“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.” (Luke 15.4-6)
There were two warring tribes in the Andes, one that lived in the lowlands and the other high in the mountains. The mountain people invaded the lowlanders one day, and as part of their plundering, they kidnapped a baby of one of the lowlander families and took the infant with them back up into the mountains.
Even though, the lowlanders didn’t know how to climb the mountain they sent out their best party of fighting men to retrieve the baby home. They men tried every single method of climbing, every single track which they found open, every single trick which they knew but they were unsuccessful. They have never done it before. Feeling hopeless and helpless, the lowlander men decided to give up this mission. As they were packing their gear for the descent, they saw the baby’s mother walking toward them. She was coming down the mountain and… yes, she had the baby strapped to her back. How could that be? They immediately greeted her asking, “We couldn’t climb this mountain. How did you do it when we, the strongest and most able men in the village, couldn’t do it?” She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It wasn’t your baby.”
The women was determined because her baby is her baby. The same with Jesus Christ. He is determined to get us because we are extremely important for Him. You wouldn’t believe how much! He really cares about the lost sheep. He came specifically on earth to save what was lost. He still does.
Who is lost?
Jesus finds himself in a crowd. On one side there are a bunch of sinners – prostitutes, irreligious people who did not frequent the Jewish temple, thieves, gamblers – and tax collectors – these were ruthless, greedy extortionists who made their living by overcharging taxpayers; today we would call them “loan sharks and finks”. On the other side, the pharisees and scribes, the good ones, the perfect, the respected lot.
Seeing the indignant reaction of the Pharisees because Jesus mixes with this rabble, Jesus tells three parables. The lost sheep. The lost coin. The lost son. The whole Scripture is a story of lost and found. Man’s job apparently is to get lost. God’s job apparently is to go out and search for man!
It is significant that in his story, our Lord chooses a sheep and not a pig, a cow, or a dog. A sheep normally does not deliberately run away, it just wanders away. It sees some grass a few paces away, goes over to it; then it sees some more a little beyond. Little by little, it finds itself far away from the flock. Lost. Another characteristic of the sheep is that it fails to find the way back. It just goes round in circles. A pigeon or a dog has a very keen sense of orientation. They return to their home. The sheep no. Besides, since the sheep is a very senseless animal, it is a simple prey to any wild animal who happens to come across.
This is the picture our Lord gives of many of us who are intent only on the present experience. The present gratification. Little by little, we wander away. Eventually we wake up to realize that life is empty, that our hearts are burdened and heavy – and we simply do not know how it happened.
The devil very rarely does a frontal attack. He disarms us gradually. A bad thought, one video, some complaints here and there, a occasional judgment, a caustic remark, today I shall skip prayer or Sunday Mass… and after a certain moment I find myself completely empty. Very weak. A punch here, a punch there… until I do not have even the energy to stand on my two feet. I am reeling….Many of us are like that frog who in an experiment, was dropped into a pot of hot water; it jumped out immediately without being hurt. Then it was placed into a container of cool water that was heated slowly. The frog was content, and relaxed so completely that it finally found itself boiled to death. This is what may be happening to many of us. Progressively we distance ourselves from God without even knowing it. Small things. Always more. Always deeper. Lost sheep.
Who is rescued?
Luckily, the shepherd reacts violently. He counts over and over again and when he finds one missing, all his attention is suddenly focused on that one! He knows all about it, for “the Lord knows all that are his.” He is worried because he knows that a lost sheep is defenseless. Only a God can understand the devastating effects of sin, small sin, big sin, on us. Only a God can understand the sorrow that sin brings, the deep pollution and the terrible wounding that comes of transgression.
We live in a society which has devalued sin. Psychology calls violence aggression, sexual sins a liberation from repression. Living together has become common. But sin is sin. And sin is always fatal. It always creates pain. This is why God feels enormous compassion. A compassion which transcends all the compassion of parents or of brothers-the compassion of an infinite heart brimming over with an ocean of love.
The irony is that, all the while, the sheep is not thinking about the shepherd, or caring for him in the least degree. We just wander about! Perhaps still in Church but our hearts are really far away.
Jesus goes in search of this sheep. A personal search. An all-absorbing search. He does not count the cost; his excitement lends him the feet of the wild goat; he stands securely where at other times his foot would slip. If you want to know the cost, just look at that man hanging on a cross and remember that that man was real flesh and blood…
And then, the amazing thing is that when he finds us, he does not scold us he does not get angry at us, he simply puts us on his shoulder to let us warm with his own body heat! Shoulders in the Scripture signify mercy – the love of God for sinners. I know it. When He finds me, He always gives himself to me as if He had only me to care about. He carries me. The weight of the sheep is now upon the shepherd. The sheep rides, the shepherd is the burden-bearer. The sheep rests, the shepherd labors. We have no need of strength; He is our strength.
And then the feast! Heaven just erupts into cheering, and the angels and saints and Mary in heaven shoot off fireworks and have a tremendous celebration! No one is worthless in heaven’s sight. No one is written off. Everyone is extremely important. God is so desirous of setting men free from the things that blast and ruin us, disfigure and destroy us that, when He can accomplish it, He throws up a party! “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Luke 15:7 .
Who are the ninety nine who do not need any repentance? They are those who do not know their sins. They are lost like all the rest. Simply they do not know it. Sin is so well hidden that they do not see it. A king in Prussia once visited a convict prison and interviewing the prisoners one by one, asks each of them for what crime he had been sentenced. They all declared themselves innocent of any misdeed whatsoever except one man who owned up to the evil he had one and said that he deserved what he was getting. The king ordered his immediate release, for, he said, this man will corrupt all these innocent people!
Many feel like this old lady. The pastor was rejoicing with her over the conversion of a relative who had finally seen the light and joined the church after lifetime of riotous living. When the parishioner asked if the newcomer’s sins would be forgiven, the pastor assured her : “Yes indeed, the greater the sinner, the greater the saint”. “Preacher,” the woman said thoughtfully, “I wish I’d known this 50 years ago”.
The only problem with the righteous people, is that they shall never enjoy the shoulder of our Master. They shall never enjoy the beauty of mercy. They shall never be in the real party.
Let us admit that we are lost. And let us let Him catch us easily! Saint Paul says in his First Letter to Timothy, 1, 15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.”
Amen! Says Father Pius.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.