Third Sunday after Pentecost (11th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
"Lost and Found"
By: Rev. H. T. Henry
Introduction - The two beautiful parables which I have just read for you are taken from the 15th chapter of St. Luke. That wonderful chapter contains, however, yet a third parable - that of the Prodigal Son. All three of them speak of something that has been lost and found. There was, first of all, a lost sheep that had wandered away from the shepherd, one of a flock of a hundred. Next, there was the lost coin, one of ten, which a woman had herself dropped, or misplaced; which had fallen into some nook or corner and been lost to sight - and that meant, practically, lost to use by her. Finally, there is the lost son, one of two brothers, who had left his father's house and gone into a far country and lived riotously. Now, all three were found again; and it is very interesting and enlightening to observe how our Savior pictures the joy felt in the three various cases when that which had been lost was found again. The shepherd lays the lost sheep upon his shoulders, rejoicing; and coming home calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them: "Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost!" Following the very same impulse of joy, the woman who recovered the lost piece of money calls together her friends and neighbors, saying to them: "Rejoice with me, because I have found the coin which I lost." Finally, when the prodigal son returns to his father to seek forgiveness, that loving father does not repulse him, but declares to the angry brother that only merriment and gladness should be felt, "for this thy brother was dead and is come to life again - he was lost and is found!"
Now, the Gospel of this Sunday selects only the first two of these parables, leaving the third for separate consideration upon another day of the year - although all three of them treat, in various ways, of the loss of something and the joy experienced upon its recovery. But only in the first two cases does our Savior directly assert he meaning of the parables. The Scribes and Pharisees had murmured because Christ had received sinners and had eaten with them; and He answered them in a most wonderful manner. He does not attempt to soften the charge made against Him on the score that hospitality even to the wretched and the outcast is a fundamental human virtue; or that we should always try to be gentle and kind to all manner of people; or that it is a sign of magnanimity, of a great character of soul, to condescend to those who are very much beneath us. No, He goes very, very much beyond any of these excuses or explanations. He admits the charge made by His enemies and reinforces it; for not only does He receive sinners who come to Him - as the prodigal son was received by his father - but He even seeks after them, in order that He may receive them and eat with them! Like the shepherd, He does no await the return of the sheep, but leaves the flock in the desert and does not rest until He finds that which was lost'; and when He finds it, declares that there is more joy in haven over that one recovered sheep - that one lost sinner - than upon ninety-nine just. Again, like the woman who has lost a piece of money, our Savior will go to greatest trouble to recover the coin stamped with God's mage; and when He has found it, knows that all of heaven will rejoice with Him.
It was a marvelous answer given by our Lord to His accusers, and one that should greatly encourage us in the work of saving our souls. He is not merely willing to receive us after we have been lost to Him by sin; He himself is constantly seeking after us - why? Are we of any value to Him? He Himself has declared that after we have done all the things we should do in His service, we must still consider ourselves unprofitable servants! Why, then, does He still seek for us, as the shepherd sought the sheep, or the woman the piece of money? Are we indeed of any value in this vast universe?
A - Relative Values - Christ represents Himself in the character of a shepherd seeking after a lost sheep. Of what value is a sheep? That is a question that might be answered variously. The world has what it styles a "market valuation." But this changes from day to day, and, like nearly all human things, depends on the character of the demand. In a time of famine it is high; in a time of plenty it is low. But many other considerations enter into the decision of such a question, as economists will know. There is, however, another side to the question. The so-called market value may be expressed in terms of money, but scarcely in terms of the shepherd. If he is wealthy, a single sheep is a matter of slight consideration with him. But if he is poor, one sheep may, like the ewe-lamb in the great parable of the prophet Nathan in the Old Testament, be his all, and therefore of greatest value to him,
Now, it is interesting to reflect that our Savior pictures the shepherd not as the prophet Nathan had pictured the poor man, as the possessor of a single ewe-lamb, but as having in his charge a large flock of one hundred. The owner, the, was not poor; and if one sheep were lost, no great damage would be suffered. In his anxiety to recover the one that was lost, the shepherd nevertheless leaves his flock in the desert - a possible prey to wild animals - and goes in search of the lost sheep. A modern painter has attempted ideally to present this thought to us, of the silly, helpless, bewildered animal that wandered off from its fellows in the flock, and has fallen over a steep place. Wounded, bruised, capable of wandering away, but not of retracing its steps, the sheep looks up helplessly at the shepherd who at length has discovered the object of his long search. But how shall even he reach it? The painter represents him as perilously grasping the branch of a tree which grows out of the steep side of the cliff, while with the disengaged hand he is reaching down and gently folding the lost sheep to his breast. The meaning of the picture is plainly set forth, for the shepherd is none other than our Savior Himself, represented with the traditional features and dress of the shepherd and Bishop of our souls.
Our savior has indeed a large flock to look after, the billions of human souls that, generation after generation of this world's history, enter into its arena, and the, after a few brief years, silently depart thence for the house of their eternity. And yet the parable reminds us of the care and love He has for each one of that innumerable company of human souls!
In the second parable, that of the lost piece of money, we are reminded that the sum lost was in itself inconsiderable - a groat - and that after all, small as it was, it was but one of ten. But the woman nevertheless was most diligent in searching after it until she had found it, and then was so rejoiced that she called in the neighbors to share her joy and to utter their congratulations.
Now let us remember that, in these parables, our Savior is answering the complaints of His enemies, that He received sinners and broke bread with them. He is not pointing out to His accusers the inconsiderable value of the sinner, but rather is He urging the value of that which He seeks after. His Divine argument might be stated in this form. "If a shepherd having as many as one hundred sheep displays so much interest in the recovery of a single one of them; and if a woman, having ten groats, searches so diligently after a single one of them, although in this case the amount is both absolutely and relatively so small, why should not I show equal concern to recover a lost child of Abraham?" And all this leads up to the parable of the prodigal Son - not a sheep out of flock of one hundred, or a groat out of ten, but one of two brothers, and therefore a great loss to a father, both absolutely, as being his son, and relatively, as being one of only two sons.
B - Positive Values - And so our Lord led His hearers on gently to a consideration of the positive value of the human soul, whether that soul be one of two, as in the parable of the Prodigal son, or one of ten, as in that of the lost groat; one of a hundred, as in the parable of the Lost Sheep, or one of the innumerable souls of all human history. We must endeavor to understand this better; for indeed it is to us, to each and every one of us, that our Savior is speaking, as well as to those who accused Him, in the olden time of receiving sinners and eating with them.
Doubtless there is a feature of these three parables that must strike all who read them thoughtfully. In each of them, our Lord speaks of one thing that was lost, and not of several or of many things. This is strange and a striking feature. For his accusers spoke in a plural way, namely, that He had received not one sinner, but sinners; and our Lord continually speaks of one thing that was lost, whether sheep, or groat, or son. Do we not at once get a glimpse of the positive value of the soul? Our Lord does not perform the wonderful work of our salvation in a universal, or even a general way. His task is, on the contrary, individual and special. True it is that the vast human family comprises a multitude of souls; but not thus does our Lord save them. He died for all on the Cross; but each individual soul was present to His divine comprehension in those hours of agony, just as the weight of our sins that bowed Him to the earth n the Garden of Olives was a weight made up of the sins of each individual soul, and each one of these sins was vividly present in His Divine understanding. Just as He died on the Cross for all, and yet had in His mind each individual comprised in that vast multitude, so are the fruits of His death applied to our souls, not in a general or a universal fashion, but individually and in a very special manner. Each one of us strays from the flock of Christ in his own way, by his own special choice of evil, by yielding to his own special temptations of dishonesty, or lust, of drunkenness, of anger; by neglecting his own special graces and the Divine warnings imparted to his own individual soul. If, being thus lost to Christ, we are to be found again, it will only be by means of His special and individual search after our soul. Surely, that single individual soul which each one of us possesses must have a great value!
Our Savior insinuated this great value also on another occasion. In the Sermon on the Mount, He called attention to the universal and yet particularized knowledge of the Eternal Father. "Behold," He cried, "the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you of much more value than they?" And again, on another occasion, He goes further into the question: "Are not two sparrows," He asks, "sold for a farthing? and not one of them shall fall to the ground without the permission of your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore, better are you than many sparrows."
Ah, brethren, the love of our heavenly Father is for us a particular love, not a general one. In His Divine knowledge we appear before Him, not as a multitude, but as children appear to their mother, who has for each one of them an individual love. If the very hairs of our heads are numbered, be assured that our soul is an object of very special knowledge to our Father who is in heaven.
What, then, is this positive value which the human soul has in the sight of God? Why should there be such rejoicing in heaven over one soul that does penance, more than upon ninety-and-nine just that need not penance? I will not speak to you of the natural beauty of the soul - of its wondrous faculties of intelligence and of will, of its spiritual nature and of its immortal life. naturally, it is a masterpiece of the hand of God; and we can understand something, perhaps, of the pleasure an artist receives in contemplating the perfection of his handiwork. But I will simply recall the amazing words in which the sacred Scripture speaks of the creation of man. After all the other works of creation had appeared good in the sight of their maker, God said: "Let us make man, to our image and likeness." To God's image and likeness are we made! And this likeness to our maker resides in the spiritual part of our nature, that is, in our soul. How precious this must be in the sight of God! It is wonderful that He should wish to reclaim His own? Upon our souls God reads His own image and inscription. The groat He has lost is of exceeding value in His eyes, and He will search for it, like the woman in the parable, until He finds it, and will rejoice very greatly at its recovery, and with Him will rejoice the whole court of Heaven!
In addition to the value which the soul possesses as being the image and likeness of God, there is the value it has because of His Divine love for it - a love scarcely estimable by us, who are but finite creatures, with limited affections and desires, with a narrow horizon of intelligence, with a contracted human sympathy. Unlike the shepherd of the parable, who merely spent time and effort in the recovery of the lost sheep, our Savior has pictured Himself to us as the Good shepherd who in truth laid down His life for his sheep. We are therefore redeemed, as the Apostle reminds us, at a great price, and are of exceeding value in the sight of the Eternal Father.
There is another basis upon which to estimate the value of our souls. It shall be for us this morning the final one. God loves us so much, and we are so precious in His sight, because we are brethren, in the flesh, of His only-begotten son, and by adoption can claim Him as our Father. Even should we be like the Prodigal Son in the parable, yet will our Father receive us back into His house with greatest joy and forgiveness.
If, then, we be as the lost groat, yet are we of great value, as we bear upon us the image and inscription of our Maker. If we be as the lost sheep, yet are we of great value, as redeemed by the most precious Blood of the Good Shepherd. If we be as a lost child, most precious are we to Him whom, by the spirit of adoption which we have received, we can address as Abba, Father!
C - The Pathway of Penance - In our consideration of the three parables we have learned, first, that God seeks for us with greatest diligence and most loving care; second, that He does this because, unlike the sheep or the groat, we appear to possess for Him a very positive value, and not the relative value of one out of ten pieces of money, or one out of a hundred sheep; nay, not even the relative value of one of two sons. Each one of us has a special and individual value in His Divine sight. What a comforting thought this must be to each one of us, for we are all sinners, have all gone astray from the Shepherd and bishop of our souls. Even in the midst of the greatest degradation into which we may have fallen, we are aware of the divine eye that continually is searching us out, of the Divine Love that is unceasingly following after us.
A final aspect of the parables will now challenge our attention. does it seem significant to you that, in the case of the sheep and the groat, which are not things gifted with reason, the parables represent their recovery as the work of the shepherd and of the woman, while in the case of the Prodigal son, who was a creature gifted with reason, and therefore responsible for his being lost, the parable represents his recovery as his own work? "I will arise and will go to my father," said the prodigal. The shepherd searches for the lost sheep, the woman sweeps the whole house in order to find the lost piece of money; but the father of the prodigal remains quietly at home, while his lost son is spending his inheritance in riotous living.
There is, indeed, a significant distinction drawn by the parables. The lost sheep and the lost groat could not put forth any effort to be restored to their owners. If they were not diligently sought for, there was no hope for their recovery. The son who was lost to the household of his father must himself return to that household. For he is gifted with reason and, therefore, with responsibility.
Nevertheless, it remains true that God does really search for the shinning soul, although that soul must itself co-operate with God. We know that our Savior did, as a matter of fact, leave His heavenly kingdom to come down upon this earth of ours and to search for that which had been lost. This He did visibly, a Man amongst men, preaching and teaching with this human tongue of ours, suffering heat and cold and fatigue and anxiety and sorrow in His long journeyings through His mortal life, in order that He might find us, until at last He laid down His life for us on Calvary.
He is now at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for us, and still, by that endless intercession, searching after the souls that through their own fault have been lost to Him. But He is no longer visible to our human sight.
Here the lesson becomes of greatest importance to us. Christ, our Savior, is really searching after that which is lost. He is looking for you and for me. But, as we are beings having a reasonable nature, His method of dealing with us is one adapted to our nature. His appeal is to our reason and our heart. Every sting of our conscience, every warning contained in the sermons we hear, in the books we read, in the terrible accidents that mark for others the certainty of death and the uncertainty of its time and manner; every aspiration we have after higher things, every weariness we at length experience in the fruits of our sinning - what are all these things but the continual search made by our Savior to regain our souls? The inspirations, the warnings, the hopes and the fears we experience, are to us reminders that He is looking for us, is stimulating our energies to make the effort to return to Him and to our Father's house. And that inestimable love which He has for us, which urges Him to a continual search after us, which prompts us to return to Him, and which alone gives us the strength to do do - that Divine love will assuredly receive us upon our return, not with reproaches and punishments, but with an overwhelming gentleness and kindness. The joy filling his Sacred Heart will flow over into all the Kingdom of the blessed; for there is more joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance than upon ninety-nine just who need not penance.
Conclusion - The three parables teach us these important lessons: that God does most truly desire our salvation; that, as we are reasonable creatures, that salvation must be accomplished by co-operation of our wills with the Divine Will; and that, in every step of that co-operation His grace inspires us, accompanies us, sustains us, rewards us. We may not sit down idly, waiting, like silly sheep, to be placed on the shoulder of the shepherd, but must say, with the Prodigal Son: "I will arise and will go to my Father."