Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Julian of Norwich, the late 14th century mystic, always reminded people of the extent of God’s love. “Though we sin continuously, he loves us endlessly.” She knew what she was talking about, for the life of anyone in medieval Norwich at the time can only be described as grim. I was thinking about this amidst all the talk of taking up arms against Syria and the likely repercussions of any such action even to the extent of another world war. What could that possibly achieve? What kind of world would any of us then bequeath to our children? Even if we manage to negotiate a peaceful solution to this crisis, what form, what shape will it have?
When we forgive people either for crimes against the person; for serious infringements between states; or simply when the acrimony of divorce has taken its terrible toll on families and friends; it is always with provisos. Someone, or some country, is not fundamentally to be trusted; the hurt inflicted upon people remains; as we see from long enduring child abuse cases and where behavioural patterns long established seem to eat into the very soul, tarnishing our subsequent actions and relationships. It is extremely difficult to forgive, to turn ones back on the past and to strike out afresh. But that is not how God behaves.
The story of Israel, as recorded in the Book of Exodus, (Ex 32: 7-11.13-14), is the exasperating tale of the nation’s continual apostacy and the writers understanding of God’s magnanimity, his repeated and full forgiveness of Israel, time after time, sin after sin. Throughout their long and terrible history of failure, deceit and wickedness they remain his chosen, his beloved and God carries on his relationship with them quite regardless of their deserving or response.
St Paul’s experience of God’s love is similar. Paul (1 Timothy 12-17), knows his past self as a blasphemer, one who did all he could to injure and discredit the faith. He saw himself as the greatest of all sinners because he deliberately and actively sought out and destroyed Christian believers. What he subsequently experienced at conversion, was not God’s wrath or punishment, but rather his inexhaustible patience, both towards his own sins and those of others. When God forgives, contrary to our half-hearted efforts, he does so completely; the slate is wiped clean and we begin again, newborn, cleansed, with no dodgy past hovering over us to blight our futures.
Our gospel gives us some insights into what the love and forgiveness of God is like. (Luke 15:1-32). It begins with two tales of rejoicing. The first is over the shepherds recovery of a strayed lamb, not one might think a very significant event, for we are told of the 99 remaining sheep he had in his flock, and might well assume this was just inevitable, ‘natural wastage’. Those of you familiar with the stupidity of fell sheep and their capacity for self-destruction would probably just shrug your shoulders! Not so for the shepherd, who leaves the rest, presumably with other shepherds and dogs, and goes off on an extensive search for the stray and brings it back rejoicing, in fact, calling friends and neighbours to join his rejoicing and, far from whipping or dragging the sheep, bears it on his shoulders. He bears its weight and cares for it.
Our second parable relates to a woman with 10 drachma who, losing one, searches her house high and low until she recovers it. Now as it is evident that this woman was by no means well off, the money probably amounted to her entire savings and was therefore precious to her and accounts for the extent of her search and her joyful celebration, again with friends and family on finding her lost coin.
Both parables are then designed to evoke loss and gain for poor and ordinary people, for whom their loss would have been a serious affair. The keynote is the rejoicing at the recovery of lost items, which is wholehearted and fulsome. It’s the same with Jesus’ tale of the Prodigal Son, which more appropriately should be called the Loving Father. We discover that this father, abused and denigrated by his younger son, who treats him as one dead before his time and demands his share of the inheritance and behaves with a total lack of the filial respect which was de rigueur in ancient society, is in fact the one who had been on the look-out for the returnee all along. Far from punishing the renegade, and he could even have killed him, he treats him with immense love and respect, as if his return was the long awaited and best thing in the world. He brushes aside all the son’s apologies and treats him like royalty. Similarly, when the elder of the sons quite reasonably complains about his father’s treatment of his brother and compares it with his own unfair treatment by their father, he is given the most gentle of reprimands. After all, fathers in ancient society ruled the roost and could determine the treatment of different people at whim. Just as in the case of the younger son, it is the father who takes all the initiative, he goes in search of the angry elder brother and seeks to reconcile him to the situation, explaining the enormity of the meaning of the return of the younger man. One, who was ‘dead’, has returned to ‘life’. We cannot hope to replicate such forgiveness or such resurrection moments in our dealings with others, but the message of divine love is there; the true standard has been set and the knowledge we have of the God who loves us endlessly remains as a beacon in all our relationships, whether personal, national or international. We, godlike, are called to be blind to past defects and to see people only as God sees us, with the infinite hope and potential that we have in his eyes.