correct,’” one of them will argue with me, “‘He did not score as well as I,’ sounds ridiculous. Literally, no one talks like that.”
For my grandmother, speaking well intended to convey respect for one’s interlocuters, as in, “I admire you enough that I will resist those many temptations to split my infinitives, catalogue non-parallel series, and speak passive voice.” In her house, words mattered and expressed affection as clearly as her “I love you.” She modelled proper speech to equip us grandchildren for what she hoped would be our highest possible successes.
While I remain grateful for my grandmother’s gentle (if persistent) nudges, I relate, too, to my children’s protests and the ways in which a privilege of syntax before sentiment can make more muddle than sense. On point, the London journal, Horizon, published George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,”[i] in 1946, and my “Gran” would certainly affirm his critique if he were writing of our own day. Orwell begins:
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse … Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that … [the decline of language] is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.[ii]
I find Orwell convincing and convicting: how easily, indeed, can effects become causes, and – just as my grandmother hoped – I believe proper speech can shape more careful thinking and, ultimately, lead to more righteous action. However, as Orwell warns, so, too, does sloppy and obfuscating language muddy our clearest thought and grant permissions for behaviors we would prefer to hide.
In no small measure, this morning’s Gospel appointment draws power from its adherence to, and its deviation from, my grandmother’s call to formality and Orwell’s call to clarity, all informed by our senses of propriety and politeness and persuasiveness.
As today’s Gospel begins, Jesus leaves his native Jewish territory and enters the Gentile region of Tyre.[iii] Despite his desire to keep quiet the news of his presence, his entrance meets notoriety enough that a Syrophoenician woman hears about him “immediately.” [iv] She pursues Jesus and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter.
No matter how we read Jesus’ reply – and there have been extraordinary exegetical contortions attempted to explain away Jesus’ saying to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” – no matter the body language, or the pedagogical rationale, or the “tough love” we would prefer to read into Jesus’ motives, the plain speech of this exchange evidences the Syrophoenician woman’s desire for Jesus to heal her child, and Jesus’ refusal to do so.[v] Driven by desperation, the woman retorts, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”[vi]
Working to persuade Jesus, the woman’s argument witnesses her appreciation of the Gospel message and serves as a foil to the disciples’ inability to understand the same: while Jesus’ closest friends have every advantage to “get it,” somehow this outsider, this dog understands … and, in this moment, she seems to understand better than even Jesus himself. Not only does the woman win the debate and Jesus ultimately exorcise her daughter’s demon, but Jesus allows her words to complete their tilt. He says to her, ‘For saying that you may go – the demon has left your daughter,’” the Evangelist effectually framing these words of the woman to speak for Jesus.[vii] That is, Jesus does not recapitulate her sentiment, or repackage the sense of her words in his own voice, but he allows her plain speech to stand as it is, on its own.
While I grieve Jesus’ treatment of this stranger, I do not find the humanity of this behavior at odds with his divinity. As noted, he leaves his familiar home and travels to an uncomfortable setting, and, during his stay, he makes a mistake: rather than mooring himself to the simple standards of servant leadership – to be servant of all, and not of some –in this encounter he uncharacteristically allows cultural norms and assumptions to preside, and his ugly words reflect the poverty of those societal structures possessing his thoughts and directing his behavior.
Though Jesus attempts, thereby, to excuse himself from caring about this woman and her child, the Syrophoenician ignores such etiquettes and does not waste time with euphemism. Indeed, her inspired, clutterless retort cracks through cultural obfuscations and shakes Jesus back to his better senses. By her response, we inherit this account not as a tale of her suffering, but as a story of her strength – not of Jesus’ perfection, but of his faithfulness.
In “bothering with the matter,” Orwell searches for those who profit from his native tongue’s “bad way,” and he points to the political causes and implications of our English language’s deterioration. His essay continues:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible … Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: [we call this,] pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: [we call this,] transfer of population …
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.[viii]
Again, Orwell penned these words in 1946 … yet, when we promise simultaneous tax increases and funding cuts to social programs, we call this a grand bargain. When we legitimize bigoted behavior in the marketplace, we call this protection of religious freedom. When we separate hundreds of immigrant children from their parents and indefinitely confine them against their will, we call this pre-trial detainment … and on, and on, and on.
Regardless of whether one agrees with these or Orwell’s examples as political matters, their rhetorical form witnesses the powerful, effect-cause dynamic that the essayist describes: like the anxious drunkard who drinks to forget his worries, but, by his drinking, only realizes his worst fears, we who speak in euphemisms and obfuscations to hide ignominious actions, by our muddy language we reinforce cultural permissions and perpetuate our shameful behaviors.
The plain speech of this Gospel story challenges these tendencies of the Church. We twenty-first century American Christians often – with good intention – seek first to avoid offense, stay out of trouble, and leave well enough alone. As a result, we don’t always speak as plainly or as urgently as the Syrophoenician woman speaks. We actively pursue “sheer cloudy vagueness” to make more tolerable our moral and lingual ambivalences. Against these very inclinations, Jesus calls us into the unfamiliar, uncomfortable territories to which he travels, where proper speech might shape more careful thinking and, ultimately, lead to more righteous action.
Hear how the Syrophoenician woman’s courage calls us to refuse euphemism and to clear away obfuscation; to push back injustice and to defy prejudice; to speak truthfully and to oppose all those forces working against the inauguration of God’s reign. Good Shepherd, in this house our words matter, and our truth-telling should announce our devotion to one another as clearly as any “I love you.”
God has given us voice! With it, let us announce this Good News we have heard, and seen, and received, in the name of the One who is Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit;