People of God, you may have felt today's Gospel parable to be somewhat unfair and consequently rather difficult to appreciate:
I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
However, the second word-picture Jesus went on to paint for us was much easier to understand. In it we learned of a woman who had lost one silver coin, a notable part of what little wealth she had, and we were told that:
When she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbours together, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I lost!' In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
As I said, I think we can easily understand that example of joy in heaven over one sinner repenting. Why therefore did Jesus deliberately choose, in His first little parable, to speak in such a way as to make His point more difficult and appear somewhat unfair? Was He trying to shock, and if so, why? Let us recall the beginning of our Gospel passage:
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So we can see who Jesus was seeking to shock: those Pharisees and scribes who were watching Him at some little distance and who, in their critical thoughts, were comparing themselves most favourably with the ‘rabble’ crowding around Jesus to see Him and hear His words:
I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
What is the joy of heaven? Catholic theology tells us that heaven is where God is all in all; and where the Holy Spirit of love -- proceeding from the Father to embrace the Son, and, flowing back from the Son in acknowledgment of His Father -- is the bond of unity whereby the three Divine Persons are one God. The Father's love for the Son in the Spirit is the source of all joy in heaven and life on earth.
Behold! My Servant (My Son) in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. (Isaiah 42:1)
The Father willed to make manifest His love for His Son when, at Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, He declared in the hearing of John the Baptist:
This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased (Matthew 3:7),
and then – this time on the Mount of Transfiguration – the Father’s voice rang out once more from the overshadowing cloud and said to Peter, James, and John:
This is My beloved Son, listen to Him! (Mark 9:7)
For His part, Jesus -- speaking not openly but to the intimate circle of His Apostles -- several times mentioned the bond of love uniting Himself to the Father:
The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand.
The Father and I are one. (John 3:35; 10:30)
So, People of God, there is only one Holy Spirit of love, one joy, one rejoicing, in Heaven, it is the love of the Father, rejoicing, delighting, in His Son, it is the love of the Son responding wholeheartedly to His Father, by the Spirit. Therefore, when we hear Jesus say: There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who have no need of repentance,
He is speaking of the Father's rejoicing because one sinner has come to repentance through Jesus; that is, because one sinner, by acknowledging and repenting of his own sin and turning to Jesus, has rejected any self-righteousness of his own and become – by the Spirit -- clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. The Father rejoices in heaven over one sinner who has thus been transformed and reformed into the likeness of Christ and has become, thereby, a son in the beloved Son. St. Paul puts is very clearly for us (Philippians 3:8-9):
I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
God the Father does not delight in any way over people who, considering themselves ‘to have a righteousness of their own coming from their observance of whatever law’, consequently think they have no need to put on the wedding garment of the righteousness of Christ in order to enter the great feast in God’s heavenly Kingdom; and yet, as I have just said, the Father's love for the Son in the Spirit is the originating source, the total fullness and fulfilment of all joy in heaven.
Jesus said to the Pharisees, You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. (Luke 16:15)
John the Baptist, prepared the way for Jesus by preaching in the wilderness of Judea:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 3:1-2)
And Jesus Himself began His public ministry in a like manner:
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matthew 4:17)
And this call to repentance by Jesus was so urgent and so essential that He once declared in Jerusalem:
Unless you repent, you will all perish. (Luke 13:5)
Now that was not meant just for the inhabitants of Jerusalem of those days; no, it is meant for all mankind as St. Peter, at the very beginning of Mother Church's proclamation of Jesus, made totally clear:
Let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. This is the 'stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.' Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:10-12)
Repentance means, however, much more than just sorrow for the past; it requires a change for the future, as John the Baptist had told those who came to him:
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. (Luke 3:8)
Sincere repentance for the past, John warned, must also involve something he described vaguely as "bearing fruits” for the future. Since John was only preparing the way for Jesus, having reached this point he could proceed no further, it only remained for him to seal his witness by his death.
Jesus took up John’ legacy and advanced to where John could not go. Focusing His mission on calling ‘sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32), He showed clearly what John's vague words ‘fruits for repentance’ really meant, for the theme of Jesus' public ministry was to be:
Repent and believe the Good News. (Mark 1:15)
There can be no Gospel repentance without fruits arising from faith in Jesus, for God gives us the grace of repentance for our past, sin-scarred, lives in order to bestow on us the supreme gift of faith, whereby we aspire to live our future in loving witness and obedience to the Person and teaching of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Saviour, that is, as sons in the Son, by the Spirit, for the Father. For what is faith but a total self-abandonment, and -- in the power of the Spirit – commitment, to the overwhelming goodness of God revealed to us in beauty on the face and truth on the lips of Christ Jesus our Lord?
People of God, all this is implied by, and contained in, those "shocking" words of Jesus:
There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need repentance.
How wonderfully wise is God! How full of meaning and life are the Scriptures! One apparently shocking passage containing so much heavenly beauty and saving truth!
We have rightly gathered here today to praise and glorify God for His wondrous goodness to us in Jesus. And, having begun to appreciate the beauty of His wisdom, we must also seek to learn from His truth; for the fact is that Jesus came, as He Himself said, to call not those self-styled, so-called, virtuous ones, approved and accepted according to worldly standards, but those who were -- in their own eyes and before God -- sinful and desperately sick.
People of God, we are not holy, none of us; let us therefore learn from divine wisdom and accept that God rejoices not in any ‘home-spun’ holiness of ours, but exclusively in our grace-enabled rejection of self and love for Jesus. The only holiness that rejoices the Father is likeness to His Son, Jesus; a holiness which originally comes to us as an undeserved gift, but one in which we can share and gradually appropriate to ourselves in some measure by means of a life of true faith and loving obedience.
Our first Catholic and Christian duty, therefore, is to come before God in a spirit of repentance and offer Him the only acceptable worship, the worship Jesus first offered on our behalf and for our salvation on Calvary, the worship He continues to offer Personally in heaven and sacramentally at every Mass here on earth, the worship of His own sacrifice-of-Self-for-Love. Therefore we should always come to Mass to offer: Jesus, in the first place, for the glory of God and the salvation of mankind, and then ourselves -- in and with Jesus -- to the Father; then, indeed, can we fittingly make our requests of His mercy and compassion, and draw near to receive Holy Communion that we might have grace to fulfil in our lives the offering we have just made and give thanks for His great goodness.
People of God, if the wisdom and truth of God lead us to repentance and faith, then, through the sacraments -- above all through our participation at Holy Mass -- and our daily prayers, God’s power and majesty can be effective in and through our lives.
Therefore, let us praise our God today, let us admire and acknowledge the wisdom and the beauty of His truth as contained in the Good News of Jesus proclaimed by Mother Church, and let us put all our hope and trust in the power of His Spirit unfailingly sustaining and guiding her, and ever at work in our lives. Such worship is the wedding garment that will give us the right to take our seat at the heavenly banquet; it is the token of all those who belong to that flock of which Jesus is the true and supreme shepherd.