What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost. (Matthew 18:12-14)
“The one lost sheep might already be dead, but a stupid shepherd leaves the ninety-nine exposed to danger. He does not wait for the lost one to repent and come back on its own feet. He goes to whatever dangerous place the one lost sheep is in. He picks it up and carries its burdened soul instead of telling it off.”
Stupid shepherd. That phrase stuck with me. We’ve heard this reading so often that we forget how ridiculous it is for a shepherd to leave nearly all of his flock, to leave them vulnerable, in order to go after the one sheep the wandered away. Jesus is describing our Heavenly Father as a stupid shepherd. Then, throughout his public ministry, Christ embodied that kind of reckless shepherding. Jesus avoided places of honor among the religious ninety-nine of his day and he actively sought out the people they had shunned from the community. One event in particular sums up how Jesus treated the ninety-nine righteous vs. the wayward sinners:
“While he was at table in [Matthew’s] house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ He heard this and said, ‘Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners’” (Matthew 9:10-13).
And the response from the ninety-nine? They plotted to kill the shepherd. The foolish mercy of God could not be tolerated. And this same foolishness is alive and well in our shepherd, Pope Francis. The word “pastor” means “shepherd,” and if Francis is anything he’s a pastor. Bishop Barron, in his address this past summer at the World Meeting of Families described the pope’s mission saying, “he prefers the path of mercy and reinstatement to the path of exclusion.” Catholic writer, Mark Shea, speaks of Francis this way:
“I believe he is a man whose papacy is simple to summarize: ‘He has preached good news to the poor.’ He has repeatedly shown that his love is for the least of these and his passion is for evangelization. And he has thereby earned the enmity of exactly the kind of people the gospel should offend.”
Like Christ, Pope Francis appears to be concerned, first and foremost, with those on the periphery, with those who are weak. His social commentary shares the abrasiveness of John the Baptist and the Church Fathers out of concern for the the poor, the refugee, the migrant, and the imprisoned. And his emphasis on accompaniment and subjective culpability shows his concern for those those who can’t keep the commandments or live up to the neo-Pelagian doctrines so often presented as orthodoxy.
The attitude of the ninety-nine is the attitude of the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Someone who may say that they have a Loving Father but who doesn’t really believe that. Someone who thinks they need to earn their Father’s love through a legalistic adherence to the rules and thus becomes bitter when those who have broken the rules are welcomed back with open arms. Someone who refuses to rejoice, as their Father does, when their selfish and sinful brother returns. In his book, “The Name of God is Mercy,” our Holy Father says:
“We must avoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty, looking for the splinter in his brother’s eye while remaining unaware of the beam is his own. Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance. When a person begins to recognize the sickness in their soul, when the Holy spirit—the Grace of God—acts within them and moves their heart toward an initial recognition of their own sins, he needs to find an open door, not a closed one. He needs to find acceptance, not judgement, prejudice, or condemnation. He needs to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner who stands at the threshold, when he starts to feel nostalgia for God.”
Each of us in the ninety-nine is faced with a choice. We can join the chorus of sheep constantly complaining about how the shepherd has abandoned them or doesn’t know what he’s doing. Or we can join the shepherd, leave the safety of our own echo chambers and comfort zones and go find the lost sheep in our communities.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.