Homily for November 3rd, 2016: Luke 15:1-10.
Had Jesus said, “There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” we’d say: “Well sure.” But that is not that Jesus said. He added a word to that sentence. “There is more joy in heaven,” he actually said, “than over ninety-nine people who have no need of repentance.” How do we respond to that? I think the first response that comes to most of is: “Now, wait a minute. Shouldn’t there be some joy at least over the ninety-nine who have need of repentance?”
To answer to that question we need to ask another question: Who are these ninety-nine who have no need of repentance? Do you know anyone like that? I don’t. Oh, I know many people who think they have no need of repentance. But they are wrong. How can there be any joy over people who are so mistaken about their true spiritual state? We all fall short at some time, and in some way. We all need to repent, the saints included. Catholics have always believed that the only person who has never sinned, and has therefore no need to repent, is the Lord’s mother, Mary.
The two parables in today’s gospel tell us that God’s love for us is not measured, limited, or prudent. It is, judged by human standards, over the top, reckless. For a shepherd to leave the whole flock of sheep untended, in order to find just one who had strayed, risked turning a minor misfortune, the loss of one, into a major disaster: the dispersal of the whole flock. For the woman who has lost a single coin from the family’s meager savings to throw a party which surely cost far more than the one coin lost and then found, was crazy. Could Jesus have remembered his mother doing something like that during his boyhood? It is quite possible.
The two parables are Jesus’ answer to his critics’ complaint at the beginning of today’s gospel: “This man receives sinners, and eats with them.” What for those critics was a scandal is, for us, good news. It tells us that however far we stray, the Lord is close to us. His love for us has no limit, and no end. That is the good news. That is the gospel.