Reflecting on the reading from Sunday 5th August — week 3 of our journey from St John’s Tide to Michaelmas

The first two of the three parables retold in Luke 15: 1 – 32  are about individuals who have lost something — the shepherd a sheep (one of onehundred), and the housekeeper silver coins (one of ten).  The numbers can emphasize that the loss is to do with economy, livelihood, trade, responsibility, skill, vocation, worldly endeavour.  Afterall, our money currency is decimal and so this telling makes a strong association with the part of our lives in which money and measurement have a role to play, and where we need certain competencies to manage our affairs.   Recovery depends on the ‘owner’ taking initiative to search for what is theirs and has been lost.  While it might be puzzling to us that it is a given that ninety-nine sheep would be left untended while the shepherd searches for the one which is lost — both stories do otherwise fit with our contemporary sense of being a successful person in managing our work, which in these stories, results in a happy ending.

The third parable drops us into the deep-end of family life — and most of us can appreciate the succinct and incisive tale of loss and the return of one, or even oneself, who was lost.  The Prodigal Son rings true to us and what we know of human nature, and the unpredictable and disparate consequences of repentance, confession, forgiveness, or lack of them, towards ourselves and in our closest relationships.  The relationships are deeply personal — the lost son to himself, the father to each one of his sons, the older brother with the younger — and we in turn can fill out the story and let there be a mother and sister as well, present but silent!  There isn’t a resolved goodness and happy ending, there is rather a tension between love and expectations and jealousy and justice and personal triumph, about how we could be if we had the capacity to love as the Father loves and the necessary consequences of that — forgiveness and rejoicing.  It’s complicated and stays that way.  The ending directs us towards our deep longing — most of us have a sense for what we could be in family and in community.  Inwardly we have a kinship to a Divine Family, with such a father and mother.  Someone I met recently expressed this. She shared openly, diving straight in at the deep end, that she had witnessed devastating violence in her family and she continues daily to recover from that, but still she wistfully said “I’d just like my workplace colleagues to be like family, I watch out for them like a mother hen”.

This third marker for this year then can be “forgiveness” — beginning in community, at home and in our inner world in relation to ourselves.

Here’s a spoiler, the end of an article by Mary Ann Coate (Chapter 8, forgiveness in context — Theology and Pyschology in Creative Dialogue, Watts & Gulliford), which alerts us to some of the pitfalls of  simplifying such a potent transformative power within us.

“The religious dimension (of forgiveness) is also a potential source of help.  Whether it actually is or not seems to me to depend largely on the sort of God we have been presented with and come to internalize, both individually and in the communities of faith.  There is the God of fear inhabiting a domain of fierce absolutes which cannot come together — good and evil, love and hate, sin and righteousness.  This God may still speak the language of forgiveness but there is a danger that it is shame, horror at sin, persecutory guilt and propitiation that are activated in our response. There is the God in whom love and hate are integrated and compassion and forgiveness lived out, who calls forth a response of love, personal responsibility, mature guilt and the disposition to forgive.  And there are probably all shades of God in between.

“Forgiveness is pyschologically complex and demanding.  It tests our inner resources to — and sometimes beyond — their limits.  In writing this chapter I have come to realise anew that it is not surprising that it fails or sometimes cannot even start, and to marvel — in something approaching awe — that we see as much of it on the human level as we do.”

– Cheryl Nekvapil