Exodus 32:7-11.13-14; 1Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32
Jesus was a sinner magnet. Whenever and wherever he showed his face the sinners came flocking: The tax collectors and the sinners, meanwhile, were all seeking his company to hear what he had to say. They like to be with him, in his company, and they liked to hear him speak.
There were two groups of sinners – those who knew they were sinners and those who didn’t. Those who knew who they were and those who didn’t.
The sinners who knew they were sinners liked to hear Jesus speak because he spoke words of acceptance, hope, reconciliation and love. The sinners who thought they were good and holy sought Jesus out in order to criticise, poke fun, catch him out and, finally, get rid of him. In a way I think they were actually afraid of him.
At any rate they were not pleased that Jesus welcomed the other group, and even ate with them: The Pharisees and the scribes complained. 'This man' they said 'welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
Jesus’ response is typical; he tells them a parable, three parables in fact. This was a good strategy. To set the naked truth before some people can be too confronting, it just provokes them to anger and aggression. Jesus ‘gift wraps’ the truth in a parable. He tells a story which encloses the truth he wishes to teach in such a way that his listeners are obliged to carefully 'unwrap' it and ponder deeply on the parable. Then, if they are of good faith, the truth will present itself plainly to their eyes.
What man among you, challenges Jesus, prodding the egos of his listeners to greater attentiveness: What man among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it?
Instantly the focus shifts from the lost sheep (the sinner) to the man who goes searching for it. This parable is not about the sheep, nor is it really about the sinner. Everyone knows it’s in the very nature of a sheep to get itself lost. When it strays from the flock it’s only doing its duty, so to speak, like an infant screaming in church. Every shepherd of sheep understands this. We should not be surprised therefore that the Good Shepherd, the shepherd of souls, knows that we humans are sadly prone to sin. He knows what we are made of, he remembers we are dust (Psalm 103:14).
The parable does not scoff at those who condemn the sinner, it just shows disbelief that such a person could exist. What man among you…? or in other words, ‘Could there be such a man among you, a man who would refuse to forgive a sinner!?’ And yet, ironically, unless one is attentive to Jesus’ use of hyperbole, there would probably be not a single man among them silly enough to leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness at the mercy of the wolves in order to save one lost sheep.
Hyperbole is extravagant exaggeration for the sake of making a point. When Jesus, for example, wanted to impress on his listeners how awful it is to commit sin he told them it would be better to pluck out their eye or cut off their hand. He exaggerated for the sake of the point he wanted to make.
In the parable we are considering it is the heart of the shepherd which comes under the spotlight, not the misdeeds of the sinner. The Pharisees and Scribes are, in a real sense, shepherds of the people and are offered this alluring image of a shepherd who loves each of his individual sheep with a preferential love.
In scriptural terms the flock of sheep is the Church: in which everyone is a 'first-born son' and a citizen of heaven (Hebrews 12:23). If the Pharisees and Scribes are seen as wanting in their love for God’s wayward children, the Good Shepherd, on the contrary, is shown as one who loves each of his sheep with all of his love and must therefore do all he can to ensure it stays within the flock.
No individual sheep is worth less than any other sheep, a fact reinforced by the parable which follows; no drachma is worth more than any other.
The merciful, loving heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the merciful, loving heart of God our heavenly Father. His mercy tirelessly seeks out each sinner and should the sinner respond there is delirious happiness and rejoicing in the whole court of heaven.
To every sinner in the state of mortal sin I say as simply as I can, ‘Your sin is not the big deal you think it is; the big deal is your return to the merciful love of God. Trust in his mercy, not in your sin. And if you continue to sin, continue to trust and to return to his mercy.’