25 September 2015
Golden Jubilee of Sr
The lost sheep, the ninety-nine and the Good Shepherd
The three parables in
Luke 16 about the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, according to
St Ambrose, reveal to us the divine remedy for the human condition that
comes from the Trinity, the Father representing God the Father, the Shepherd
Christ and the woman the Church.
The parable of the lost sheep has a cosmic as well as a
personal significance. It is a striking
image of the Fall, whereby man asserted his autonomy with dreadful consequences
for the race, and of the Incarnation and Redemption. The Son is sent, with His glad argreement, to
lift up and carry back the fallen human race to its true home. This is done at great cost to our Redeemer,
the great Shepherd of the sheep; it displays the patience of God and His
incomprehensible concern for ungrateful man.
Charles Péguy, the French writer, sees it poetically and not without
truth, as God’s perception of His profound responsibility for His
creature. God, he says, has put Himself
in need of His creature and, in a sense, given him power over the divine
Heart. “He lacks us, He lacks His
creature. He who is everything needs him
who is nothing” (The Portal of the Mystery of Hope). Lastly, the parable reveals the endless
rejoicing in heaven among the angels and saints at man’s reconciliation with
To recall the words of the short parable: “What man of you,
having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine
in the wilderness (Mt 18:12 has “on the mountains”) and go after the one
which is lost, until he finds it? And
when he has found it, he lays it on his own shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his
friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my
sheep which was lost.’ Just so, I tell
you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over
ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:1-7).
It seems permissible to identify with all three
protagonists in this parable about redemption: that is, the lost sheep; then
with the ninety-nine left in the desert or on the mountains: thirdly, even with
the Shepherd, since we are, by grace, sharers in the divine nature. Each member of Christ’s Body has been rescued
from original sin and redeemed by the saving death of Our Lord, through our
baptism lived out in faith, hope and charity.
Whether we have always been safely inside the sheepfold of the Church or
wandering outside, we have all been and still are being carried on the
shoulders of the Redeemer. In this
parable, Our Lord is addressing the situation where the sheep, that is the
soul, has been responsible for its plight, whether by a deliberate, wrong
choice or by a more or less culpable mistake.
In some way, it has failed to recognise the sheepfold fully for what it
is: the place where God dwells. It has
perhaps resisted the courteous requirements of the Shepherd, misunderstanding
that these keep it in the truth. Here is
Adam’s sin again: the desire for independence from God; and as in Adam’s case,
the result is immeasurable loss, exclusion from the happiness of the Kingdom
and, ultimately, moral and spiritual helplessness. The further the sheep strays, the less
capable it is of return. The further
from the source, the more it hungers and thirsts, without hope of being fed and
watered. The greener pasture which once
beckoned now seems dry and barren, even threatening and harmful. What can the sheep do? Almost nothing. It can, however, bleat – and the more
loudly and plaintively, the better the chance of being heard. It also looks in the direction from which it
hopes help will come. According to
St Bernard, the Christian soul in any difficulty turns its eyes to
Mary. Respice stellam. Voca Mariam.
Look at the star; call upon Mary.
The admission of neediness even works to the soul’s
advantage. As the Cloud of Unknowing
puts it: “When you feel that you are completely powerless … cower
down … and reckon that it is ridiculous to fight any longer. In this way you surrender to God while you
are in the hands of your enemies and feeling that you have been overcome for
ever. Please pay special heed to this
suggestion, for I think if you try it out it will dissolve your
opposition.” The reason is simple. It shows “true knowledge and experience of
the self”: in other words, humility.
“And this humility causes God Himself to come down in His might and
avenge you of your enemies and take you up and fondly dry your spiritual
eyes – just as a father would towards his child, who had been about to die
in the jaws of wild boar or mad, devouring bears!” The repentant and softened heart lays claim
on the compassion of the Shepherd.
Mourning is turned into rejoicing.
Says Ambrose: “Let us rejoice that the sheep that had strayed in Adam is
lifted on Christ. The shoulders of
Christ are the arms of the Cross. There
I laid down my sins. I rested on the
neck of that noble yoke.”
Humility, then, is the sheep’s salvation. May we also hear an echo in the parable of
the Lamb of the sacrifice, the ram caught in the thicket, which is substituted
for Isaac and symbolises Christ himself?
He allows Himself to become the lost sheep, as it were, of the heavenly
Father, who did not abandon Him but raised Him up from the dead and welcomed
Him into glory. It might be added that
He also accepts our endurance of our own personal frailty as a sacrifice
pleasing to Him and as a collaboration in His redemptive work. Graciously, it becomes, in His merciful eyes,
a meritorious trial, not a matter for blame.
What of the ninety-nine who need no repentance? In the context of the parable, this seems to
be an example of irony and a tilt at the complacent or rigorist. They exist in every age. The elder brother in the Parable of the
Prodigal Son is a case in point. The
first thing to note, then, is that every kind of ostracism or narrowness of
view is not the mark of the Christian.
Their absence in the repentant sinner is his or her saving grace. Our Lord makes it clear on more than one
occasion that a forgiven person is likely to be a grateful person, one whose
love flows spontaneously and unselfconsciously.
He or she has even a certain advantage over those who never strayed; for
humility is the only possible attitude to take.
St Gregory remarks that the man who has turned back in battle but
repents and goes on to pursue the enemy bravely gives the leader more joy than
the stolidly faithful ranks who never take any risks. Yet it is also Gregory who sees more deeply
into this question of the fidelity of the group, who, after all, may not
experience, necessarily, feelings of self-satisfaction or resentment. The target of the parable’s irony is not the
group as such, but a certain group attitude.
Repented sin and error are not, after all, the only teachers of
humility; one has only to think of a saint like Thérèse of Lisieux. The righteous person, who has the gift of
compunction, is especially close to God, suggests Gregory. He writes: “We may gather what great joy it
causes to God when the just man humbly mourns, if it produces joy in heaven
when the unrighteous by repentance condemns the evil he has done.”
While the just ninety-nine who mourn for sin can represent
the whole assembly of the redeemed, this special kind of mourning seems to me
the prerogative of a monastic house. By
our vocation, we put ourselves on the same level as the sinner, the lapsed and
the lost. By our penance and sacrifice,
we stand in for them, so to speak, and plead for them with the Shepherd of us
all. We accept to be left by Him in the
desert or on the mountain, both places of exacting encounter with God, so that
souls may be brought back to the Church and that its measure may become
full. The just ninety-nine are those who
await the Shepherd’s return in triumph, often with only the star of faith to
give them sufficient light. To make the
sheepfold attractive to the strayed, they seek to keep alive the gospel values
of love, obedience, praise, peace and innocence of life. They find the Lord’s presence, in union with
their brothers and sisters through the world, in the breaking of the Bread of
the word and in the Holy Eucharist.
These are the pastures the sheep always craved, perhaps without knowing
it. But the values have to be nurtured
by prayer, lectio divina and work. These
three indispensable elements of our life are closely linked. We pray and contemplate in our work, not only
in the sense that we pray while working, but also because the essence of such
work is the self-donation which is the heart of all prayer. Fr Jean-Marie Cattaui, speaking of Vera,
the sister and protector of Raïssa Maritain, says: “By dint of being Martha and
believing herself to be no-one but Martha, she has become Mary. For the work she does creates around her the
silence of love.” Work done with love,
for love, is true eloquence.
When we serve in joy and when we rejoice in the good, we
share in the life of the Good Shepherd.
St Ambrose has a splendid passage, in his commentary on
Ps 118/119, on the extraordinary attitude of Jesus, and therefore of the
Father, to the wandering sheep. This
passage brings together in a synthesis the Shepherd’s will to save, the sheep’s
will to be saved and the good will of the rest of the flock, “to think and to
do what is right” (cf Collect of the First Week of Lent, Feria V). The sheep speaks: “Come then, Lord Jesus,
seek your servant, seek your weary sheep.
… Come without dogs …
without the hireling, who did not know how to enter through the door … for
a long time I am awaiting your coming.
For I know that you will come: ‘For I have not forgotten your
commandments.’ Come not with a rod, but
with love and mildness of spirit. Do not
hesitate to leave your ninety-nine on the mountains; because the ravening
wolves cannot raid those settled on the mountains. … Seek
me; because I search for you. Seek me,
find me, lift me up, carry me (Suscipe me …).
You are able to find the one you seek.
In kindness lift him up, when you have found him, and when lifted up,
place him on your shoulders. The burden
taken in loving kindness will not be wearisome.
… I still hope for healing. Come, Lord, for you alone are able to recall
the wandering sheep. And those whom you
leave for a while will not be saddened, for they too will rejoice at the
sinner’s return. Come and bring
salvation to earth; joy to heaven.”
When we sing the Suscipe at our Profession, at a Jubilee,
at any time, we pray to be lifted up and accepted and brought to
salvation. We know, writes
Benedict XVI, that Christ truly “accepts us, draws us up to himself, into
himself, and in communion with him, we learn God’s will” (Jesus of Nazareth,
Volume I). He is the Lamb, who is
also the Shepherd, leading those who have learned his will by the quiet springs
“whose water is life” (cf Rev 7:17).
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