Basit Zargar, Shepherd, 2019.
[Jesus said] “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? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy…… ‘ Luke 15:4-5.
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The quick, professional answer to Jesus’ question above is “no-one”. It would be crazy to leave 99 sheep alone as you go wandering after the one lost somewhere. Yet there is the Lord saying that that is what he would do. As shepherding was one of the most widespread activities at that time, everyone I’m sure would wonder at this statement. What is he getting at? It was certainly a great way of getting their attention! Now look at today’s first reading. The Hebrews had been wandering in the desert for some time now, and had not yet reached the Promised Land. Grumbling had started; some even suggested they were better off as slaves of the Egyptians rather than being stranded in a desolate wasteland. In fact, they had reverted to pagan ceremonies and were worshipping a golden calf, a symbol of happier, more structured and reliable way of life. God was not pleased! In fact, God stated that they would all be “consumed” in blazing wrath! But Moses pleaded with God not to do that, and mentioned the successful struggle to get out of Egypt, the divine promises made to Abraham about abundant descendants and a “perpetual heritage”, the land itself. He even reminded God that that was the promise made to them. God relented and withdrew the threat, despite the waywardness of the people, now worshipping a golden calf! St. Paul also mentions waywardness, his own, when he was trying to destroy the early Christian community, when he was “a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant”. But abundant mercy had been shown him; Jesus had come into this world to save sinners and he was the foremost, as he says. And then there is today’s gospel. The shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, the woman who lost her single coin. We live with a God who is perfectly aware of our failings and weakness, who might well be furious about what we have done despite sending his only Son to let us know what we should do and not do, yet is still merciful. I believe each one of us is that lost sheep, lost but aware that we have a shepherd who will always be there searching for us, and when we allow ourselves to be rescued, as today’s reading says, “there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents”. The longer gospel today concludes with the parable of the Prodigal Son, which hammers this central point home with a vengeance.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Batoni 1773, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
One of Jesus’ most well known parables, it shows the depths of forgiveness of which we should all be capable. This young man took all his (premature) inheritance and ran off with it to have a good time, spending everything. Reduced to penury by his ill-considered actions, he was reduced to tending pigs. Note that. A Jewish man taking care of pigs, a specifically forbidden food according to Deuteronomy 14:8, indicates he was destitute in a distant foreign land. Then came the wondrous insight: he came to his senses. Then several small indications of the father’s forgiveness follow. First, although he was returning home, his father saw him before he saw his father. The older man had been on the lookout for his prodigal son all that time, hoping for him to return. Then the repentant son had prepared a little speech begging forgiveness to be delivered to his father. His father, however, overjoyed at the return of his son, reacted in joy even before his son could complete his speech! Then his other, older, son on learning what had happened, refused to go into the house to join in the celebration, he was that angry. So his father came out to him, to plead with him to welcome back his brother, the one who was lost, as his father put it, and was found; was dead and has come back to life. There is no word from Jesus on this young man’s response, but is is clear what Jesus’ expectation is. Forgiveness is expected of us all, as it comes from God and should flow through us.
I invite you to consider the extreme example of forgiveness exhibited by the Amish people in 2006 following a most terrible crime. Reflect that when a wrong is done against any of us, there is a choice. We can refuse forgiveness, allowing for the possibility of the wrong to take root in us and become a festering hatred, a cancer which might almost threaten to destroy us. On the other hand, forgiveness, although extremely challenging, perhaps seemingly impossible, allows us to move on, older and wiser, in the knowledge that God stands with us. Remember those final words from the Cross itself, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”.
Father Forgive Them, Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Kimberling City, Missouri, USA.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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