Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: “If you see the Canaanite woman in the road…”

Second Sunday of Lent
28 February 2021
Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

Yesterday the Church of England remembered one of its great priests by the name of George Herbert

He was born in 1593 into an aristocratic family and had a glittering early career

Cambridge then fellow of Trinity College

And after becoming a Public Orator he then became a MP at the age of twenty five

He was destined for a distinguished life at court

However, he eschewed high office and was, instead, ordained

First a deacon in in 1626, then priested in 1630 before being given the cure of souls of the parish of Bemerton just outside Salisbury

He died in 1633

George Herbert leaves a great literary and clerical legacy

Reminding us to give thanks to God “seven whole days, not one in seven”

A collection of poems was published after his death entitled “The Temple”

Containing such delights as “Love”, “the Collar” and “Affliction”

Some of his work was set to music and is found in our hymns today such

The King of Love, my shepherd is

Teach me my God and King

Let all the world in every corner sing

His only work of prose was “The Country Parson, His Character and Rule of Holy Life”

He described it as “a mark to aim at”, and the book has remained influential to this day

He is remembered for living up to the ideal in his book

Unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill and providing food and clothing for those in need

 As his biography notes “he never neglected the cure of souls” and “encouraged attendance at daily prayer”

The poet Henry Vaughan called him “a most glorious saint and seer”

The very model of pastoral and rural ministry

But this reference to the saintly George Herbert brings me onto the difficult reading from

the New Testament this morning

This is second time that I have been obliged to preach on the Canaanite woman

And it is no easier the second time around because it is not Jesus’ finest hour

It is very far from a model of pastoral ministry

As we heard from the reading this morning

First, Jesus refuses to engage with the woman who is shouting at him in desperation

She cries out “Have mercy on me, Lord… my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 

But, as the reading says, “he did not answer her at all”

It is clear however, from his subsequent reply that he did hear her the first time

However, he very pointedly remarks that he has only come for “the lost sheep of Israel”

In other words, not you

Finally, he delivers the cruellest blow of all when he says

it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”

Jesus is pointing out to her that, not only does she belong to the wrong caste, but seems to suggest that Canaanites are no better than dogs

Imagine if this happened today?

The tabloids would have a field day and there would probably be calls for his resignation

However, the story leaves us somewhat perplexed

How can the Son of God behave in such a fashion?

Even though Jesus had made it clear, earlier in the Gospel that his mission was to “the lost sheep on Israel”, this is not enough to excuse his conduct

There have been other attempts to explain away his actions

But none of them can escape what appears to be less than exemplary behaviour

He neglected a woman in great need and was disparaging towards her

How does that measure up to the saintly George Herbert who we remembered yesterday?

I have recently been reading an excellent book with the arresting title “If you see George Herbert in the road, kill him”

It is written by an Anglican priest by the name of Justin Lewis Anthony

The central premise of the book is that George Herbert has given the clergy and the Church an unrealistic model of ministry

There is no doubt that George Herbert ministered faithfully to his flock and is seen as an exemplar of the clergy

However, as Lewis Anthony points out, by 1632 Herbert was obliged to employ a curate on account of his worsening health

He died in 1633, having been a parish priest for two and a half years – less time than a modern day curacy

As Anthony puts it “a parochial theorist rather than a practitioner… his priesthood is in his poetry rather than in reality”

But Anthony goes on to explore the enormous pressure placed on the clergy as a result of the romantic notion of parish ministry

Trying to analyse the multiplicity of task that are placed on ministry he concludes

“Clergy cannot find affirmation in completing a task because the task of the Good Shepherd can never be completed”

He quoted a priest who remarked of the “utterly impossible task with which he was confronted”

The priest went on to say “The parish will quite literally kill me”

Another stated he “never knew what crucifixion meant until he came the parish”

These are brutally honest and insightful comments by priests who are prepared to be honest and confront the realities of ministry

I don’t quote them as an excuse or some sort of disguised plea

But I bring them to your attention to provide an insight into the world that Christ was living and in which those who live vicariously also choose to dwell

The Canaanite woman may have been treated badly but this was addressed and corrected

But as well as having sympathy for the Canaanite woman, have some thought for the Good Shepherd

A man asked to complete a task that can never be completed and which, quite literally, killed him