LET us look more closely at the parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin.
Notice that neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin can do anything to get themselves found. The coin cannot even hope to be found. The only condition for being found by God is being lost. Jesus did not go to the donkey-driver and the tax collector and say: ‘Give up your unpopular job and I’ll be friends with you.’ He received them and ate with them unconditionally.
And look at this lovely thing: when the good shepherd finds his lost sheep, he doesn’t drive it back into the fold; with infinite tenderness he carries it back. He layeth it on his shoulders rejoicing. When we are gone astray, lost, God does not expect superior acts of moral athleticism from us. He knows our weakness, that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. He is gentle with us until by his grace we become stronger.
The lost coin (the New Testament says it was a drachma) was most likely one of ten implanted in the woman’s headband at her wedding. It was a great shame for a married woman to appear in public with an incomplete headband. That, rather than simple poverty, was probably why she searched for it so ferociously, turning the house upside down.
Going back for a minute to the lost sheep, we are plainly meant to see Christ as the good shepherd. One of the great Russian bishops had the imagination also to preach a sermon in which he saw Christ as the woman looking for her lost drachma. Because Bishop Alexei dared his imagination to think such a thing, he opened the way for wonderful images to emerge of the relationship between Christ and his church adorned as a bride. The harder you thrash your imagination the more tender are the pictures that emerge.
The crucial question for us, of course, is: Who are the lost? The great saint thinks he is lost because he has a sublime awareness of his imperfections. If you are lost, you might well despair. But then there are the pseudo-lost, the fashionably despairing. The devotees of Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Harold Pinter and the rest of the self-hate mob. The posture of despair was also the besetting sin of the medieval monks. Really, it was sulking, and the result of spiritual pride and religious oneupmanship.
Miserable sinners? Yes, but the desire to be miserabler-than-thou, because I want you to think me holier than thou. It permeates the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg and the films of Ingmar Bergman. On a good day Kierkegaard could crack a joke, but he was usually writing his book called The Sickness Unto Death and asking us to conclude that there is no misery as exquisite as his misery. Some people are happy only when they’re miserable. There’s an awful lot of it about. The Times once reviewed John Calder’s book about Samuel Beckett. I quote: ‘Our friendship began in 1955, walking around Montparnasse all night, discussing such matters as suicide and life’s “pointlessness”.’
I had a taste of this at a tender age. When I was 17 I came out of Yates’s Wine Lodgein the middle of Leeds with time on my hands. There was a film on at The Tatlerwith the mesmerising title Last Year at Marienbad, script by Robbe-Grillet, direction by Alain Resnais. I went in and a girl with a ponytail and all in blackcame and sat next to me. She kept nodding sagely throughout the unintelligible on-screen goings-on. To cut a long story short, I eventually went round to her flat and was introduced to her friends. She shared the place with Sandra, who I never saw except in her dressing-gown, which made her look like something out of The Mikado. Sitting on rush mats, blokes with beards, smoking those oval-shaped Passing Cloudcigarettes and given to statements that always ended with the word ‘man’. Like, ‘We are alone in the cosmos, man.’
One of them said to me: ‘I see Kierkegaard’s been translated at last.’I said: ‘Oh, good!’ – trying to sound intelligently pleased but managing to sound like Tony Hancock. They drank a very passable existentialist Tetley’s bitter which they chased with vodka and lime. The worst of it was when they put the music on. Turgid ditties by Juliet Greco. More long black hair. Then the raucous sentimentality of Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien. How they could think this maudlin wallow in self-pity was courage had me beat. Nobody smiled. That would have been uncool. They wore their gloominesslike a fashion icon, these latter-day scribes and pharisees in Leeds 6.
Now the truth in the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin is that we are all lost – or rather we are all found. Do not for a minute fear that you may be lost. But we cling to our spiritual pride and pretend that our sin or our unhappiness is greater than the love of God. But as the truly cheerful existentialist Dostoevsky said: ‘There is no sin and there can be no sin on all the earth which the Lord will not forgive. Man cannot commit a sin so great as to exhaust the infinite love of God.’
Do you think that God would set himself a task smaller than the salvation of the wholeworld?
‘And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost . . .’
‘And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together saying Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost . . .’