Ambiguous Loss

Ambiguous Loss

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

October 15, 2023

Ambiguous Loss

Homily for Sunday, October 15, 2023
The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 22:1-14

“Ambiguous loss,” a term coined by Professor Pauline Boss of the University of Minnesota, [“ambiguous loss”] refers to a loss that lacks certainty or resolution.  Examples of “ambiguous loss” might be:

-        A solo round-the-world navigator disappeared at sea, and no trace of him or his sailboat has ever been found.  His family wonders if somewhere he could still be alive?

-        A family member has Alzheimer’s.  You can visit them and see them there, but they’re no longer “there” like they used to be.

-        Or, a family member is estranged.  You know they’re alive and even where they live, but they have in effect “disappeared.”

In each of these losses is "ambiguity,” something uncertain and unresolved.  Boss says that, even more difficult than living with loss, is living with ambiguous loss.  “Because of the ambiguity,” she writes…

… loved ones can't make sense out of their situation and emotionally are pulled in opposite directions – love and hate for the same person…  [and both] affirmation and denial of their loss. [And] Often people feel they must withhold their emotions and control their aggressive feelings... This is the bind...

Further, Boss writes:

Ambiguous loss makes us feel incompetent.  It erodes our sense of mastery and destroys our belief in the world as a fair, orderly and manageable place.

In the past few weeks, we have come to a place in Matthew’s Gospel where the texts are becoming particularly difficult to read.  Three weeks ago we heard Matthew’s Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in which the vineyard owner paid those who had worked one hour the same as those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (20:12).   Last week we heard the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in which the landowner “put those wretches to a miserable death” and“leased the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (21:41).  And this morning we heard Matthew’s version of Parable of the Wedding Banquet, in which – in details that only Matthew’s version carries – “the king was enraged… sent his troops,destroyed those murderers, and burned their city,” and in which a guest is bound hand and foot and thrown “into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” because he was not wearing a wedding robe.

I wonder, given that one-hour workers are normally not paid the same as all-day laborers, given that guests invited off the street normally would not be wearing a wedding robe, and given the extreme response in today’s parable of murder and destruction on account of a wedding invitation – I wonder, given all this, if Matthew’s community (to quote Pauline Boss):

-        No longer saw the world as a “fair, orderly and manageable place.”  

-        I wonder if they could not fully make sense of their situation

-        I wonder if they felt a loss of control and “mastery;” if they felt “incompetent”

-        I wonder if they found themselves emotionally pulled in opposite directions, having love and hate for the same people

-        I wonder if they found themselves in a bind, withholding their emotions and trying to control aggression (that nonetheless seems to have found its way into Matthew’s parables)

In short, I wonder if Matthew’s community was experiencing “ambiguous loss.”  It would make sense if they were, for Matthew’s community is thought to have been a synagogue of those who believed in Jesus surrounded by synagogues of those who did not believe in Jesus.  These surrounding synagogues were so at odds with Matthew’s that families and neighbors became bitterly divided.   Matthew writes,“one’s foes” were “members of one’s own household” (10:36), and, “sibling will betray sibling to death and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death” (10:21).  The friends and neighbors of Matthew’s community were there but not “there.”  Families became estranged.  Some likely fled their hometown, never to return, and though family members might know they were still alive and where they lived, those who had fled had in effect “disappeared.”  These ambiguous losses bled through into Matthew’s text.   And so, in these recent passages we glimpse a world that was not fair, orderly and manageable; we see a community that could not fully make sense of their situation; we find a community that was experiencing a loss of control and mastery and perhaps felt incompetent.  In Matthew, it is likely we are seeing a community experiencing “ambiguous loss.”

Which is where Matthew can be of help to us.  Each of us carries losses within; and probably some of our losses are “ambiguous,” marked by uncertainty and a lack of resolution. For each of us then, too, our lives have a degree of not being able to fully make sense of a situation, or of being emotionally pulled in opposite directions, or perhaps hating and loving the same person, or maybe feeling incompetent or a loss of mastery, or perhaps not seeing the world as an orderly, manageable place.  

What Matthew did with his ambiguous loss is take it to the cross.  As are all the Synoptics, Matthew’s Gospel is, in a way, a Passion narrative to which has been appended a prelude of stories about Jesus and his teachings.  The thrust of Matthew’s Gospel, the horizon toward which he bends his community’s sense of loss, is Jesus’ suffering and death.  With the Eucharist, we, too – with our “perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice until he comes again” – [we, too,] can make the horizon of our lives, the horizon of our sense of loss, Jesus’ suffering and death.  There is something profoundly healing and “whole-making” about the Eucharist.  In a mysterious way, by his sacrifice and wounds,we are healed.  Why not, if you do not already, make it a habit to come to Eucharist weekly?  Here we find healing.  Here God shows how much God loves us, how God is with us and will not abandon us.  Here we are made whole.  Here we are assured that – even as we carry life’s losses and griefs – Jesus will be with us always,even to the close of the age (28:20).



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