24th. Sunday of Year (3)
(Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14; 1Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10)
In today’s Gospel reading we are told that Our Blessed Lord was aware – did He just know their hearts or had He heard some whispered words? – however it was, He had become aware of certain Pharisees and scribes criticising His attitude toward a number of tax-collectors and other publicly known sinners who, as distinct from last Sunday’s ‘great crowds’ just traveling alongside Jesus, were in fact:
All drawing near to listen to Him.
Today, we have to be aware of the dangers of consorting or discussing carelessly with unprincipled people, and Jesus Himself, so long ago, chose not to directly rebuke these, not indeed unprincipled, but most certainly self-appointed custodians of public morals and personally very self-assured and sanctimonious Pharisees, for their antagonistic thoughts and overtly pugnacious attitude:
This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!
Now Jesus was, at that very moment -- according to the criticisms of the Pharisees and scribes -- giving too much, and too close, attention to those tax-collectors and sinners around Him, whilst neglecting they themselves, a very important group of devout Pharisees and learned scribes; leaving them, as it were, to continue finding their own pasture on the heights of Israel (the desert in our story) under the watchful eyes of friendly shepherds (the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets).
Jesus was not seeking to antagonize the Pharisees and scribes, and so He turned to them and addressed them directly as probable owners of a considerable flock, men, that is, with worldly understanding and good judgement, not mere local, uneducated, shepherds generally lowly esteemed for their religious infidelity:
What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?
Now, for prudent owners -- even though one sheep out of a flock of one hundred is numerically little enough -- nevertheless, one hundred is a perfect number and ninety-nine is not, and so, one sheep, perhaps not so very important of itself, could still be missed as part of the flock. Addressing them in such a way Jesus could have hoped to draw reluctant assent from even such critically disposed listeners, and He might also have reasonably hoped further that they might -- tacitly at least -- continue to identify with Him when He went on to say:
And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home ... says, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep!
Yes, the Pharisees and scribes could appreciate such a little parable and agree with the sentiments thus far expressed; but there was perhaps one thought that might trouble them somewhat: ‘Who is this fellow comparing us – devout and learned as we are – with mere sheep, not perfect as a flock, without this one lost sheep?’ And now, Jesus, the Master, showing His divine wisdom, suddenly changed His earthly ‘pastorale’ into a heavenly apostrophe:
I tell you, in just the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
It was a passing dart that Jesus hoped, indeed, might sting, but again it was not a face-to-face confrontation, for He went on immediately to address another parable to them telling of the deep but simple joy of a woman on finding again her loved-and-lost coin, with no mention whatsoever, this time, of any righteous people having no need of repentance.
Let us, now, look a little more closely at the wording of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep:
I tell you, in just the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
He says, in just the same way because of there being a saving shepherd in both cases: the earthly shepherd who had gone in search of the lost sheep and, on finding it, carried it on his shoulders back to the flock; and a heavenly Shepherd, Jesus Himself sent by His heavenly Father as Messianic Shepherd of Israel. The sinners -- literally ‘flocking’ around Him to hear His words -- public sinners in the Pharisees’ estimation, were men who, at this very moment and possibly to their own embarrassment, were finding themselves drawn by the Spirit to Jesus as a flock seeking guidance and, perhaps, learning how to repent; the Parisees, on the other hand, remained apart, highly critical of what they could not understand.
There however the parallel stops, for Jesus goes on to speak in His last four words of a ‘lost sheep’ which actually participates in its own rescue and return:
There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
Now the words of Jesus take on a deeper meaning, more pertinent to the present situation, for the tax collectors – well known to the Pharisees as sinners -- ‘flock’ around Jesus Who says:
There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people – and the Pharisees certainly thought of themselves as righteous – who have no need of repentance, an attitude publicly portrayed by the Pharisees standing apart and critically observing what was happening with the heavenly shepherd at work.
Notice now the difference between a lost sheep and a lost human being, a human person can repent on being ‘found’ by Jesus, which means, of course, that repentance is the result of an encounter with Jesus, an appreciation of and response to the divine beauty, goodness, and truth shining on the human face of Jesus. For only the experience of holiness can convict someone of their own sinfulness, only beauty can enable another to appreciate and acknowledge their own ugliness, and only innocence and simplicity can lead a liar to hate their own duplicity.
Now, the greatest charge against the Pharisees and scribes complaining against Jesus was precisely the fact that, by constant and carping criticism, they were their closing their hearts and minds to His patent beauty and truth, goodness and humility; ‘patent’ I say, because recognized and sought out -- against themselves and contrary to their own immediate interests -- by tax-collectors and public sinners.
This is a most important lesson for us Catholic Christians to learn today; for we are now being called to account for our faith in times when our governments -- the United Kingdom, the United States, and, of course, republican France -- are abandoning or have long abandoned their Christian heritage in favour of self-proclaiming scepticism and rationalism, after having openly supported the arming of rebels in Syria regardless of their sectarian fanaticism and known enmity towards Christians living where Christians have always lived and first proclaimed Jesus as Lord.
In our account for the faith we treasure, it is not Catholic dogma that needs to be quoted, even though it is the backbone of our life and the substance of our hope; nor the superiority of Christian morality -- though that is undoubtedly the case over the course of history and when sincerely studied and objectively appreciated What is needed above all for us to give today is an up-to-date and effective ‘account’ of our Faith; our own, personal, living, witness to Jesus in Mother Church: witness, that is, to the contentment and peace, hope and inspiration, each of us, as individuals, finds in our awareness and appreciation of the Person of Jesus Our Lord and Saviour, through our prayer and God’s Gift of His most Holy Spirit; finding in His quite simple human words truths of eternal and sublime beauty enabling us to appreciate the wonder of creation all around us, to discover the transforming experience of earthly sufferings acceptedfor love of Him, and, above all, to embrace the previously unimagined mystery of human life -- graced for all of good will -- leading to a heavenly home of eternal fulfilment with Jesus in the Kingdom of His and our Father.
Toward that end, let us learn from today’s Gospel, and endeavour -- with those tax-collectors and sinners -- to draw ever closer to Jesus in our appreciation of the fact that the Good News we proclaim is His Good News: Good News embodied in His Person and in the salvation He brings and offers us; Good News to be lived in the power of His Spirit given to us through His Church, for the Father Who sent Him and Who calls us in Him.
Dear People of God, draw ever closer to Jesus by reading the Scriptures with Him in view, above all read the Gospels which proclaim His words and recount His deeds; draw close, however, not so much by remembering words to be used in arguments but by a whole-hearted appeal to His Spirit, in the Church and within you personally, for enlightenment and power that you might more fully appreciate and better respond to His unique expression of divine love and eternal truth.