If you are not a native of the southern United States, you might be confused by the meanings of common phrases used in the south. One of the more inscrutable of southern expressions is “Bless your heart” and its variations.
The phrase “Bless your heart” sounds as if it might be what it suggests, namely, a blessing. The phrase, however, has multiple meanings, none of which is a straightforward blessing. “Bless your heart” is most often used as a polite substitute for a more direct statement of mild contempt. Typically, the phrase means something like, “Your impertinence makes me disinterested in you,” although it can also mean, “Kindly take a long walk off a short pier.” Further, the phrase can mean “Shame on you” in a situation when the addressee’s behavior is so shameful that it’s embarrassing even to anonymous bystanders. Sometimes, the phrase can be used as an expression of sympathy but, for the most part, it refers to the sort of sympathy merited by a person who is the willing victim of his or her own foolishness.
The phrase “Bless your heart” is an example of the pliability of language; it is an expression of concern, but not always an expression of compassion. Another example of the pliability of language is seen in today’s Gospel reading when Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Oh, you of little faith.” (Mt. 14:31)
To address a person as having “little faith” sounds like a derogatory statement, but Matthew’s Gospel does not use the phrase in this way. In Matthew’s Gospel, the judgment, “Oh, you of little faith” is what contemporary philosophy would call an existential bracket, that is, a simple description of a temporary state of consciousness. When Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Oh, you of little faith,” he is making an observation about the situation Simon Peter was in at that particular moment. Rather than being a judgment about a person, the phrase “Oh, you of little faith,” when used in Matthew’s Gospel, is a judgment about the person’s momentary behavior. In this event in the Gospel, Jesus was making the observation that Simon Peter’s faith was momentarily weak; the observation did not necessarily extend to all of Simon Peter’s behavior.
In addition to being a simple observation about a particular behavioral act, this comment by Jesus is intended by the Gospel author to be a source of consolation for all disciples. Even the most fervent disciples of Jesus have the occasional experience of running short of faith. The current pandemic has tested everyone’s faith. If you have found yourself having “little faith” recently, the author of Matthew’s Gospel wants you to know that you are not alone. In fact, if you are struggling with your faith during this unprecedented period of suffering, you are in good company; Jesus’ original disciples struggled, as well.
Certainly, Jesus’ assessment of Simon Peter’s momentary lapse of trust is an accurate reflection of the inconstancy of our human nature, but it offers encouragement, as well. God makes appropriate allowances for human limitations and allows us to repent as often as necessary.
A prominent Scripture commentator wrote that Simon Peter’s “little faith” was not a source of condemnation but an opportunity to realize more profoundly that Jesus is Lord and Redeemer. Perhaps, the troubles facing us at this time can be an opportunity to come to a greater appreciation of God’s power poured out in the life and death of Jesus.
Peter found a remedy for his “little faith” by exclaiming, “Lord, save me.” Funnily enough, this reminds me of another common phrase in the southern United States. If one spends any amount of time in the south, one is bound to hear the exclamation, “O Lord!” As with the phrase “Bless your heart,” “O Lord” can have multiple meanings. The possible meanings of this exclamation range from fright to disgust, from disapproval to disbelief. “O Lord” can also mean exactly what Simon Peter meant when he said, “Lord, save me.” Perhaps, an appropriate response to our current situation of suffering and uncertainty is to say, “O Lord,” as a statement about fear of the consequences of the Covid19 infection, boredom with the restrictions on our social lives, frustration over the apparent lack of progress in resolving the pandemic, and our own lack of faith at this time.
Can you hear Jesus chide you with the words, “Oh, you of little faith”? If so, you are in the position to respond by saying, “Lord, save me.” Your “little faith” is no condemnation, but the precondition for calling on Jesus with renewed trust.
Hello Father Alan:
Being a transplant at age 6 from Rhode Island, I have had plenty of opportunity to hear southern phrases. During my college days at the University of Florida, my fraternity brothers and I would go “downtown” for some “culture”. Eating breakfast at a Gainesville greasy spoon gave me fond memories of learning about life from homespun wisdom.
Your homily encouraged me to do an internet search of southern phrases. Many I have heard before but many more I have not. Two, from what must be the really Deep South, had references to Our Lord. I got a kick out of them. They are: “He’s so cheap he wouldn’t give a nickel to see Jesus ridin’ a bicycle”; and , “You better give your heart to Jesus, cause your butt is mine.”
Your last paragraph sums up how we should cope perfectly.