In today’s Gospel reading we are told that Our Blessed Lord was aware – did He just know their hearts or hear some whispered words? – 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 with Jesus, were in fact:
All drawing near to listen to Him.
We are all aware of the dangers of consorting carelessly with unprincipled people, and so Jesus did not rebuke them for their thoughts directly; instead, He spoke to them as to men with understanding and good judgement:
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 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, whilst leaving the very important flock of devout Pharisees and learned scribes out of consideration; 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).
However, Jesus was not seeking to antagonize the Pharisees and scribes and so He addressed them directly as possible owners of a considerable flock, not as mere shepherds who were lowly esteemed for their religious fidelity. 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.
In such a way Jesus’ opening words could have drawn muted assent from even such critically disposed listeners, and He could reasonably have hoped further that they might be able, tacitly at least, to 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, would 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 the saving Shepherd in both cases: the earthly shepherd had gone in search of the lost sheep and, on finding it, carried it on his shoulders back to the flock; and corresponding to that, we have the picture of another Shepherd, this time a heavenly one, Jesus, and the sinners gathering round Him to hear His words; sinners who -- despite appearances -- were not, of themselves, initiating a search for Jesus, but were, even to their own possible embarrassment, actually being drawn by the Spirit to Jesus.
In just the same way, and in each case, the lost sheep grazes until the shepherd finds what was lost
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.
That is the difference between a lost sheep and a lost human being, a human being 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 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, France -- are abandoning or have long abandoned their Christian heritage in favour of self-proclaiming scepticism and rationalism, and are even openly advocating 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 our faith it is not Christian dogma that needs to be quoted, even though that is the backbone of our life and the substance of our hope; it is not the superiority of basic Christian morality as taught by the Church -- though that is undoubtedly the case over the course of history and when sincerely studied and objectively appreciated What is needed above all for an up-to-date and effective ‘account’ of our Faith is living, personal, witness: witness, that is, to the joy and peace, strength and inspiration, each of us, as individual Catholics, finds in our experience of Jesus Himself, and in the beauty and strength of His truth in our appreciation of life and the experience our sufferings.
Toward that end, let us learn from today’s Gospel, and endeavour -- with those tax-collectors and sinners -- to draw daily 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 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 that can 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 fully appreciate and respond to His unique expression of divine love and eternal truth.