God’s Impractical Economy of Redeeming the Lost

FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER

PENTECOST

Exodus 32:7-14

Psalm 51:1-10

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Luke 15:1-10

Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Luke 15:4.

I, for one. Look, I know that all of us urban types get misty eyed about lost sheep. But anyone in the business of keeping them knows that they are not cuddly little pets. They are commodities, like cantaloupes. When a cantaloupe falls off the truck, you don’t expect the driver to stop his eighteen-wheeler on the interstate to retrieve it. So, too, a shepherd who manages to get ninety-nine out of one hundred sheep safely through the wilderness and to market has done a pretty good day’s work. The loss of one or two, whether of sheep or cantaloupes, is simply an expected cost of doing business.

The same cost benefit analysis is made with human lives on a daily basis. When someone has been lost at sea for an extended period of time, the search and rescue effort is eventually terminated, whether or not the poor lost soul is found dead or alive. A person can only be expected to survive on the open ocean for so long. Of course, it is always theoretically possible that a person cast upon the sea will find a piece of driftwood or some floating refuse to hang on to and arrive days later at the shore of some uninhabited island to eke out a lonely existence with little hope of rescue. But the probability of anything like that happening is close to nil. The expense of continuing the search and the danger it poses to those involved in the rescue mission are very real. Thus, at some point the lost sailor is “presumed dead” and life for the rest of us goes on.    

Sacrificing the life of one for the good of the many is a common societal practice. In ancient civilizations, human sacrifice was practiced to placate the gods. While we might judge this conduct barbaric, it seems imminently sensible from the standpoint of a community convinced that its survival dependeds upon placating the gods who control the weather, the growth of crops and the migration of animals essential to the life of the tribe. I am not convinced that this ancient form of human sacrifice is any different from a government’s decision to undertake a public project, such as a bridge, tunnel or large building. No matter what precautions are taken, fatal accidents are statistically certain to occur. The cost of such fatalities is written right into the budget proposal in the form of insurance premiums and projected benefits to survivors. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are making a determination that the benefit of the public project to all of us is worth the cost of the few lives likely to be lost in building it.

Of course, there are costs involved in not proceeding with public projects. If the bridge or tunnel is not built, how many people will lose their lives because emergency vehicles are forced to travel further in order to reach certain parts of the city? What if the proposed building houses a medical clinic for an underserved population? Unless we resign ourselves to some form of fatalism that denies the efficacy of human agency altogether, we need to make informed decisions and take responsibility for the inevitable risks involved. That brings me back to Jesus’ parable. It seems to me that leaving ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and at the mercy of wild animals, thieves and the sheep’s own proclivity to wander off, all to find one lost sheep that is probably already dead, defies logic, prudence and plain common sense.

The the parable, however, reflects God’s logic, God’s providential purpose and God’s wisdom. As the Prophet Isaiah reminds us, God’s way of reckoning is quite beyond our own.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9.

Jesus would have us know that his Heavenly Father thinks differently than we do about the value of each human life. For God, no life is expandable. That is why the father in Jesus’ parable races down the road to embrace his estranged son. It is also why that same father pleads with his resentful elder son to join the celebration of his brother’s return.[1] The parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin were not written chiefly for the benefit of the sinners and the outcasts. They are not lost. They are drawing near to Jesus. It is the resentful son, the incensed religious leaders who stand aloft who are lost. Jesus would have them know that the gentle reign of God cannot come until they, too, are drawn into the circle of God’s redemptive love. The greatest good for the greatest number of people is not good enough. God will not accept any losses. God will continue calling, cajoling and pleading with us until God is finally able to weave all of our lives into the fabric of a new creation-for as long as it takes.

So to all who tell me that guaranteeing health care for all people, ensuring safe shelter for all people, creating programs ensuring that no one is food insecure is too costly and burdensome for society and that we simply cannot afford it, I respond that, if we hear these parables rightly, it is too costly not to provid these lifegiving services. For those who justify their greed, selfishness and indifference by blaming the poor for their plight, I ask you to point out to me any instance in the New Testament where Jesus inquired into the worthiness of anyone he fed, healed or forgave. For everyone who thinks that saving the lost among us will end in economic ruin, I would recommend that you begin fearing God a bit more than inflation. For there is more joy in heaven over one child fed, one recovered addict, one refugee given a home than there is over the best day Wall Street ever had.

Here is a poem/prayer by Michel Quoist for one who is lost and for all those caught up in his lost condition. Here, too, is an expression of the extent to which God will go and to which Jesus calls us to go in order to find and redeem the lost.

I found Marcel Alone

It was about noon when I knocked at his door.

I found Marcel alone, still lying on the bed which was now too

big for him;

His wife had left him a few days ago.

It hurt me, Lord, to see that poor fellow so discouraged, that

          house half empty.

A presence was lacking,

A love was lacking

I missed the bunch of flowers on the mantelpiece, the powder

          and lipstick on the wash-basin, the bureau scarf on the

          bureau and the chairs properly arranged.

I found the sheets dirty on the bed wrinkled like an old face, the

          ash-trays filled to overflowing, shoes scattered on the floor,

          a rag on the easy-chair, the blinds closed.

It was dark, dismal, and stuffy.

It hurt me, Lord.

I felt something torn,

          something unbalanced,

Like a mechanism gone wrong, Like a man with broken bones.

And I reflected that what you had planned was good,

And that there can be no order and beauty, love and joy, outside

of your plan.

I pray to you tonight, Lord,

          for Marcel and for her

          and for the other one

          and for the wife of the other one

          and for his children

          and for the families involved

          and for the neighbors who gossip

          and for the colleagues who judge.

I ask of your forgiveness

          for all these lacerations,

          for all these wounds,

          and for your blood poured out, because of these wounds,

          in your Mystical Body.

I pray to you tonight, Lord, for myself and for all my friends, Teach us to love.

                     **********

It is not easy to love, son.

Often when you think you love, it is only yourself that you love.

          and you spoil everything, you shatter everything.

To love is to meet oneself, and to meet oneself one must be

          willing to leave oneself and go towards another.

To Love is to commune, and to commune one must forget oneself

          for another.

One must die to self completely for another.

To love hurts, you know, son.

For since the Fall-listen carefully, son-to love is to crucify self for another.

Source: Quoist, Michel, Prayers (c. 1963 Sheed & Ward, Inc.) Translated by Agnes M. Forsyth and Anne Marie de Cammaille. Michel Quoist (1921-1997) was ordained a priest in1947. A French Catholic of the working-class, Quoist reveled in presenting Christianity as part of gritty daily reality, rather than in forms of traditional piety. He was for many years pastor to a busy city parish in Le Havre, France serving a working class neighborhood and developing ministries to young people through Catholic Action groups. Prayers, the book from which the above poem was taken, has been translated from the original French into several languages including Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Swedish and English.

 


[1] I believe that the two parables in Sunday’s lesson find their meaning in light of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The tragedy of the elder son-as of Jesus’ critics-is that he does not understand that he is lost.

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