“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?”
Our Lord presents us today with two practical examples of searching for and finding lost things. The second makes sense: A woman who has lost a significant amount of money rejoices at finding it and invites her friends to celebrate with her. It’s a bit like that moment when you happen upon a $20 bill in the pocket of a pair of pants.
But then He gives us another example that I have to admit that I do not understand. If you had 100 sheep and one of them wandered away and was lost, would you leave 99 perfectly good sheep alone in the desert, without food or water and vulnerable to wolves and other predators, to go in search of that one sheep? I certainly would not. So what is our Lord saying?
The point is that Jesus is not a shepherd like other shepherds. He does not follow the rules of human common sense, of human calculations of what is profitable and what is not. He does not consider the cost-benefit ratio of going after the lost sheep.
What our Lord wants to convey to us through this Gospel today is that He is in pursuit of us. Motivated by His infinite love and mercy, our great and almighty God has condescended to take on our human flesh and, in the person of His only Son, to seek after us. All the lost sheep has to do, then, is to allow himself (PAUSE) to be found.
No one can speak better to this theme of being found by the Lord’s grace than the apostle St. Paul, who speaks about his own faith journey in today’s epistle. St. Paul, as you may remember, was originally Saul, a tent-maker, Jewish religious zealot, and passionate persecutor of Christians in the years immediately following our Lord’s Ascension into Heaven. He was on his way to imprison and put to death a community of Christians when the Lord appeared to Him on the road, knocking him off his horse as frequently depicted by artists, blinded him, and sent him to the Christians for healing and Baptism. Saul wasn’t looking for God, but God was looking for him.
When St. Paul writes to St. Timothy in today’s epistle he tells him, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant.” He clearly confesses his faults, his persecution of Christ and His Church (and Christ in His Church – remember, our Lord asks him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”). And so he tells us forcefully, “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.”
St. Paul, the greatest of the Apostles – the Apostle to the Nations who converted tens of thousands of souls to Christ, who spent every single ounce of energy in his body to spread Christ’s Gospel from Jerusalem to Turkey to Greece to Rome to Rome and to everywhere in between – the foremost of sinners?!?! (PAUSE) “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant” … but, “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, our salvation starts with a simple confession: “I am a sinner.” This is what it means to allow God to find us, to become like that lost lamb for whom the Good Shepherd has left the 99 sheep in the desert. “I am a sinner.”
A few years ago I had the great privilege of being able to go on retreat in the Holy Land. We spent an entire week in the countryside of Galilee, the land around the Sea of Galilee where our Lord spent the great majority of His three years of active ministry, crossing back and forth across the lake to visit the little towns, sleep under the stars, and preach on the sides of hills. As we were driving along one day, I saw a shepherd tending his sheep, looking not much changed from our Lord’s own day. As one of the young lambs began to stray from the group, wandering off on its own, I thought, “Oh, this is it! I’m going to have this amazing scene of the shepherd going after the lamb, throwing it over his shoulders, and bringing it back to the group” – just like all those figurines of the Good Shepherd I’m sure you’ve all seen. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead of running after the lamb and hoisting it over his shoulders, the young shepherd did something else entirely. He bent down and picked up a handful of pebbles, and began to toss them one after another in an arc towards the lamb’s hooves.
I was devastated. Here was the perfect opportunity for a real life version of a Palestinian shepherd behaving as the Good Shepherd, and instead the guy decides to just be a jerk and throw pebbles at the lamb. Can you believe it?!?!
And then I realized – maybe this young shepherd was more like Christ the Good Shepherd than I initially realized. You see, Christ spoke to St. Paul in an extraordinary way – a flash of light and a voice from the sky, blinded until he confessed his reliance on Christ’s Church. He picked up the straying lamb and carried him to the fold.
And there are times in our lives when this does happen, if we are open to God’s grace and able to realize them. Times when we are overwhelmed with God’s infinite love and mercy, when we are moved to fall on our knees and thank Him for His overwhelming kindness. Sometimes, God finds us.
But most of the time, we have to recognize, God finds us in other ways. Most of the time, he is more like that young Palestinian shepherd throwing pebbles. Those pebbles, my brothers and sisters, are our conscience.
God has planted within us a voice, a desire for moral truth and right living, an urge to follow what we know to be true and to live our lives in accord with the God who made us and wants us to be truly happy. The voice of our conscience, if it is well-formed by the teachings of Christ’s Church, is the voice of God within us. It is the pebbles thrown at us by the Good Shepherd, moving us to return to Him, finding us in our weakness and our failure, loving us always in spite of our seemingly endless falls.
This is an essential point: We all have a tendency to want to be found by the Lord on our best behavior and looking our best, our problems solved and our best foot forward. But that is not how the Lord found St. Paul, and it is not how He will normally find us.
Oftentimes, or indeed most of the time, the Lord finds us when we are at our worst, when we have failed and are ashamed, when His loving and tender voice, calling us back to the sheep-fold of grace, doesn’t sound so loving and tender, but sounds grating, harsh, and accusatory. It is the pebbles thrown at the lamb by the Palestinian shepherd boy, the voice of the conscience.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord will find you, and if being found by Him leaves you uncomfortable and afraid, if that voice seems accusatory and harsh, rather than loving and tender, could it not be because of our own failures and weakness rather than because of the voice itself? Sometimes the Church, our loving mother, must speak to us in ways that seem difficult, when She challenges us in ways that are unexpected, when She seems to intrude into areas of our lives where She would be unwelcome – the workplace, the voting booth, the bedroom. But the voice of the Church is the loving and gentle voice of Christ, calling us back to the truth and to God the Father’s merciful love. She is our conscience, the voice of God speaking within us, God in search of us.
Once again, my brothers and sisters in Christ, allowing God to find us begins with a humble confession, “I am a sinner.” And we are able to make this humble confession because of the voice of God within us, our conscience. It is the sign of God’s love for us, not just stereotypical Catholic guilt, but the voice of God in our souls, calling us to a loving relationship with Him and to live in accord with that relationship.
Admit that you’re a sinner, and you will allow God to find you!
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Fort Wayne
XXIV Sunday through the year, A.D. MMXVI