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“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. One always runs a big risk—we know it—who gets involved in an emotional bond: love presupposes freedom and entails the possibility of rejection and failure. They are part of the game even jealousy, torment, anxiety, and fear of abandonment and all the emotions that we call heartbreak. “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 put into account the possibility of defeat. We always imagined him all-powerful, but in love, this prerogative is excluded from the rules of the game. This term is never attributed to God in the Bible, and rightly so, because, since he created the universe with its own laws and has given life to a free man, he has somewhat restricted his power. It is what the rabbis called contraction, concealment, auto-limitation of God.
God cannot force; he must win the loved person over. If he’d play on the effect 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 One who has in hand all. Men are free to make their play, but in the challenge of love, it is God who runs the game, with unparalleled skill. 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 decent people, 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.”
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 the fourth Sunday of Lent. Today we will just comment on the first two: that of the lost sheep and the lost coin. These two stories are apparently easy to interpret. Jesus seems to invite the disciples to go in search of sinners (thieves, corrupt, adulterous ones …) or 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 in order to capture the aim. 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 who are 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 he had invited the sinners who, after long 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 was his behaving as 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 them to convince the sinners, but to help the righteous to review their ideas. In all three parables, joy is spoken about (but not all share it) and a feast is organized (to 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. The “righteous” instead are out and are likely to stay there if they do not change their way of thinking if they do not realize what is happening, if they do not understand the newness that God is revealing. It is in this perspective that the three parables are read.
Since its inception, Israel has been a pastoral people. It is not surprising that the Bible speaks often of lambs, sheep, and goats (more than five times) and that many texts employ the pastoral language to describe the concern, tenderness, and the care of God for his people. Suffice 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 behavior of the shepherd is unrealistic: he forgets the ninety-nine sheep in the desert and runs from house to house, calls friends and neighbors, hosts a feast for a rather 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 rejoice in the destruction of the wicked. Jesus reverses this official catechesis and announces what are the true feelings of God. He—he 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 of 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), they must correct especially their theological ideas about God. The criticisms they addressed to Jesus, the rules of separation they impose, are the result of 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. It is especially dangerous because it is at the origin of fanaticism, intolerance, rigorism, and alienation from God. To help the sinner to let oneself be found, it is a must to tell him—as Jesus does—the truth about God.
Make him know that God is not a judge to be afraid of, but a friend who loves always and any way and experiences his greatest joy when he can embrace when he sets free and happy one who is plunged into an abyss of death.
The rabbis used to repeat twice their most important lessons to imprint them better in the minds of their listeners. That’s 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 uncontrolled 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!
Italian missionary and biblical scholar
In no other parable has Jesus desired to let us penetrate so profoundly the mystery of God and, in that mystery, the human condition. None other is so timely for us as that of the «good Father».
The younger son says to his father: «Give me the share of the estate that will come to me». To demand this, he is for all intents and purposes asking for his father’s death. He wants to be free, to break all bonds. He will not be happy until his father disappears. The father gives in to his desire without saying a word: the son must freely choose his own path.
Isn’t this the situation today? Many today want to see themselves free of God, being happy without the presence of an eternal Father on their horizon. God must disappear from society and from our consciences. And just as in the parable, the Father keeps quiet. God coerces no one.
The son goes off to «a distant country». He needs to live someplace else, far from his father and from his family. The father sees him leave, but doesn’t abandon him; his father’s heart accompanies him; each morning he will be looking out for him. Modern society gets further and further away from God, from God’s authority, from the memory of God… Doesn’t God accompany us while we go on losing him from sight?
Quickly the son sets himself up in a «life of debauchery». The original word in Greek doesn’t just suggest moral disorder, but an existence that is insane, unhinged, chaotic. All too soon his adventure begins to turn bad. A «severe famine» comes about and he only survives by taking care of pigs as the slave of a foreigner. His words reveal his tragedy: «Here am I dying of hunger».
Inner emptiness and hunger for love can be the first signs of how far we are from God. The road to freedom isn’t easy. What are we missing? What could fill our hearts? We have almost everything: why do we feel so hungry?
The youth «came to his senses» and, drowning in his own emptiness, remembered his father’s face, associated with the abundance of bread: in the house of my father «they have bread» and here «I’m dying of hunger». In his inner heart he awakens the desire for a new freedom next to his father. He recognizes his mistake and makes a decision: «I will leave this place and go to my father».
Will we get on the road to God our Father? Many would do that if they would know that God who, according to Jesus’ parable, «ran to his son, clasped him in his arms and kissed him over and over». Those embraces and those kisses speak of God’s love better than every theology book written. Back with God, we can encounter a more worthy and happy freedom.
Translator: Fr. Jay VonHandorf