For The Sheer Joy of It

For The Sheer Joy of It

Glynn Cardy

Sun 25 Aug

The three parables in Luke 15 are addressed to Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees, who object to eating at table with ‘sinners’.  Thus Luke’s objective in his narrative is to entice the Pharisees to table fellowship with those they reject.  In the parables something [someone] is lost then it [they] are found; and this is followed by rejoicing.

Luke has a vision of everyone belonging, everyone having a place around God’s table, including the 99 unlost sheep, the 9 unlost coins, and the prodigal’s elder brother.  What doesn’t belong at the table is judgement towards others; and hence Jesus’ is critical of the attitude of his opponents.  His critics, the Scribes and Pharisees need to turn (repent) from judgement.  The lost ones in these parables, the toll-collectors and sinners, need to turn (repent) from believing they are unworthy and unwanted at God’s table/reign.  And there is much joy when they do.

These three parables though come from other contexts and their meanings have been somewhat forced to fit in with Luke’s objective.  In the parable of a Man with 100 Sheep, for example, the hearer may well decide that the shepherd was a fool to abandon the 99 sheep in the wilderness and risk their loss.  The rejoicing man may end up with only one surviving sheep!  This meaning subverts Luke’s use of the parable.

Similarly the parable of the Woman with 10 Drachmas, the woman loses the coin, which unlike a lost sheep hasn’t wandered off by itself.  She also isn’t risking the loss of the other 9 coins by searching for it.  Usually we don’t expect coins to repent either.

The meaning of the parable of the Woman with 10 Drachmas is not as obvious as it first seems.  A drachma was about a day’s wages, a not insignificant amount for a peasant woman.  She lights a candle not because its night but because she lives, like most peasants, in a miserable windowless dwelling.  And she sweeps the house with a palm-twig because in the gloom the broom may make the coin tinkle on the floor.  The simple message of the story [fitting with and maybe edited by Luke] seems to be that she cares for all her coins but any lost one needs to be found; and she goes about this diligently.

We need though to consider two additional thoughts.  Firstly, unlike the Shepherd in the first parable, or the Father in the prodigals parable, the protagonist is a woman.  The position of women in this period is well known as is made evident by the frequently quoted prayer, “Blessed be God that he has not made me a woman.”  Note the protagonists in the other parables are often thought of as Jesus (the Shepherd) or God (the Father), or at least a righteous leader/example, and there is no good reason why part of the subversive meaning of this parable is inferring something similar.  It’s upside-down crazy talk that a leader around God’s table could be a woman.

Secondly, there is an inference of a party.  Verse 9: “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.””  Brandon Scott points out that the rejoicing would require food and drink, hospitality and honour would require it; and therefore such ‘rejoicing with me’ would end up costing more than the lost coin itself!  At which point everything we had presumed unravels. 

The upside-down economy of the Jesus movement asks what profit and loss is.  Is finding a coin a goal; or a means towards a goal?  And what then is that goal?  Maybe joy, and neighbours, family, and friends to make joy with, is the goal.  As we know from other gospel stories and teaching – like the 500 grams of exotic perfume ‘wasted’ on Jesus’ feet[i] – the Jesus movement did not put a high value on material goods, or on orientating one’s life and work to be able to obtain such goods.  Maybe this parable is about diligently searching for what we value rather than simply searching for a coin?  So what is it that we value? 

Blessed is the lost and found,

all the minutiae we mislay then want

 – like keys, wallets, socks –

hiding when needed.

And blessed is St Anthony.

Yet loss is a part of our living,

our prayer, our parties –

saying farewell to what’s been,

and what can’t be replaced;

even by blessed St Anthony.

Losing is part of finding

what we value, expect,

want, need, and are.

Lost is not the opposite of found,

but part of the journey.

Blessed are we when we lose and find

that our treasure is not in coins

or comfort, status or stature,

but in finding the simplicity

and serenity of joy.

I was downtown last week, early for an appointment, when I saw a man unselfconsciously playing.  He had a kind of elasticized cord that he was throwing out and then catching.  Given that he had a hard safety hat and some carabiners attached to his waist, I presumed he was on his lunch break from a construction-type job. The man seemed to be quite oblivious to passers-by, but gave me a nice smile when I asked to take his photo.

How often do we stop to do something so unproductive, so pointless, as to play?

Earlier that day I had read about a psychiatrist who had created a team to investigate what has been called the first mass killing in the USA in 1966.  Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, now in his eighties, found that the killer utterly lacked any play in his childhood.  Over many years Brown interviewed twenty-one killers in prison and 100% of them told of parallel experiences – little or no play as a child.  This is not to say that lack of play is the only cause of the aggression behind mass killings, but it surely indicates one.

Ashley Montagu, in his study on Growing Young, reveals that of all the animal species we know, the human is unique in its capacity to continue to play throughout adulthood.  An insect never plays; a chimpanzee plays hard as a youngster but loses play as an adult; an adult human can play right up to death.

Making time to play has not been a priority though for most kiwi adults.  Being responsible, successful, has not usually included being playful.  When adults think of play they often think of playing a game – sports, or board games; or playing an instrument or acting a part in a play.  While there is, hopefully, an element of enjoyment, including playing with others, it is a very structured, performance-based approach to play.  If you don’t play the right way, or good enough, you will be reproved.  There is an outcome, other than enjoyment, expected, demanded.

We adults are in danger of losing our capacity to play.  Like a muscle weakens from the lack of exercise, play suffers when we don’t.  We develop bad habits – such as using relaxants like alcohol to get in a playful mood.  Or using surrogates – watching actors, musicians, or athletes play.  Or, worse, we denigrate the whole idea of play, keeping it screwed tight in a jar deep inside our subconscious, and outwardly being critical of anyone acting frivolously.

There are signs however that all is not lost.  Out of public sight, usually, there are encouraging glimmers.  There are many secret dancers, poets, singers, cooks, and artists who express themselves for the sheer joy of it, doing it (playing), for no purpose, no audience, no reason, no reward, other than expressing their inner joy.  And how wonderful when families, groups, or churches create opportunities where we are confident enough to let our secret lives be a little less secret. 

Children and animals often give us permission.  I see parents, aunts, and grandparents playing peek-a-boo; or flying food-filled spoons swooping and diving towards a one-year-old’s mouth; or building a hidden hut in a hedge or tree.  I see adults playing with dogs and cats, throwing balls, rolling around on the floor, enticing a kitten with a wiggly bit of wool…  We are giving enjoyment to the children and animals, but oh how much more are we are receiving!  We are filling our cups with joy.

Eckhart has a phrase: “To live without a why, to work without a why, to love without a why”.  I’ve introduced you to the last part of that phrase before in Marguerite Porete’s work[ii].  It’s a phrase that challenges the core of our value system.  In the context of play – it is about engaging, opening ourselves, to play for the sheer joy of it, and for no other reason or reward.

Joy Cowley’s psalm Child-Play has a deceptive title for it’s not really about children, it’s about adults and how we imagine God.  It’s about a God who wants to play with us; who wants us to drop what we’re doing, including those pressing appointments, plans, concerns, and worries.  And of course that’s pretty hard when we’re wired to be responsible Presbyterians.  Mind you the whole idea of a Presbyterian God playing on the beach, on swings and slides, with soap bubbles, playing without a why or a mission or a grand-predestined plan is in itself worrying.  Can God just frivolously have fun?  Can we?  Can we play for the sheer joy of it, without a why?

Mechtild of Magdeburg (1210-c.1280) was a Beguine mystic.  Beguines were neither nuns nor married but created a lifestyle living together in community, making a living with their hands as a rule and dedicating their lives to serving the young, the sick and the poor.  Mechtild wrote a journal and in it she had lots to say about play. 

She writes:

 “I, God, am your playmate!
I will lead the child in you
In wonderful ways
For I have chosen you.
Beloved child, come swiftly to Me 
for I am truly in you.” (47)

And again:

“Maiden, you ought to dance merrily, dance like my elected one!
Dance like the noblest, liveliest, richest Queen!” (48)

Mechtild’s God loves to play.  For her play is not just a special human attribute, but intrinsic to the Divine also.  Like joy is.

“Perhaps the time has come,” says Matthew Fox, “to play with God more than to pray to God, and in our play true prayer will emerge. And we will emerge younger, fresher, greener…”

[i] John 12:1-10

[ii] Sermon 19-07-21