“Why does this man receive sinners and eat with them?” grumbled the scribes and the Pharisees. Knowing the pride they harbored in their hearts, Jesus spoke to them this parable. “What man is there among you,” He said, “who, having lost one sheep, will not leave the other ninety nine in the wilderness to find the lost one? And having found it, will he not carry it upon his shoulders, rejoicing? And when he returns to his home, he will call his kinsmen and his neighbors and say, ‘Come, rejoice with me, for I have found the lost sheep.’ Even so,” says Jesus, revealing to us a glimpse of a world both far beyond our own and yet intimately engaged with it, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven at the repentance of one sinner, than at the ninety nine righteous who had no need to repent.” (Lk 15:1-7).
“But why should that be?” asks the petty rationalist loitering in our midst. “Would it not have been better if the sheep had never been lost? Similarly, would it not have been better if the younger son in that other parable no one understands never abandoned his duty to his father, left his home, squandered his inheritance upon whores, fed husks to a herd of swine, and then, ragged and hungry, limped his way home, to fall to his knees before his father? Would it not have been better if he had been like his older brother?”
I believe that these parables can only be understood in the glorious light of Easter: for a sheep without a shepherd in the middle of the desert is as good as dead, as was the younger brother, according to his own father’s joyous testimony, for he had come to life again. Consider the status, under the eyes of heaven, of two merchants in Victorian London. For one, religion is a matter of public decency and respectability. He gives alms, because that is what a decent and respectable man does. He is honest in his accounts. He makes money, lives comfortably, raises decent and respectable children, does not drink too much, and makes merry on the holidays, with a certain respectable moderation. The other, an old man named Ebenezer, has thrown over all decency and respectability. One Christmas morning he awoke to find himself, much to his surprise, alive. “I am quite a baby!” he said, and though he was no theologian, he could not have more succinctly expressed the heart of his newfound faith. He has given himself entirely up to the One from whom all he has is a gift. He has risen from the dead.
Why should there not be rejoicing in heaven, when one rises from the dead? That, after all, is the meaning of following Jesus. “Amen, I say to you,” He says, letting us know the strange secret of life, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.” We must then all die, to be reborn. What would it take for the Pharisee to eat with the harlots and the publicans? Or to place himself with the man at the back of the temple, and say, “O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”? Why, it would kill him to do that. It would put to death his sense of self-sufficiency. It would bring to life the knowledge that all he has is a gift from God; and that includes even the gift of his righteousness.
Christian poets have always intuited the truth, that the coming to life of a single soul is the most wondrous thing in the world; and yet at the same time that it is a necessary thing, even a common thing — for to the truly pious mind, wonders are everywhere to be found. It is to save Dante’s soul that Beatrice leaves her footprints upon the floor of hell. King Alonso in Shakespeare’s Tempest is brought to a shattering repentance by the sorrow of his son’s death, and though his son is alive and will be restored to him, the miracle of the play is that Alonso himself will be alive once more, begging forgiveness, on his knees, from the girl whom he attempted to murder along with her father when she was a baby, and who now stands before him as his future daughter-in-law. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the angry agnostic Charles Ryder, unhappily married, possessed of worldly success for his third-rate art but not feeling one drop of joy for all that, suddenly finds himself, after all his ridicule of the faith, kneeling at the deathbed of his father-in-law Lord Marchmain, praying that the old man will, before he dies, make some sign that he has understood the priest at the bedside, and that he entrusts himself finally to God.
For who among us is not or has not been that lost sheep? I consider my own heedless youth, wandering like a foolish sheep in the wilderness. How many were the sins I committed, and how many more, and worse, were the sins that I did not commit, only because I was spared the opportunity! Yet I considered myself righteous. I did not squander my inheritance among whores. I did not wander too far away from the other wandering and foolish sheep I saw near me. I attended church, most of the time, and married a woman who also attended church. But I was building up for myself a hard shell of rebellion against the truth; and do so still, whenever people begin to speak well of me, and whenever I begin to think that in the accounts between me and God, there are some items distinctly in my favor.
No one rejoices when he receives due payment for services rendered. The gift, however, is cause for rejoicing. Our lives are a gift from God; and our resurrected lives, our being redeemed from the deadening we make for ourselves, our being led through the valley of the shadow of death, is a gift, pure and shining. Notice that when the shepherd in the parable finds his lost sheep, he does not thwack it with the rod, and force it to limp its way back to the fold. He takes it upon his shoulders, and rejoices to do so. That is an image of complete abandonment to God. It is as if the sheep had indeed died, and had not the power to walk. So we must die, and deem it a privilege to die, that we may feel the warmth and the strength of the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, who rejoices to bring us home.
What then becomes of those lost sheep, once reclaimed? They above all know that they owe everything to the One who has found them. They know how much they have been forgiven, and their hearts overflow with gratitude. It is why the greatest sinners can become the humblest and therefore the greatest of saints. Not to say that God requires our wandering in order to work his wonders upon us. But who among us has not wandered? Those of us who are righteous in our own eyes may indeed walk straight enough, but the direction we are walking in is another matter; at least the drunken man may know he is in error.
On the morning of Christ’s resurrection, the Sons of God must have sung for joy, far more joyously than they had done at the creation of the world, for always the raising to life of a single human soul, made possible by the resurrection, is a more wondrous thing than was creation itself, for indeed it was for that life that God created the world to begin with. The spangled billions of stars do not produce so much light as does one new-made soul.
And what we all need to do to join in that morning of rejoicing is to die with Him: that is, to rely utterly upon Him, turning from our own both righteous and unrighteous deeds, and acknowledging that we can no more, of our own, shine bright in His eyes without His saving power than we can raise ourselves to new life. Let us then surrender all to Him, lost sheep that we are. For He alone is the Good Shepherd, who gives His life for His sheep.