Sunday Gospel Reflection for 24th Sunday of the Year September 11th Written by Fr Brian Maher OMI
Quite a number of years ago I was working in a boys Boarding/Day School in Australia. Each Sunday I celebrated Mass for the boarding community, which, as it happened, had quite a few boys from sheep farming families, living on ‘stations’ and farming huge swaths of land.
I well remember one Sunday finding myself facing this particular Gospel. With all the ignorance of a non-farmer I preached passionately about the wonderful shepherd who had such care for his sheep as to leave the flock in order to find the one who was lost. After Mass two fourteen-year-old boys came up to me and said, “Just want to tell you, father, that Gospel is wrong. It would never happen!”
They went on to explain that they came from a sheep station, where losing a sheep in the vastness of the terrain was not unusual. “No shepherd could afford to leave the flock to search for a lost sheep. If he did, he would never manage to get the flock together again.” Needless to say I had to bow to their greater knowledge and came away slightly disillusioned and never quite able to read this Gospel with ease again.
Luke, we’re told, was a Greek physician and would, therefore, not have had the expertise of my Boarding students to advise him. We might, therefore, excuse his historical inaccuracies when it comes to the working life of shepherds. Regardless of historical accuracy the story is a parable and therefore it is the meaning we take from it that matters, and that meaning is clear: Every human person has a dignity and value which is absolute in the sight of God. No human person is ever written off or abandoned or judged to be ‘lost’ by God. There is always hope, always forgiveness, and always the possibility of being found and joyfully returned to the flock.
It is a beautiful parable with a message of infinite hope. It also, as does all the Gospel, challenge us to review the way we think of, and treat, others. How many people do I ‘write-off’ each day as ‘useless’ or ‘beyond redemption’, a ‘waste of space’, or ‘evil? I do it casually while watching television, reading newspapers, or on-line. When talking, how often do I label groups as ‘unworthy of my help’, as ‘cheats, drunks, and criminals’, as ‘them’ – as if they were invading aliens from another planet? The homeless, prisoners, ‘boat people’, immigrants, the poor, those on drugs….so many! Even the harsh or critical words I say to my children, partner or shop assistant somewhere, are not reflecting the person I am called to be. Every one of these people, every one of the ‘them’ are individual human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, just as I am, and loved eternally by God, just as I am.
The shepherd does not ask if the lost sheep is worthy of being saved. He does not say, “Is this the sheep who is always wandering off. If so, it’s not worth saving.” Nor does he say, “If this sheep cannot stay with the rest of the flock, then we’re better off without it.” No, a sheep is lost, and it is the shepherd’s job to find it.
It is very easy to say, “It’s OK for God to be a good shepherd. He/she is God and perfect and can do anything. It’s a lovely story, but don’t expect me to do that!”
But look closer and you’ll see that the shepherd in this story is not God or Jesus. This is not the parable of the Good Shepherd, which we find in John 10:1-21. In that parable Jesus does describe himself as the Good Shepherd, who goes so far as to lay down his life for his sheep. Jesus can say that with some authority, because that is exactly what he did!
In today’s parable of the ‘sheep and shepherd’, the shepherd is not God, but a very ordinary human shepherd, overworked and stressed and paid very little, yet he still goes looking for the one sheep he has lost. It is not presented to us as something God does or can do. It is presented to us as something all of us can and must do.
In the story God is looking on from Heaven, watching what is happening and then rejoicing beyond measure when the shepherd finds the sheep. The shepherd recognises the unique worth of every sheep in the flock. All of them are of equal value and worthy of being saved. By searching for and finding the sheep, the shepherd not only saves the life of the sheep, but he also treats the sheep with respect and dignity, giving that sheep a worth and value, a gift which is, in fact, far greater than carrying it back to the flock.
You see, all of us, at times, can feel so low, so much a failure, so guilty, that we are tempted to give up on ourselves. Circumstances change, we become ill or unemployed, we become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and we suddenly find ourselves homeless and with nothing, reduced to the indignity of begging for a few coppers to buy food. We are moved on, ignored, despised. No point in saying, “I was not like this last year. I do not want to be like this!” Nobody has time to listen.
At times like these, and we all experience them in some shape or form, how much would we love just one person to notice us, to stop and say, “You are valuable and worthy of rescue.”
This beautiful parable is not about God or Jesus being a shepherd for us. It is about the call each and every one of us has to be shepherds to each other. It is not idealistic or impossible or something only God could do. Treating people with respect and dignity is not beyond us. It is the way I would like others to treat me. If I can legitimately expect it of others, why should I not expect it of myself?
Won’t it be so sad if basic human qualities like compassion, kindness, respect, and dignity become so little experienced in our world that we cease to expect them of ourselves and expect them only of God?
When we become immune to human suffering, or when horror and tragedy become so commonplace among us that it is accepted as inevitable and not challenged as wrong, then we become cold, hard, cruel people, unable and unwilling to see beyond our own tiny worlds.
When truth becomes no more than personal opinion and when even the most obvious objective realities can be dismissed as ‘fake news’, then we become governed by fear and lost in an ever-diminishing world which is focused only on ‘me’!
In any of these scenarios there is no place or room for empathy or sympathy or compassion. We become so consumed by fear that any act is justified if it protects the world I have build around myself. There is no need for shepherds in these places, only ever more powerful police forces to protect my narrow self-interests.
This is where the Gospel challenges us to look with fresh eyes at all we have been given. Regardless of what we are told compassion and respect for others are possible and worthwhile. Regardless of what we see around us, we are called to be shepherds and it is possible to be a shepherd.
Our words alone, if they are unbiased and unselfish can be enough to rescue a lost sheep. Small acts of kindness, unnoticed by others can be enough to bring someone home again.
The sheep who is lost will remain lost unless someone cares enough to find and return it to the flock. We are challenged today to be shepherds, searching for, never giving up on, reminding others of their eternal worth and value.
And we can be sure of this. God is watching, and waiting, and hoping. God rejoices beyond measure when we restore dignity and value to even one human life.
Isn’t that wonderful? … that we will stand before God and God will smile and say, “I watched you when you spoke to that homeless person on the street; I didn’t miss the kind words you spoke about those forced to leave their own homes to seek refuge with us; I was so pleased that you spend time with that lonely widow or grieving family.
Yes indeed, “There is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents and is saved…”.
And there is!
|Gospel Sunday September 11th 2022||Luke 15:1-10|
There will be rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner
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