A Very Human God

by Lance Haward

It's often said that Our Lord's response to the Canaanite woman with the mad daughter was surprisingly (uncharacteristically) brusque, not at all the treatment to be expected from the Lover of children and compulsive Healer of infirmities.

But this is to overlook His teasing sense of humour, by which He regularly provoked His hearers to the recognition of some important message. He was not beyond using a little gentle discomfort as sugar to the medicine, to persuade the recipient of His ministry, as well as the attendant bystander, of some hidden, larger benefit than that of mere physical healing.

So in seeming initially to dismiss the Canaanite's 'importunity' (as characterized by the po-faced disciples), He knows full well (as would the perceptive reader of the Gospel, even without benefit of hindsight) that this is not going to be the end of the matter : it is simply a species of invitation. Invitation to commitment - to counter-invention and ingenuity (which manifestly He enjoys), to the admission of need. It is probably true that none of those many that come to Our Lord in search of wholeness is conscious of any spiritual hunger. It is only after the event, when their eyes, in some cases literally, have been opened, that they are made aware of that burden of imperfection which they share with all humanity, the fit as well as the sick. "Go and sin no more," is a common injunction and diagnosis to accompany the cure.

When the Samaritan woman hoists her water jar on to her shoulder with the sarcastic, parting comment, 'Do let me have some of this eternal water of yours, so that I don't have to keep lugging my pot back here,' He tells her to fetch her husband, knowing full well what the response has to be. To her advice that she doesn't have one, the reply is a piece of uncensorious arithmetic: "Very true. You did have five," (presumably not simultaneous) "and your current one isn't - you're absolutely right there."

Can anyone doubt the smile that accompanies this? No doubt it's with an answering smile of gratitude for His total absence of censure that she thereupon switches to an altogether more searching level of interrogation : "As you seem to be some sort of seer, perhaps you can explain for me why your people contend that what we do up on Gerizim is an inadequate Jerusalem substitute."

And so forth. The investigation of her unorthodox private history will precipitate, eventually, the conversion of half a town to the new message.

Even that astonishingly flawless piece of forensic repartee, the exchange regarding the tribute money, seems to reveal a Divine Pleasure in expertly manoeuvring mankind to its own improvement. As the Herodians fall flat into the inescapable legalistic pitfall, I'm convinced that Our Lord treats them to a gentle smile over this discomfiture: "So, Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, to God, what is God's." ("Or do you have some better solution?!") The enquirers themselves, foiled in their attempt to find material for an allegation of disruptive behaviour, can hardly have failed to enjoy their defeat in these terms.

I suspect that He was more than a little delighted at the opportunity provided to Him to winkle absurd Zacchaeus down out of the branches of his fig-tree, to order up dinner. Nobody ever looked less ready or equipped to provide hospitality than this little chap - and nobody, in the end, ever got more out of providing it than he did.

But my favourite is the little practical joke He plays on a group of harmless and dutiful people, or rather on the audience to this charade, with the involuntary assistance of another Samaritan. (His obvious affection for Samaritans generally is something which invests the parable of the Good One with an added fluency.) This chap, like his companions, is a leper.

There are ten of them, but the other nine are all orthodox. Consequently, when He tells the lot of them to go off and show themselves to the priests, it's probable that all of them are a little mystified: that's what you do after you're cured, as at least the other nine must be well aware. Perhaps exchanging enquiring glances with one another as to whether the Prophet is pulling their legs or not, they eventually straggle off in then appropriate direction, none of them much wanting to take the lead in this uncertain exercise in potential embarrassment. It is doubtless something of a stop and start progress until the first of them discovers that his hands are looking different from yesterday. At which point, the truth begins to dawn, finger by finger, joint by joint, blotch by blotch, until with a whoop of delight the nine understand the instruction, and duly rush off to do precisely what they have been told to do, which is now, at last and precisely, the correct thing to do - show themselves to the priests. The one to whom this piece of orthodox Jewish mumbo-jumbo is suddenly irrelevant, in the light of the much larger fact of miraculous healing, recognizes rather that the Healer was simply testing them out, and pursues the natural reaction of returning to express his gratitude. Jesus, Who has, of course, calculated this outcome with exactness, is able to announce to the bystanders (a joke at their expense, and that of all the orthodox) that the only ones in this world with sufficient decency to acknowledge blessings received appear to be the Samaritans!!

I imagine that all of them got the point (whether they liked it or not), and none of them seriously believed that He was either surprised or disappointed that the Jewish lepers had not behaved in any way differently from that in which they did.

The Apostles' commitment to their vocation is not really that surprising : He must have been fun to be around.