Trinity 13 2019 - Rage and Loss
Did you recognize what Jonathan played just now? Sometime between 1795-98 Ludwig van Beethoven write a whimsical piano piece called “The rage over a lost penny”. Or, in eurospeaek: Die Wut über den verlorenen Groschen, ausgetobt in einer Caprice. It’s a bit of a showpiece, and perhaps uncharacteristically of its composer, it is not really angry, resentful or despairing in character, but actually rather amusing – a caprice - if only because of the exaggerated and frenetic piano writing it involves. If you hear it, it easily conjures up images of a mad Beethoven with tousled hair hammering away at a piano in a slightly manic way, all because a groschen – a penny - is lost, and cannot be found.
Jonathan perhaps you could give us a bit more of it on the piano?
It’s not quite what Jesus had in mind when he told the parable of the lost coin, and there is no evidence that Beethoven was being super spiritual in it, or depicting the angst of the woman sweeping out her house, but rather was having a bit of a joke, quite possibly laughing at himself after having been in the situation where the small pecuniary loss led to a completely disproportionate rage of frustration. It is a different reaction to that of the woman in the story, who rather than ranting and panicking, calmly and methodically sweeps out her house, persistent until she finds her lost coin. There is no evidence in the parable that she loses her temper. Beethoven, however, as the record shows, was famously good at losing his temper, and that is why his attempt to adopt his nephew Karl when his brother died is rejected by the Viennese courts. No doubt the father of the woman he wanted to marry felt the same, when refusing the marriage. So tempting as it might be to wish one might meet Beethoven, there is a great possibility that if it were even possible to do so, we might be at best disappointed, at worst rather shocked and disillusioned that the writer of the Missa Solemnis and the Ode to Joy should be such a disagreeable chap.
We all lose things: We lose things, of course, and they can be of little or great significance. Sometimes we lose perspective on the difference: we worry about the trivial and lose sight of what’s important. And that is part of the meaning of the Lost Coin story. The woman searching presumably had other things in her house – although not much I suspect – but it was the coin – just that one thing, that she really sought for. The Lost Coin, is to some extent, also the pearl of great price – the single thing that effort, expense even, merits. It is worth knowing that in the context of the parable Jesus tells, which is one of three, the coin represents one tenth of her wealth – her savings perhaps – some have even suggested it was part of her dowry. The Greek word is drachma – Greek coinage which one may even remember from island holidays before Greece adopted the Euro. A drachma – and Luke uses the Greek word – is a day’s wage. So, for example it could be worth a hundred pounds today, and she only had a thousand to her name. It may even have been strung on a kind of necklace with the other nine, and one has fallen off into the dark gloomy world of her unlit house. It’s interesting to note that in the story of the lost sheep – the male world of the shepherd - the odds are one percent – one sheep out of a hundred goes missing, whereas in this feminine domestic world, by contrast, her loss is far greater – ten percent of her wealth.
For Jesus’ hearers, they might well think, what’s one sheep to lose – it was probably a straggler anyway, and it would be customary even to deliberately break the leg of a straying sheep, to stop it wandering off. Jewish men, hearing the story would wonder at the effort shown by the shepherd to recover the sheep. And remember that Jesus is telling a story about shepherds – those disreputable folk, used by Luke as witnesses to the birth of Jesus – but whom held no respect in the community at all. Jesus has just been criticized for associating with tax-collectors and sinners, and his response is to tell stories about a shepherd, and a woman! Shock horror!
He goes on to tell them a story about a son – the prodigal son as we have come to know him - who tells his Dad to drop dead, goes off with a fortune, squanders it on wine, women and song, and ends up eating pig food, before coming to himself and being welcomed home. The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin are tame compared with that. But they are nevertheless a trinitarian crescendo of hammer blows against the hypocrites of Jesus’ day. First the sheep – yes OK – bit much to save one sheep out of a hundred, but, fair play to the shepherd, disreputable so-and-so as he is, he does something decent and saves his master’s property, at some risk to himself no doubt – and of course to the others. Although it’s irresponsible, extravagant, costly, risky, foolhardy and disproportionate.
But what’s this about a woman who drops a coin off her necklace and has to do the cleaning as a result? Women were not so much disenfranchised, but they were never franchised in the first place. So not having much wealth, she would want to protect and preserve what she had. For these are her savings - her salvation – her only hope of marriage, security, safety – life itself even. If she was not married, it would have been her dowry. If she was married, no doubt her husband would not be happy if she lost a day’s wages under the sofa.
The lost sheep may not seem important, but the parable tells us that to the shepherd – who is of course God - even one sheep is important – more important than the others even. But if you don’t quite get that, try the coin - that really is important. She has lost part of her salvation and needs to find it. It’s not for nothing that we use the word ‘savings’. And it relates to a rabbinic tradition in which it was said that someone should search after the Law of God even more than one would search for a lost coin. Salvation is more important than money. So there is a real connection between the salvation that the Law brings and the salvation brought by Jesus. The lost coin is not the Law here though – it represents the extravagant love of God.
The losing of coins is a theme that travels through history. Beethoven depicts it in music – and none of us like to lose money even today. Spending money, paying taxes, being overcharged, inflation, all these annoy us, but one can feel for Beethoven’s rage at losing money. The point with Beethoven’s little joke is of course that the penny is a trivial amount, not a day’s wages as it was for the woman in Luke’s gospel. But the principle is the same – if we lose something we go looking for it. And it’s so frustrating if you can’t find it – you have to either become resigned to it being lost, or just hope it will turn up.
We lose things, we find things. We lose money – we make money - on the horses, in the street, on a bad deal, stocks and shares. We earn it, we are given it, we invest, or earn interest. Some people have more money than others – for various reasons – they might just be born with it. But in all this, the money Jesus is referring to, like the sheep, is a metaphor. Money is salvation – savings - and just as with money, we gain or lose it. The ultimate metaphor for Jesus death and resurrection is financial – he was ransomed, and redeemed us – these are financial metaphors. He saved us – we are banked for God. The language of money – associated as it was with slavery – spoke as loud and clear then as it does now. But it’s all about salvation – which you can’t buy.
These two parables are about the fact that salvation is inclusive and that the saving of a soul is something which defies conventions of financial or mathematical measurement, they also reveal Jesus’ bias towards the poor and marginalized outcasts. And this is always worth remembering.
The martyred German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer once said that when it comes to democracy everyone votes for themselves. No-one ever votes against themselves. It is a rare being who votes for something which they know is not in their interest but may be in the interest of someone else. It’s unnatural. And in this week when former PM David Cameron has emerged from his shed to make a few comments, it’s worth wondering whether Bonhoffer’s point is true of referenda as well as parliamentary elections. To the question, who or what did you vote for, the honest answer is often, actually, ‘well, I voted for me’. What I think is best for the county is what I think is best for the country. It’s still about me – what I think, what I want.
‘Me’ is important. Because ‘me’ is ‘you’. We are all ‘me’s. And me is I, and ‘I’ am the lost sheep – I am the lost coin – I am the one for whom God lights a lamp and sweeps a room – I am the one after whom the Good Shepherd goes seeking when I wander off, and brings me home on his shoulders. I am the me who is worth so much to God.
To some extent our nation is a bit like the lost sheep and the lost coin. In terms of government, parliament, public confidence, whichever aspect we want to focus on, we have lost our way. We need finding – saving – and bringing home. One – at least one – of our democratic coins has fallen off and is lying down there in the dark. We need a new broom to sweep with, and a bright light to illuminate those dark corners. We need saving, not so much from others, but from ourselves.
There is no grace, humility, or compassion in the Brexit goings on. Rather the debate – if we can call it that – has been sublimated by desire, self-justification, indignation and rage. Beethoven, who loved Napoleon and then changed his mind when he invaded Austria, could have been illustrating Brexit - I reckon – the rage over the nation that has lost its way…
So, what we can do is hope that as things continue to unfold, we may retain perspective, hold our leaders in prayer, remember always the poor, and know how every single lost coin, sheep, person or nation, matters infinitely to God. And then we may have a hope of turning rage into faith and love. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 15/09/19