The Revd Margaret Legg
Laura Knight is not a name with which I was familiar. Rather reluctantly I agreed to accompany a friend to the National Portrait Gallery to see an exhibition of her work. In her day (late 19 and most of 20th century) she was the best known and most honoured woman artist in Britain, only the second woman to be a full member of the Royal Academy and the first female Dame of the British Empire. She was held up as a role model for women, on a par with Edith Cavell, Elizabeth Garratt Anderson, Amy Johnson. The exhibition reminded me of our readings because:
(1) She painted people on the edge of society, living with them for months and absorbing their culture and way of life: gypsies, clowns, the black patients in the racially segregated wards of Baltimore hospital, at a time when the civil rights movement in the US was only just beginning to grow. Jesus too lived on the edge of society, roaming through Palestine with his disciples, ministering to the marginalised, the forgotten, the sick the poor.
(2) She looked forthe reality of a person beyond the persona that was on public display.
(3) She spoke of the way people look without really noticing. George Bernard Shaw said she had made him appear a sincere man, ‘when all my life I’ve been an actor’.
Well the Psalmist points out that God looks for the reality, the truth that lies deep within us.
The exhibition helped me to look at these much loved and very familiar parables with new eyes. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin challenge us in 2 ways: our tendencies to stereotype and to be complacent.
By stereotyping we infer that a person has a whole range of characteristics and abilities that we assume all members of that group have. Stereotypes lead to social categorization, which is one of the reasons for prejudice (i.e. “them” and “us” mentality) which leads to in-groups and out-groups.
In 1st century Palestine, shepherds were stereotypically ‘social outcasts’. They couldn’t keep the proper religious observances , so they were excluded from the life of the temple and the social activities that went with that. Nowwhen you’re away up the mountains, keeping watch over your sheep by night and day, you can’t just pop down to the temple or local synagogue whenever the law demands it. No matter how pious, God-fearing and caring you were. The Pharisees and scribes were already tut-tutting critically from the sidelinesbecause Jesus ate with outcasts – and so was saying they are included in God’s kingdom, they are accepted as God’s children. Now Jesus adds salt to the wound, describing God as a shepherd. Then he describes God as a woman – another stereotypically inferior category. Talk about goading!
And it challenges us to consider how we stereotype:
Some stereotypes are positive:
All Italians are great cooks
All Canadians are exceptionally polite
All French men are romantic
All French women are elegant
More are negative:
Men who spend too much time on the computer or read are geeks.
Women always talk too much on the phone
Men take 2 seconds to shower
Women spend 2 hours in the bathroom
All women only use 5% of the contents of their handbags
All politicians are philanders and think only of personal gain and benefit.
It’s a quick and easy way of establishing identity. The trouble is it oversimplifies groups of people, it encourages lazy thinkingand it ‘s based on false assumptions, not facts!! so it’s better not to use any, except that we all do it from time to time. Only pass judgement when you are familiar with others, when you begin to know what they are really like. And here’s where complacency comes in.
Surely, one might say to the scribes and the Pharisees, it’s you, the religious leaders, who should be going out looking for lost sheep, bringing people to worship God and to know and love God? Why aren’t you behaving like the shepherd and the woman? The answer, surprisingly, is because it is those very Pharisees and scribes who are the lost sheep. The ‘baddies’, the tax collectors and sinners, have already come near to listen to what Jesus has to say. They know their shortcomings, their need for God’s help and forgiveness. The parables are addressed to the ‘goodies’ of society.
What, me, you can hear them saying? But I’m good. I do all the right things, keep the commandments, the intricacies of the law, avoid trouble. It’s not only about rules and regulations, though, it’s about caring for people and their welfare, our attitudes to others, our open-ness to seeing the problems and difficulties that others have, helping them, and engaging with them in the messiness of life, about opening ourselves to new possibilities, in our own lives and in others. There are things and values in our lives which are important and which we need to hold on to: possessions for which we have worked hard and gifts which have been given to us with affection. But there are other things that we may need to learn to discard: that which is unhelpful, distracting and yet in an odd way so familiar that it is hard to let go. We might hold to old behaviour patterns which we know are counter productive. For years I have wrestled with punctuality. My children wax lyrical on waiting for me to collect them from school; the last ones left in the classroom way after everyone else had been picked up. I am much better now but it’s not easy to change the habit of a lifetime. Work in progress! We may maintain the headlong pursuit of goals and objectives that deep down we know will not provide the happiness and fulfilment that we seek. We may hold on to old hurts and disappointments even though we know they are poisoning our attitudes and outlook. But letting go of the wrong and unhelpful will free us for new possibilities, for it creates an emptiness that can be filled with better things. It creates a space for God to shape us a little more into the people he designed us to be.
No complacency/stereotypes in God
Fortunately for us, God has no stereotypes – he cares about all creation and he seeks us out in different ways, speaking to us through parables, people, miracles and even visions. That’s what was needed to shake Paul, that most zealous of Pharisees, out of his complacency and as we heard in our NT reading, he was eternally grateful for the new direction in which God had pointed him.
Towards the end of the Laura Knight exhibition is her painting of the Nuremberg Trials. She was sent by the government to record the proceedings. Seated day after day in the courtroom, behind the Press Box window, Goering, Hess, Ribbentropp and other members of Hitler’s inner sanctum are depicted in drab suits, balding, earphones clamped in place for translations, the aura of power, authority and status stripped away. We catch a glimpse of them as ordinary people, as ordinary (if you will forgive the stereotype) as the man in the street, people who had lost their way. What was really going on in their hearts even Laura Knight couldn’t discern. Her eyes locked with one of them – Hess, I seem to remember- at one point, she writes, but she could not fathom out his expression.
We all ‘err and stray from God’s ways like lost sheep’ as the BCP puts it, though not as drastically as Hitler’s gang. The joy is that God cares, he seeks us out, he knows us as we really are and God won’t let go of any of us; not because our fleeces are extra woolly, or because we have the sweetest bleat, or even because we regularly nuzzle up close to his knees, but just because, even though we have a tendency to leave him, he doesn’t want to lose even one of us.