“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the Pharisees and scribes say, complaining about Jesus. Jesus replies offering three stories about something or someone being lost then found. The first two stories deal with the “lost sheep” and the “lost coin.” In the story about the lost sheep, the shepherd realizing that one of the 100 sheep are missing goes out, leaving the 99, to find the lost one.
The image is a powerful reminder of God’s love and his concern for the lost. God represented by the shepherd leaves the 99 so that he can find the missing one. He does not evaluate the pluses or minuses of leaving the 99. He does not write off the lost sheep as a lost cause. He does not minimize the loss by forgetting about the lost sheep and concentrating on the ones with him. Rather, he goes out and with all his might seeks the one who needs him most.
The theme is similar to that of the story of the lost coin. In both stories there is great rejoicing when the sheep or the coin that was lost, is found.
The passage climaxes with the story of the “lost son.” The commonly called “Prodigal Son” is a story of great love. The son who first demands his share of his future inheritance squanders it on dissolute living then finds himself in destitution. His father remains at home longing for the son’s return. His brother, who remained faithful to his father, likewise is at home assisting his father.
When the lost son decides to go home he expects to be treated like a servant for his behavior was so unlike a son. His father, however, has different plans. When he sees his son coming from afar he runs out to welcome him home. He pours out his love in mercy and rejoicing.
The theme of the lost and found has great import for us. The stories remind us of the bountiful love of God. Though we may sin and turn away from the Lord, or we may get lost due to different circumstances that life may bring, we are never far away from God’s mercy. He is always ready to welcome us home and will rejoice at our coming.
When we consider the ministry of Jesus as “the one” sent from the Father to show us the Father’s love and to offer himself as an act of mercy, the stories take on an additional meaning. As disciples of Jesus we learn from Him about how to live, how to act, how to interact, how to love and how to be loved.
In following in his footsteps, we too are called to be persons of love and mercy with the same type of love that Jesus and His Father have for the “lost,” or the sinner. We are called to be the instruments of His love and mercy in the seeking out the “lost” or the “sinner” or the “outcast [tax-collector].” And like the shepherd, the woman and the father, we too should rejoice at their return.
I recently met a man who came back to the Church after many years of being away. He had a long series of problems and challenges in life. As a young adult he had gotten involved in drugs, then battled with alcohol. At times he had nowhere to live, his family had enough of the stealing and disruptive behavior. At times he had nowhere to work. At times he had wandered aimlessly. Speaking of faith he told me that it was a neighbor of his who invited him to come back to church. He said “she was well aware of my problems, addictions and behavior yet she wanted to help. She told me that God loved me and that He was the best one from whom to seek help. She said that coming to Church and praying with so many others could be a source of strength and support in my struggles. She did not label me. She did not condemn me. She did not exclude me. Rather, she offered me love.”
The man continued, saying that when he started going to Mass again he was felt welcomed and supported. He calls it an experience of God’s love.
The neighbor in this situation simply invited the man to Mass. Coming back to church the man found love, mercy and strength to face his struggles. This would not have been possible unless someone offered him the invitation to return.
Today Jesus is calling us to be his instrument of mercy and love. He teaches us by his very life to be the shepherd who seeks the “lost sheep,” the woman who seeks the “lost coin” and the father who seeks the “lost son.” He calls us to seek the lost and to rejoice when they are found.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.