Who among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
Luke 15: 3-5
Yesterday we reflected on the words of Soren Kierkegaard: “The law for God’s nearness and remoteness is as follows: The more the outward externals, the appearances, indicate that God cannot possibly be present here, the closer God is. The opposite is also true: The more the outward externals, the appearances, indicate that God is very near, the farther away God is.” In his reflection on the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Pope Francis enhances this insight: “The Shepherd will be found wherever the lost sheep is. The Lord, then, should be sought precisely where he wants to find us, not where we presume to find him!” So, where is it that the Lord wants to find us? It is in that sphere, that place, where we are likely to think God is most distant or absent, or, as Pope Francis would remind us, in that place where the world, and ourselves, most need God’s mercy.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that we always desperately need the mercy of God. To be aware both of our human possibilities as Jesus has revealed them and the truth of our own daily existence is to live with a deep sense of lack, of what is missing in our lives. This sense of lack is precisely why those who are closest to God feel the furthest away. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker wrote:
If we had to offer the briefest explanation of all the evil that men have wreaked upon themselves and upon their world since the beginnings of time right up until tomorrow, it would be not in terms of man’s animal heredity, his instincts and his evolution: it would be simply in the toll that his pretense of sanity takes, as he tries to deny his true condition.
This morning I awoke to news of yet another mass shooting here in the United States. Twelve people, mostly young people of college age, are dead in yet another gratuitous act of violence. We live in a culture that is quite literally killing each other. And the horror of it all is that we have come to “normalize” this reality. We now live on, in blissful ignorance, as if such is but a part of life. And we then treat victims who show symptoms of distress about such madness until they are able to live with it, to incorporate this “reality” into their psychic life. Yet, shouldn’t we all have post-traumatic stress, refusing to admit that we as a people have to live under the continuing threat of these murders? And can’t we realize that it is no life at all if our solution is to merely arm everyone so that the only social bond among us is fear of being killed by each other? Jesus says the bond between human beings, what is to constitute human society, is love, manifest in mercy and compassion. To claim to be a believer while suggesting that the way of power is the only relation between people is blasphemous. God is to be found in mercy and compassion, seeking the lost sheep. God cannot be found among the powerful and the self-righteous.
Pope Francis says we “run the risk of shutting ourselves in the pen, where there won’t be the odour of the sheep but the stench of enclosure!” Many years ago, as an undergraduate student, I lived in a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC. In an election during the late 60’s there was a candidate for governor of Maryland named George Mahoney. The theme of his campaign was “Your home is your castle.” It was clear to all that this was a code for continuing segregation of neighborhoods by race, for making sure that “they” must not be allowed to intrude into “our” neighborhoods. There is always political effectiveness, even though George Mahoney lost to Spiro Agnew, in stoking fear of otherness in us. Yet, Jesus says that the good shepherd always is not merely open to but goes after the other. Thus, from the spiritual perspective, there is an inherent connection between xenophobia and violence. The more we distance from and build walls against each other, the more our fearfulness leads to greater violence.
For the most part, it is not “aliens” who commit these acts of mass violence. It is rather those who see the place in the society to which they feel entitled by virtue of race and birth threatened. Walls not only keep out; they enclose. Be it nationally or ecclesially, when we shut ourselves up in the pen, as Pope Francis puts it, we shall find ourselves choking on the “stench of enclosure.” We mistakenly think that security alone will fulfill us and lead to a better life. While a level of security is, of course, necessary, too much security is stifling and ultimately resentment inducing.
All of this is true not only socially but also personally. And so, we can ask, where are we most likely to find the Shepherd in our own lives. Typically, we shall expect to find God within where we feel the greatest strength and virtue. Yet, the gospels tell us that Jesus seeks not the virtuous but sinners, that it is not the well who need a doctor but the sick. Is it possible that God is to be found in what is most denied and repressed in us? As we are called to go out into the world to that which is most “other” to us, we are also called to seek and to welcome what is most other in ourselves. Most problems and conflicts in the world are caused not by our madness but by our “pretense of sanity.” In truth, the truly madder the person, the stronger his or her pretense of sanity. If we believe that the Good Shepherd seeks out what is lost in ourselves, what is most other in ourselves, then we have the courage and humility to drop our pretenses.
As a very young person, I found it extremely painful and humiliating to admit that I did not know or could not do something. This made for a very anxious disposition. I loved learning and absorbing what a teacher would say, but I dreaded those times when we were asked to “participate” in class. I never wanted to speak unless I felt assured that I had the right answer. From my earliest years in school, I was seen as extremely, maybe even pathologically shy, but I was not so much shy as fearful and “proud.” I felt as if there was such humiliation and shame in being mistaken that I could not bear it. And so, one way to avoid that experience was to attempt to disappear into the group.
As I grew older, my sense of God developed along the same lines. As I was only acceptable and so had a place with others when I was right or able to do what was asked, so too God was present only when and where I was good and “upright.” This sense required that i live out not only a pretense of sanity but a pretense of goodness, as I understood goodness. This pretense required the suppression and repression of large aspects of myself. The more I did this the more significant aspects of myself became “other” to me. It was only in young adulthood that I began to recognize that what I feared and rejected was perhaps more beloved of God than my pretenses. God was truly present there, a God of love and mercy that was far different from the god of my projections and imaginings.
It is impossible to separate the call to societal and personal transformation. The God we seek in the world and in ourselves must be not the god of our own designs, needs, projections, but the God who is always to be found among the “lost.” In terms of the parable, and as Jesus sees it, the lost and found are our own psychological and spiritual constructs. We find him, the Good Shepherd, among those and what is “lost” to us, what is “other” to us. it is we who create the boundaries and distances. So, whenever we distance from life and from others, we build walls not only against them but around us. And then we live with choking on our own “stench of enclosure.” Inherent in Jesus’ understanding of the human condition is that it requires of us a constant “going out of” ourselves toward others, and toward the other in ourselves. This, at first, feels as if our “selves” will be lost, yet the Parable teaches us that it is precisely there, outside of “our selves,” where we shall find the Lord.
The Lord’s flock is always on the move: it does not possess the Lord, it cannot hope to imprison him in its structures and strategies. The Shepherd will be found wherever the lost sheep is. The Lord, then, should be sought precisely where he wants to find us, not where we presume to find him! There is no other way to reassemble the flock except by following the path outlined by the mercy of the shepherd. While he is looking for the lost sheep, he challenges the ninety-nine to participate in the reunification of the flock. Then, not only the lamb on his shoulders, but the whole flock will follow the shepherd to his home to celebrate with “friends and neighbours”.
We should reflect on this parable often, for in the Christian community there is always someone who is missing and if that person is gone, a place is left empty. Sometimes this is daunting and leads us to believe that a loss is inevitable, like an incurable disease. That is how we run the risk of shutting ourselves in the pen, where there won’t be the odour of the sheep but the stench of enclosure! And Christians? We must not be closed in or we will smell like stale things. Never! We need to go forth, not close in on ourselves, in our little communities, in the parish, holding ourselves to be “righteous”. This happens when there is a lack of the missionary zeal that leads us to encounter others. In Jesus’ vision there are no sheep that are definitively lost, but only sheep that must be found again. We need to understand this well: to God no one is definitively lost. Never! To the last moment, God is searching for us. Think of the good thief; only in the eyes of Jesus no one is definitively lost. For his perspective is entirely dynamic, open, challenging and creative. It urges us to go forth in search of a path to brotherhood. No distance can keep the shepherd away; and no flock can renounce a brother. To find the one who is lost is the joy of the shepherd and of God, but it is also the joy of the flock as a whole! We are all sheep who have been retrieved and brought back by the mercy of the Lord, and we are called to gather the whole flock to the Lord!
Pope Francis, General Audience, 4 May 2016