24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sept. 15, 2013
Luke 15: 1-10
Ursulines, Willow Dr., N.R.
St. Paul writes today: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). The 1st reading offers us an example of God’s mercy from Israel’s history (Ex 32:7-14), and in our 3d reading Jesus tells 2 parables to illustrate God’s mercy; the long form of the gospel adds 3d parable, the Prodigal Son, which I’m sure you know and I didn’t have to read to you (15:11-32).
Jesus has been called “the new Moses” because he gives God’s people a new law and mediates a new covenant. The 3 readings today show us Jesus as a new Moses because he intercedes for sinners, saves sinners from God’s justified wrath, as Moses did after the Hebrews forged and worshipped the golden calf. In his ministry Jesus goes further, reaching out to sinners in God’s name (cf. Luke 15:1-2). The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons (both are lost, tho not in the same ways) are Jesus’ apologia pro vita sua.
There’s a contrast hidden in the 1st 2 parables. A sheep is a valuable piece of livestock, one that a shepherd would naturally do whatever he could to keep with the flock and protect. Still, it’s one animal among a hundred; a man with 100 sheep would be a man of some wealth. Would the loss of one matter so much to him? If the shepherd is a hireling (cf. John 10:12-13), it’s unlikely that he’d risk losing the 99 to look for the one; Jesus tells us in John’s gospel that hired men don’t really care about the sheep. Assuming this shepherd is alone—the parable seems to suppose so—no reasonable shepherd would leave 99 sheep to themselves while he went looking for one stray. He’d be likely to return and find another 10 or 20 animals missing, either because sheep are notoriously dumb creatures and quite apt to wander, or because predators attacked the flock while he was away. The one sheep isn’t worth saving at the risk of losing many others.
On the other hand, the woman who has lost a drachma has lost something precious. The drachma was the equivalent of a denarius, the Roman coin which our NAB infelicitously renders as “the usual daily wage,” which is not a translation but a commentary. That does, however, tell us what this woman has lost and why she turns the house upside down searching for it. We had a similar experience in our house on Tuesday when our receptionist, who’d been on vacation the previous week, discovered her office keys were missing from her desk. She cleaned out one drawer, searched high and low in other drawers and various places, likely and unlikely, without success, and she left a note where all the confreres would see it. Overnite the keys were returned to her desk with said note, and one confrere—dare I say “sheepishly”?—admitted to having used them and forgotten to put them back. So on Wednesday there was rejoicing among the angels of the provincial house (cf. 15:9-10).
Two commentaries note that the search of the shepherd for his lost sheep, and by implication also the woman’s for her drachma, are like God’s “relentless pursuit of souls” in Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven. Another commentary makes the point that neither the sheep nor the coin is capable of being found and restored to its proper place by its own power; the intense, active search of the shepherd or of the housewife is essential to its being found: the 1st parable “illustrates God’s concern for men who lack ability to find him,” and the 2d “intensifies the picture of human helplessness and divine concern.”
Taken together, the 2 parables show God’s concern for everyone, the least and the greatest, those counted as important and those of little worldly account. Everyone is equally precious in God’s eyes and, as we’ll hear in next Sunday’s 2d reading, “God our savior wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Christ, in God’s name, has come for all sinners, none of whom are capable of finding their way back to God’s grace. Rather, God’s grace must find them and restore them, and God has no greater joy than when a sinner repents and is restored to the flock, when something valued—the human person—is found and restored to its rightful owner.
Unlike a sheep or a drachma, more like the sinner so relentlessly pursued by the “hound of heaven,” we have a choice—not a choice in being pursued or being found, but in allowing ourselves to be rescued. In that, we’re like the 2 sons in Jesus’ 3d parable so familiar to us. The younger son allows himself to be welcomed home by his father; we don’t know whether the older son is open to grace.
In Luke 15 Jesus is challenging the Pharisees and scribes to be open to God’s grace in the sense of welcoming the repentance of “tax collectors and sinners” and of rejoicing, like “the angels of God” over their being saved. Perhaps that’s not so much an issue for us. Perhaps our issue lies in recognizing our need to be found by grace.
Whatever manner of sinner you and I may be, our heavenly Father is searching for us thru our Lord Jesus. Can we hear his voice calling us to turn away from some fault, some moral failing, calling us to return to his flock and be safe? Can we perceive his light probing into some dark corner of our heart, trying to find our deepest self and put us back into the divine purse? In the Collect today, we prayed “that we may feel the working of your mercy” and “may serve you with all our heart.” Surely there’s a prayer for conversion there, a prayer that we may be found and let ourselves be saved.