And when [the shepherd] comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’ (St. Luke 15:6).
Today’s Epistle and Gospel present us with two vivid images of the Devil and God. In the epistle, St. Peter’s words should sound to us like the grave orders of a commander writing to his besieged troops. Time and distance separate us from our apostolic father, but we face the same immortal enemy he describes as a roaring lion, stalking the earth, seeking whom he may devour. When we hear the word lion, we probably think of the noble creatures we see at the zoo, or maybe Aslan from the Narnia books, but for 1st century Christians, the lion was one of the exotic animals the Roman Empire used to torture and murder their Christian brothers and sisters for the amusement of their neighbors in the arena. This reality always makes me cringe when tourists go to Italy and take smiling selfies at the Coliseum: a monument to pain built with treasure stolen from the Jewish Temple and soaked in the red tide of Christian blood. We wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing at Auschwitz, but since a recent study found two thirds of American Millennials can’t tell you what happened at Auschwitz, I may be speaking too soon.
Humanity’s memory is a fragile thing; it really only takes one generation for us to be convinced of the eternal nature of an idea or to lose sight of a truth humanity swore it would never forget. From things like relying upon African and Chinese slave labor to provide so many of our goods--an uncomfortable fact left out of our very earnest national conversations on race because we would have to actually change our lives to do anything about it--to abortion, an American genocide which steals more of our citizens every year than all 4 years of WWII. My own generation lost 24,514,530 souls, which may be one reason Millennials don’t care much about Auschwitz, since they live in it.
Our great enemy uses our fragile memories against us. If you don’t think the Evil One is powerful, and knows us better than we know ourselves, what else can explain how we went from hanging Nazi abortionists at Nuremberg to paying taxes to murder our own babies within a generation. God does not change, but Satan is entirely adaptable to our suicidal fads, and he can even convince us that old ideas are new. Satan, leaning on our fragile memories can convince us we reinvented sex or babies aren’t people or we shouldn’t care for strangers or people with darker skin aren’t really human and on and on and on.
To fight this evil that feels so right, St. Peter tells us we must live in a constant state of humility. We do that by submitting ourselves to the service of our fellow Christians and falling on our knees before the awesome truth of God. We clothe ourselves in humility so that we might not buy into the illusion that we don’t need to be saved—the illusion that our self-righteousness and self-assurance are enough. Of course, they aren’t enough, but I think we all know that—deep down—our fading strength, our decaying attractiveness, our fragile memories, our every possession will not be enough to save us from the lion and the grave.
And so, what St. Peter, reaching out to us through eternity, wants more than anything else is for us to humbly submit to the salvation only found in the arms of the Good Shepherd. Peter uses the analogy of a shepherd in his epistle because our Lord so often referred to Himself as a member of this humble class. An example can be found in today’s Gospel where Jesus uses the example of a shepherd diligently searching for his one lost sheep to illustrate the rescue mission that is His life. What necessitates this parable is the vicious self-righteousness of the Pharisees who scold Jesus for dining with repentant tax collectors and sinners. We see this same pattern over and over again in Jesus’ earthly ministry. A fuller example can be found in the calling of St. Matthew, “After this [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them” (St. Luke 5:27-29). Jesus goes out into the world and finds the broken, sinful men and women of His people and gives them a new life of repentance and hope, and these lost and found people respond through a joyful feast with the Lord. By the grace of Father and the power of the Holy Spirit you are about to do the same thing today.
The Pharisees though, bathed in self-righteousness, hate all of this. In their mind, a person was saved by his ability to jump through the hurdles they had erected and controlled. They were the gatekeepers of a man-made moralism which surrounded and superseded the law of God, and their jealous love of this power caused them to “grumble” when the most obviously lost souls of their community were turning from lives of sin and death to follow the Living God. St. Luke uses the word “grumble” both in chapter 5 and chapter 15 because he is connecting this blindness to the blindness of the unfaithful Israelites during the wilderness wanderings. At that time, God had saved the Israelites from slavery and death in Egypt by supernaturally forcing the most powerful king in the world to bend the knee and release His people, but this great act of divine mercy was met with the grumbling complaints of fallen men who refused the salvation wrought by the mighty hand of God. In the time of our Lord, God the Son had descended from His heavenly throne to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel and build a church whereby even the Gentiles might approach their Creator in peace, but the Pharisees joined their lost forefathers in self-righteous contempt of God’s work. Self-righteousness is always the thin veneer over the insane belief that we can negotiate the terms of our surrender to God. We cannot; we are lost, and we must be found.
To these self-righteous grumblers, Jesus reveals a God who has come to save. Anyone who has been in a church that even half-way decently presents the Gospel is probably familiar with this concept, but it was a revolutionary idea when Christ first uttered it. Our entire history as a species reveals the need of a savior, and God steps into that blackness to save the lost. To better illustrate this idea, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd going out into the dangerous wilderness and carrying a lost sheep home. Despite our culture’s fascination with rebels and loners, being lost isn’t cool or sexy; it is nothing but that feeling we get in the pit of our stomachs when we don’t know where we are. Our Creator compares the lost humans of the world to a dumb sheep which has put itself in mortal danger by ignoring the commands of the shepherd. It would be perfectly reasonable for the shepherd to cut his losses and continue on with his 99 sheep, but this shepherd enters the wilderness, itself a consequence of the fall, to carry the lost sheep on his shoulders. The image is not of a savvy church shopping sheep who chooses the shepherd who feels right; no, the shepherd carries the bewildered animal back to the fold while rejoicing. The sheep cannot be self-righteous because it has done absolutely nothing to be saved by the shepherd, and so the only response to this saving act is to join in with the rejoicing shepherd— to be carried by his love and joy.
How amazing is the revelation that God Himself rejoices when we repent and submit to His life transforming rule? How amazing is the revelation that God is not some abstract force or evil tyrant or imaginary best friend, but a searching God who is moving heaven and earth to find his sheep and rejoice in their presence forever? Betraying that God through sin or lack of good works would be the same as kicking the shepherd in the eye as he carries us from death to life. Failing to rejoice along with the shepherd as our brothers and sisters are brought from death to life would be the most ungrateful response imaginable for anyone saved by His mercy and love alone.
And so, Christians should be the most joyful people you know. Not because our lives are easier, far from it, as compromising with the evil, dying world will always be easier than following the Good Shepherd and the pastors he has left in charge of His flock (just ask the dead of the Coliseum or the men and women who sacrifice their precious time to serve the needs of the church, the godly women who nurse her imperfect saints so they may pass through the darkness alive, the fathers who every day murder their own selfish desires to lead their families to God); no, the Christian life is not an easy life, but the Christian life is one of joy and hope because we have been found by the Shepherd, and He is dragging us back to the fold. The life which springs from this reality should be one of joy and purpose as we embrace the call of God to forsake all and follow Him. We are, in our own imperfect ways, to reveal the saving power of God to the lost sheep of planet earth, to use our love and gifts to draw mankind to the Eucharistic feast we enjoy every week and the repentant, transformed life that is to follow it. Our lives are to be living evidence that Jeremiah’s prophecy has come true, “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:10-14). This prophecy has been made real in Christ. Let us forever rejoice in our salvation; let us forever rejoice that we have been found.