This week I went to the book launch of A Single Thread set in Winchester Cathedral. I was particularly keen to attend, not just because I enjoy Tracy Chevalier’s writing, but because one of my churches features in the novel.
At the launch Tracy spoke about how she looked for the feminine in the story, and how her novels always seem to have that balance between the masculine and the feminine. In this latest novel set inbetween the two World Wars when there were a million ‘surplus women’, the masculine skills that built the cathedral are set alongside the cushions and kneelers being made by the group of women that our heroine joins. The band of bellringers is balanced by the guild of broderers.
In the gospel passage from Luke, a similar thing is happening: Luke balances the male, external world of the shepherd with the female, internal world of the housewife.
Both the shepherd and the housewife have lost something of great importance to them and they seek and seek for it until it is found, and then they are so delighted and relieved to be reunited with their lost item that they celebrate with others.
The shepherd loses a single sheep. Surely this happens all the time? Sheep wander and get lost, or get picked by prowling beasts. The woman loses a single coin, a penny perhaps; who doesn’t lose coins down the back of the sofa? This too is surely an ordinary encounter. In both cases the sheep and the coin are not the only ones, they are just a single sheep from a flock of 100, a single coin from a band of 10. Yet each are valuable.
The sheep is valuable because the shepherd knows it, the shepherd has spent time with it, has identified it’s quirks and character. This is no ordinary sheep, it is his sheep.
The woman hasn’t simply lost a coin, but has lost one of the 10 silver coins she was given at her wedding. The coins would have been part of a headdress, and when a coin was ‘missing’ it would indicate something missing from the marriage, it would indicate divorce. The woman hasn’t just lost a coin but has lost her status.
In telling these stories of lost and found, Jesus is trying to help the Pharisees to understand just how valuable to God are the ‘lost’ and the ‘shamed’. The member of the flock who has gone astray, the woman who has not valued her marriage, are God’s beloved children and he will seek them out and bring them safely home; and then, because of his great love for them, will rejoice with the angels when they enter into the heavenly realms.
Jesus’ love is for all. He cannot be boxed into a holy cubby hole, and neither will his love be reserved exclusively for the good, the safe, the pious, regardless of gender.
For years, despite Jesus’ speaking out against the cultural norms of his times, women have been belittled and devalued in our readings of the gospel. In some churches and Christian circles still, the mantra ‘equal but different’ is used to keep women quietly on the tea rota and out of the pulpit. Women have been accused of ‘tainting’, making unclean, communion tables when they have fulfilled their priestly calling by celebrating at them, despite the way in which Jesus touched the unclean, male and female, and made them whole. Luke shows us how Jesus reaches out to male and female, feminine and masculine, and proclaims each worthy of a party in heaven.
We are slowly beginning to give women the same working rights as men (in the West at least), we can even have female bishops now, but what of others that are deemed ‘unclean’? How often does the phrase ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ been used of someone who is ‘other’ than us? Perhaps this statement could be used, properly, of someone serving a prison sentence, and yet it only ever seems to be used of those whose gender identity is other than heterosexual.
If Jesus were to tell parables of the ‘lost’ now, who would feature in them? If Jesus were to be found drinking and eating with ‘the wrong people’ today, would it be because he was marching at Pride, or dancing at a gay bar, or sharing a meal with a trans woman?
The lost are only lost when nobody cares enough to seek them out, to bring them home, to restore them to a place of honour; and are only truly found when someone cares enough to rejoice over them.