If each one of us were as holy and perfect and immaculate as we ought to be, today's gospel would have little to tell us. For it speaks of those who are not holy but sinners, not perfect but full of faults, blameworthy and off the mark. It also speaks about those who fail to recognise how much they are out of line, and nevertheless they imagine to act exactly as God wishes us to lead our lives.
The first group is represented by the tax collectors and sinners, the second by the Pharisees and scribes. The former love to come to Jesus, they all were drawing near to listen to Jesus. The latter begin to complain. They see a great gap between themselves and those sinners, and they see Jesus on the wrong side of this divide, they feel that Jesus mixes with the wrong sort of people.
Therefore the Lord tries to cure their error by telling two little stories, about the strayed sheep and the lost coin. Ninety-nine sheep stay nicely together in the place where the shepherd has led them, but one ran away and went its own road into the wilderness, unaware of the dangers to which it exposes itself. Then we hear how the shepherd reacts. He goes searching for the run-away sheep until he finds it, sets it on his shoulders with great joy, … Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.
The same great joy we meet at the end of the other story, of ten coins one is lost, and the woman takes the broom and sweeps the whole place and searches everywhere until she finds the lost one. Her joy is so great that she has to tell all her friends and neighbours what worry she had when she noticed the loss, but in the end she found the coin. All is well.
Jesus concludes with the hint that in God's house too there reigns the same joy over one sinner who repents, and returns. Of course, the shepherd is happy that the ninety-nine remained where he wanted them to be, and the woman was happy to have the other nine coins in safe keeping. But it is different when something was really lost, and finally one finds it again, with a very special joy.
What Jesus tells the Pharisees should not really be news for them. For God's mercy with the week, the poor and sinners was already described in the classical texts of the Old Testament. Without any doubt Jesus knew the story of the golden calf, which we heard in the first reading, the story of the incredible infidelity of the people of Israel. Immediately after God had concluded his covenant with the people, giving them the law at Sinai, while Moses is still on the mountain to receive the Law in writing, they go their own way, make themselves a molten calf in order to have a visible image of God before their eyes. We know how this story ended, we hear of God's blazing wrath, his readiness to wipe them out altogether, and when Moses pleaded for the people, we hear: So the Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people. The scribes boast of their knowledge of the Scriptures, why do they not grasp how merciful God is towards those who go astray?
And where are we in all this? We do well to remain aware of Gods mercy with all those who do what should not be done in the first place. Also with each one of us who has reason to feel ashamed of what happened in the past. The thought of God's mercy will keep us consoled and confident in spite of all, when we were selfish and narrow-minded, and lacked the required attention and sympathy for those around us, - and all the poverty of our human qualities!
So it is wonderful to hear these words: The Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people. Where we are lost in our stubborn narrowness like the run-away sheep that wants to go its own way, the good shepherd gives us a chance to return. He does not let us be lost somewhere in the dark and in the dirt like the lost coin. Jesus speaks of himself when he says: He sets it on his shoulders with great joy, and there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
No situation is hopelessly knotted by our sins. Every bad situation that we may have created can be straightened out. God is merciful and will help us to return, and there will be great joy when we do. Nobody should imagine that this message is only for the others. All of us have need to return, and the Lord is looking for us. Amen.
Fr. Dietmar Lenfers