Jeremiah 4: 19-26; Genesis 1: 1-4a, 27; Luke 15:1-10
Loss! — there are many different kinds. Thinking of the Christchurch and Seddon earthquakes, there are personal losses of loved ones and houses, but also losses that involve the whole city and district, with different areas sometimes in conflict with each other over the losses. On an individual and communal level, people and land are involved in relations with each other in connection with loss.
This can be seen in the loss presented in Jeremiah. “My anguish, my anguish!” it begins. The word literally means “bowels” for ancient Israelites the seat of the emotions, everything that churns people up. This may be an individual speaking but it is more likely that the people of Jerusalem and/or Judah are being personified. When the anguish says “My tents and curtains are suddenly destroyed,” these single words may stand for the whole habitation of the people. The loss is devastation of the community and of their churned up state of body and spirit: “My heart is beating wildly, I/we cannot keep silent”. Loss indeed.
While I ‘writhed’ through this passage, I kept thinking of Syria. I still hear and see a woman stumbling out of some nightmare, wailing, “We don’t count, don’t count…”. She couldn’t keep silent. Loss indeed.
In Jeremiah — a question: “How long must I see the standard [of war], hear the sound of the trumpet?” Syrians see and hear the jets and the rockets, and stumble through the devastation. And yet some of us say things like, “These Arabs are always at each other’s throats; they deserve all they get”. Are we the ones who are lost when we say or even think this? They deserve our compassion not our contempt. Compassion when we realise that words in Jeremiah could almost be an exact description of the state Syria is in now: “Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste”. This is not just some laughable pessimism some ‘Jeremiah’ thinks up. It actually happened in Israel and still happens in neighbouring Syria today.
Such loss is more than enough. But to say the next section in Jeremiah ratchets it up a notch is an understatement. There now follows one of the most nightmarish visions in the whole Bible: “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void”. Before it was just the land but now it is whole earth. The words “waste and void” are exactly the same used in the very first verse of Genesis 1, and when in Jeremiah the heavens have no light, this is also reminiscent of the light as first creation in Gen. 1.
But the point is now, there is no light. This is not creation, but UNcreation. Gen. 1 presents creation of stable relationships, but now — “I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking”. The doom presented here is expressed by saying “I looked” no less than four times. In Gen. 1 when God looks, God sees that it is good. But here “I looked on the earth, I looked on the mountains,” and now, “I looked and there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled”. This combination of the absence of both people and birds effectively expresses the loss of all civilisation. We are lost ourselves. The fourth and final ‘look’ is “I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert…”. Desertification — we have lost ourselves. We manufacture and consume all sorts of things. We are defined as consumers. We have lost something else creation in Gen.1 speaks of, our image of God, lost our true selves.
The Jeremiah passage ends: “… the fruitful land was a desert … before the Lord, before [God’s] fierce anger”. It sees the cosmic chaos as brought about by God’s anger, but perhaps we should understand God’s anger in what we have done ourselves, in our consuming loss of God’s image.
Loss! — there are many different kinds. But some people say, “I was lost but now I am found”. However soberly, can we say that loss sometimes leads to finding? Jesus’ parables of lost and found give us hope. Our sobriety should continue in realising that the parables do take loss seriously. The shepherd is prepared to go into the wilderness to find one lost sheep; the woman carefully searches the house to find one lost coin. It is also significant that the parables pair a man and a woman. (“Male and female God made them”.) Not only men suffer loss. They are not necessarily the same kind of people, however. Shepherds were reputed to be shiftless, thieving, trespassing. They were on the margins of society, but their loss is no less significant. The woman, however, sounds like a respectable housewife, though poor; she might have 9 other coins, but losing even one of them is significant.
But, whatever the differences between the shepherd and the housewife, they both have the most significant feature of the parables. On finding what was lost they both rejoice. They don’t say, “Oh it was nothing and it’s alright now”. No, they rejoice. Further, reaching home, they do not keep their joy to themselves, they share it with their friends and neighbours, and exhort them to rejoice with them because they have found what was lost. They are both living within the circumstances of their time because, in the shepherd’s case, the word for “friends” is masculine and in the housewife’s feminine. (Would it be different with us?)
There is, however, a sting in the tail to these happy outcomes. We might assume that everyone would be pleased. But would they? Jesus concludes the first parable: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous who need no repentance”. Are we meant to ask whether 99 righteous would be pleased over more rejoicing over one sinner than over them? And righteous who need no repentance for anything at all? Are there such people? Do we assume that we are like that? Or is this one of Jesus’ characteristically provocative exaggerations with the purpose of emphasing a main point: here the extraordinary joy at the finding of the lost sinner?
This is confirmed by the difference in the ending of the parable of the lost coin. Here the 99 righteous are no longer mentioned: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”. Full stop. The final emphasis in on the joy over one repentant sinner. Still more: there is not only something left out but something added here. The ending of the sheep parable just has “joy in heaven”. The coin parable adds “joy in the presence of the angels of God…”. This description makes heaven more explicitly communal, brings in presence, overcomes the distinction between male and female friends. There is only joy. All’s well that ends well….
Except that we have forgotten the beginning. I haven’t mentioned the introduction to the parables. They are told in the presence of two groups of people: the tax collectors and sinners, the marginalised, and the Pharisees and scribes, those at the centre of society who are murmuring that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. So in the end this beginning is a provocation to these authorities to respond with joy at the finding of the repentant sinner. In the end too, in the light of Jeremiah’s prophecy, there is a provocation even to those who do rejoice to realise that there are peoples suffering far greater loss of land than they in their joy are….
Yes, there are many kinds of loss. If joy at finding the lost sinner helps us acknowledge the devastating loss of others, the greatest loss would be not rejoicing over the sinner who repents.
Maurice Andrew, Opoho, 15.9.13