Living with the extravagant love that Jesus exercises takes a lot of practice. We must start by letting go of some of our beliefs and habits. We can tell by the kind of people He eats dinner with, as well as His first apostles, that He has a special love for those who are out of bounds and not as holy as they should be. Jesus had a special love for semi-rebellious people, as well as those who had completely rejected the assumed religious life of His time.
In the parable from Luke’s Gospel on the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time (15:1-10), we hear this strange story about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind to find one that is lost. With the shepherd is the story of a woman who has 10 coins and leaves nine behind to find one that is lost. That way of thinking is foreign to us. Putting the majority of the saved aside to look for the lost is so different from how we think or act. If we are honest, so much of our Catholic life is about preserving and defending.
The evangelistic part of our faith life seems to have gone by the wayside for most of us. We might be gracious enough to pray for someone who has quit practicing their faith, but we might have lost the ability to cherish that person and love them no matter their choices. We are quick to judge those who have abandoned their faith. There is a temptation to make the Church smaller, into a small group of people who are purer than the rest of society. We sometimes circle the wagons to protect ourselves rather than risking our own security to seek out those who have walked away.
Are we foolish enough to love those who do not love us back? Are we willing to die for those who wouldn’t be willing to die for us? Are we willing to leave the very comfortable 99 behind to seek out the one who might be lost and needs a companion?
Luke’s Gospel includes the story of the prodigal son. Some of us can identify with the son who walks away from his father and takes advantage of his father’s inheritance. Some of us can identify with a son who stays home and is seemingly faithful, but ends up jealous and angry when the prodigal son returns and is welcomed back joyously into the family. The father realizes something important that most of us could still learn on a deeper level. In God’s mind and heart, even when we walk away and reject Him, He considers us part of the family. Of course He would welcome the son who returns, because he’s always been part of the family. There’s no need to make him suffer more than he has from the separation that he’s experienced from his father. The son who stayed home is learning that just performing the acts doesn’t mean that his heart is in the action. How many of us use our faith practice to seek rewards from God rather than letting our acts of love be a full response to the love God has already given us?
When God asks Moses to speak to His people, He says that they have become depraved. Their hearts and lives have moved away from God and into false gods. Might that be us? Might we be the ones to stand in judgment of others when our hearts are far away from God? Have we made a God of security or money or position or power? Has something taken the place of God in our lives?
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.