A LOST PERSON WOULD BE GOD’S DEFEAT
"For love is strong as death; its jealousy lasting as the power of death. No flood can extinguish love nor river submerge it" (Song 8:6-7). With these famous images, the irresistible force of love is described in the Song of Songs. Whoever gets involved in an emotional bond runs a significant risk because love presupposes freedom and entails the possibility of rejection and failure. Even jealousy, torment, anxiety, fear of abandonment, and all the emotions we call heartbreak are all part of the game. "Love makes me sick," repeats the bride of the Song of Songs (Song 2:5; 5:8).
God wanted to take this risk: he has agreed to be weak and considered the possibility of defeat. We always imagined him all-powerful, but in love, this prerogative is excluded from the game's rules. This term is never attributed to God in the Bible, and rightly so because God has somewhat restricted his own power since he created the universe with its own laws and gave man freedom. It is what the rabbis called contraction, concealment, and auto-limitation of God. God cannot force; he must win the loved person over. If he’d played on the effect of fear or would threaten punishments, he would have lost the game; he would not create love but hypocrisy.
In Jesus, God has experienced failure several times. Jerusalem has not corresponded to his love: "How often have I tried to bring together your children as a bird gathers her young under her wings, but you refused"(Lk 13:34). In Nazareth, he could not perform any miracle (Mk 6:5-6); the rich young man responds with a refusal (Mt 19:16-22). In Revelation, God is not called omnipotent, but ‘Pantokrator,’ which means the One who has all in hand. Men are free to make their play, but God runs the game with unparalleled skill in the challenge of love. It is hard to imagine that he lets it get out of hand.
Now we can understand the words of Jesus: "There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine upright, who do not need to repent" (Lk 15:7). The greatest joy of the lover is the reconquest of the beloved, and hearing her repeat: "I will go back to my husband for I was better off then than now!" (Hos 2:9).
To internalize the message, we repeat: "We have known and believed in the love God has for us."
First Reading: Exodus 32:7-11,13-14
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved. They have soon turned asidefrom the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, ‘This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ I see how stiff-necked this people is,”continued the Lord to Moses. “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord, his God, saying, “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’” So the Lord relented in thepunishment he had threatened to inflict on his people. — The Word of the Lord.
In Egypt, since the first dynasties (3000 B.C.), the bull was the image of the great god Ptah of Memphis, the creator god on whom the fertility of the fields and animals depended. The fertilizing floods of the Nile were attributed to him. Symbol of strength, the bull was often depicted in scenes of magical character. He was embalmed and mummified to immortalize the virtues. Many religious ceremonies were celebrated in his honor in the majestic temples. The Israelites had seen them; it fascinated them, and perhaps they were even a little seduced.
After seeing so many miracles worked by the Lord during the exodus, they should have left behind all the pagan practices. Instead, having just arrived in Sinai, while Moses was on the mountain to talk to the Lord, they handed Aaron their jewelry and melted the gold to mold a bull (Ex 32:1-6).
The first part of the reading (vv. 7-10) describes the indignant reaction of God to such infidelity. The Lord said to Moses: "Now just leave me that my anger may blaze against them. I will destroy them but of you, I will make a great nation" (v. 10). Faced with such a proposal, many of us probably would have been happy to become fathers of a family of ‘righteous people.’ Instinctively we would separate our responsibilities and distinguish ourselves from the guilty. But Moses does not flee, remains united to his people; he prefers to die with the brothers rather than save himself.
The second part of the reading (vv. 11-13) shows the prayer of Moses. Our text is introduced thus: "And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said.” The expression used in the original Hebrew text should be translated as: ‘And Moses began to caress the face of the Lord, his God, saying.’ Moses acts like a child, and seeing his dad angry, he begins to cuddle him until he snatches a smile. The image of Moses, who caresses the face of God, is one of the most beautiful of the Bible.
Perhaps the scene surprises and disconcerts us because it presents a good Moses who speaks softly, and God instead is angry and needs to regain his calm. Yet, with this image taken from our human world, God shows that he wants us to pray to him with trust and confidence. With what words does Moses caress the face of the Lord? What reasons would we have presented to God to get him to desist from his anger? Perhaps we would have said: ‘See, Lord, they have repented; they will not repeat the mistake ever again; the sin committed is not so serious.’ All vain talk because man—as we know—never ceases to be a sinner; he always repeats the same mistakes.
Moses is wiser: he understands that he could not rely on the goodwill of man and that the only way to salvation is to trust in the goodness of God. He begins by reminding the Lord of the unconditional promises to the patriarchs and concludes: I do not want the Egyptians to say that you have not kept your word! This is the only valid reason to hope for salvation for all: the infinite Love of God, a Love that will never be overcome by any human infidelity, no matter how great it may be.
The conclusion (v. 14): "The Lord changed his mind and would not yet harm his people." What did the Israelites do to deserve God's mercy? Nothing. They were silent. The Lord did everything by himself: he remembered that his promises were unconditional and forgave his people. If we were to confide in our strength and ability to perform virtuous acts, we would have every reason to despair. It is much safer to put our trust in God's gratuitous love.
Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Beloved: I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry. I was once ablasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life. To the king of ages,incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. —The Word of the Lord.
Do we have any evidence to say that God does not condemn anyone? Certainly! Paul gives us the irrefutable proof in the passage of the First Letter to Timothy proposed to us today. He says: “I had been a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a rabid enemy. There was no one worse than me. However, the Lord took mercy on me.” Why did this happen? Because “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first" (vv.12-15).
Paul affirms that God used him as an example to show how great is his kindness (v.16). If someone like him, an enemy of the faith, the chief of sinners, have received mercy, will someone be still afraid that God will treat him severely? One might object: Paul was wrong (it's true), but he was not so guilty because he did not realize he was doing evil (1 Tim 1:13); the people of Israel returned to pagan idolatry out of ignorance. The sheep—of which we will talk about in today's Gospel—has been lost due to a mistake ... for this, the Lord was understanding. Is it perhaps because someone sins differently? Is there someone who, when he sins, really knows what he is doing? (cf. Lk 23:34).
Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them he addressed this parable. “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? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicingamong the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” — The Gospel of the Lord.
The so-called parables of mercy will be offered to us in this Sunday’s Gospel. The third, that of the prodigal son, was already commented on on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Today we will just comment on the first two: the lost sheep and the lost coin. These two stories are easy to interpret. Jesus seems to invite the disciples to search for sinners (thieves, corrupt, and adulterous ones ...) and to move them and entice them to return to the fold.
The main objective is entirely different. It is necessary to define who the recipients of the three parables are to capture the purpose. The introductory verse leaves no doubt: "Tax collectors and sinner were seeking Jesus eager to hear what he had to say. The Pharisees and the scribes frowned at this, muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. So, Jesus told them this parable ..." (vv. 1-3).
Those then are not the disciples, nor the sinners, but the Pharisees and scribes, therefore, the righteous. Strange, but true: those called to conversion are not the sinners, but the righteous.
Let us try to understand the reason behind the complaints of the Pharisees and scribes. The rabbis recommended: "Man must not join the wicked, not even to get them to follow the law of God." It was therefore prohibited to accept an invitation to dinner with publicans and sinners. But Jesus did worse: he not only accepted the invitations of these disreputable people, but he welcomed them in his house (‘receives sinners’).
The scribes and Pharisees would have nothing to say if Jesus had invited the sinners who, after prolonged fasting, prayer and penance, would repent and make amends. They, too, travel by sea and land to win a single convert (Mt 23:15). What they did not understand he was a friend of sinners who remained as such (vv. 1-2). They accused him of organizing a feast for them. At some point, they require an explanation. Each banquet reflects and, in some way, anticipates the great dinner that will be laden at the coming of the Kingdom of God. In it, there will be no place for the wicked and the ungodly, but only for the righteous. Does Jesus not know this, pretending to ignore it, or worse, wanting to challenge the tradition of the rabbis?
The three parables are the answer, the self-defense of Jesus. He does not tell these parables to convince the sinners but to help the righteous to review their ideas. In all the three parables, joy is spoken about (but not all share it), and a feast is organized (in which not everyone is willing to participate). Who is in, and who is out?
Sinners are the lost coins and sheep; however—this is a strange thing—now they are all around Jesus (we stress this all that appears in the first verse). They live in the house with him; they are having a feast; they participate in the banquet of the Kingdom. Instead, the ‘righteous’ are out and are likely to stay there if they do not change their way of thinking, do not realize what is happening, and do not understand the newness that God reveals. It is in this perspective that the three parables are to be read.
The lost sheep (vv. 4-7).
Since its inception, Israel has been a pastoral people. It is not surprising that the Bible often speaks of lambs, sheep, and goats (more than five times) and that many texts employ the pastoral language to describe the concern, tenderness, and care of God for his people. It suffices to recall the famous Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" (Ps 23:1) or the moving scene of the exiles’ return from Babylon: "Like a shepherd, he tends his flock: he gathers the lambs in his arms. He carries them in his bosom, gently leading those that are with young" (Is 40:11).
Jesus also often uses this image. Seeing the large crowd that followed him, he—says Mark—"had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd" (Mk 6:34). In today's Gospel, he takes up the same picture and tells a parable that contains several illogical details. The shepherd's behavior is unrealistic: he discards the ninety-nine sheep in the desert and runs from house to house, calls friends and neighbors, hosts a feast for a relatively trivial incident. Then, we have an obvious disproportion between the part of the story concerning the discovery of the sheep and the one dedicated to the feast, which occupies more than half of the parable.
These oddities direct us to the real meaning of the passage. The rabbis taught that the Lord is pleased with the resurrection of the righteous and rejoices in the destruction of the wicked. Jesus reverses this official catechesis and announces the true feelings of God. God —Jesus says—is pleased not with the destruction but with the resurrection of the wicked: "There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner, than over ninety-nine decent people, who do not need conversion” (v. 7). The Father "does not want even one of these little ones to be lost" (Mt 18:14) and organizes his feast for people who do not deserve it.
The doctrine of just retribution is a cornerstone of rabbinic theology. Jesus openly contradicts it, showing that the tenderness and the kindness of God are not addressed to those who deserve it but to those in need. For the Pharisees, it is surprising that there is no reference to any reproach, to any punishment (some pastors broke a leg of the sheep that used to get away from the flock) and that any gesture of goodwill or repentance by the sinner is not presupposed.
The recovery is all the work of God, who wants only the good of those who did wrong. This is not intended as an invitation to become sinners to be loved by God but to recognize themselves as such in front of him. The ‘righteous,’ in addition to putting their lives in order (because all are sinners and it is always difficult to define who is more and who is less), must correct their concept of God.
The criticisms they level against Jesus and the rules of separation they impose result from the false image of God they have in mind. It is a dangerous image because it prevents participation in the feast. The ninety-nine sheep remain in the desert, and only the stray gets home because it lets itself be carried by the shepherd. The false idea of God is dangerous because it results in fanaticism, intolerance, rigorism, and alienation from God. To help the sinner to find God, it is a must to tell him—as Jesus does—the truth about God.
We should help him know that God is not a judge to be afraid of, but a friend who loves always and God sets free and makes happy the one who is plunged into an abyss of death.
The lost coin (vv. 8-10).
The rabbis used to repeat twice their most important lessons to imprint them better in the minds of their listeners. That is why Jesus tells the parable that contains a second teaching almost identical to the previous one. We find the same inconsistencies: the explosion of the unbridled joy of the woman who finds the coin and the feast to which friends and neighbors are invited.
Compared to the parable of the sheep, there is a new element: the very lively description of the woman’s concern, her effort, patience, and perseverance in the search for the coin: "lights a lamp and sweeps the house in a thorough search." It is the image of God who is not resigned to losing one of his creatures (the number ten is a symbol of the whole community) and does not sit at the eternal dinner banquet until the last of his children has not entered his house.
The three parables emphasize the complementary aspects of conversion. The first two stress God’s initiative, not man’s, in the conversion process. It is God who is always looking for those who are lost. The parable of the ‘prodigal son’ (Lk 15:11-32) highlights God's respect for human freedom. The Father does not force his children to stay indoors nor even compels them to return: He can wait!