11 Sep 22, 24th of the Year
Have you ever lost it? It’s a slang, of course, for getting angry to the point that one has lost control. We might use the word ‘lose’ to refer to far smaller instances in our life: when we lose the house keys, unable to find them; or we lose at the bingo, there’s 50p down the drain; and so on.
In our Gospel today Our Lord tells three parables concerning someone who or something which is lost. Parables, remember, are stories with a simple meaning. It’s unique in the Gospels for three parables with very similar themes to be ordered in succession like this, one after the other. The summary is that in all three instances that which is lost is found and the single sheep, coin or son lost is deemed to be of sufficient value as to disturb or undermine the security and peace of the rest: the ninety sheep are left to fend for themselves, the other coins or drachmas left to one side, the older son left working in the estate and not particularly happy about it. The parables reveal a radical love and they are told in response to the criticisms Jesus receives from the scribes and the pharisees when it is discovered that tax collectors and sinners are seeking His company. In seeing these sinners going to Jesus we are reminded that it is easy to criticise those who know their need of God with a greater clarity and depth than we ourselves do. The lost know they need to be found.
But hang on a minute, isn’t losing stuff a good thing as we seek to follow Jesus Christ? Well, yes. Jesus says to us after all, “those who lose their life for my sake will save it,” (St Luke 9:24). It’s good for us cut things out of our life, to lose them, which is why the Church bids us do it in Lent each year and more generally to deny ourselves. Indeed, when we heard Jesus say, as we did last Sunday, that we need to hate our father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters and even our own life, it is in this context of being content to lose things. When we lose something, there’s that pain of loss and our responses should be to contemplate afresh the pain of the nails which pierced our Lord and we should be willing for a little bit more of our old self to die that we might live for ever with Jesus. St Paul reflects from his prison cell towards the end of his life on earth, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” (Philippians 3:7-8).
We’ll see this in our own life when we justify in our own minds some service we don’t offer the Lord, a Sunday we cannot keep holy, some comfort that could have been offered to the poor, some reconciliation with someone, made so often there’ll be something stopping us. Well, that something needs to go, needs to be lost. St John the Baptist observes of his own ministry that he must decrease but that Jesus the Lord must increase (St John 3:30). And if it’s essential for us to lose things, Jesus is also clear that it is not part of the Father’s will for Him to lose anything: “I should lose nothing of all that He has given me but raise it up on the last day,” (St John 6:39). One Latin phrase we often see in churches or publications is the motto of the Jesuits: “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam,” which ‘to the greater glory of God.’ We are to be constantly biging up God, saying how wonderful He is, giving Him the glory for all the wonderful things He has done. Not offering paltry gruel in our discipleship because it is not reflective of the amazing things He has done for us. To God be the glory!
When Jesus says that He should lose nothing of all that He has been given by the Father, He is treating the disciples that He is the Bread of Life and that whoever eats His Flesh will live for ever. It’s a phrase explaining what happens when someone dies. So often when someone dies we say I’ve lost my father, I’ve lost my mother, whoever and indeed it feels like we have lost them: we are not able to interact with them as once we did. But, of course with the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ at work in them they are not lost to God. They are still treasured by Him, their names still by God their Father, they are still held in His bosom. As we seek to have a God-like perspective on life, we remember those who have died in faith are not lost.
With this drive, the Shepherd goes to look for the lost sheep, the woman goes to seek out the lost drachma, the old dad waits looking out of the window of the house so he can see the lost or the prodigal son far off but returning home. God loves it when we come to Him. And this is the underlying assumption of our parables today, not that the lost sheep is happy when brought home, nor the lost drachma, not even the son reduced to tending dirty old pigs, but that in each case the Shepherd is joyful, the woman starts partying, the father kills the fatted calf. We will see people around us who seem particularly lost. We are not to delight in the fact that they are lost, nor to condemn them when they’ve done this or said that or given they’re friends with them, but in such instances we must always remember the joy that God the Father has in seeing them found again.
One way we often experience loss I think is in nostalgia. We might think of how wonderful things were. We hear people saying or indeed may say ourselves how wonderful it was when we could leave doors unlocked and children could play in the streets, we hear how wonderful it was when temperatures weren’t 40 degrees in August in this country, we think about the simplicity of our childhood where we were shielded from certain worries about cost of food or household bills, if we’re a young person we recall the stress-free existence of year 8 as opposed the hassle of year 11. The past always looks strangely refreshing and a sun-lit upland. We end up feeling we must therefore have lost something wonderful. Often this is a misremembering or cutting up of the past, forgetting it wasn’t all that great in reality.
There’ll be quite a bit of nostalgia in some quarters of our society since the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday. May she rest in peace. Our longest serving monarch who served in the armed forces during World War II where she learnt to strip motor engines is a definite link with a past era. Aged 21 she pleaded her service not just to nation or commonwealth but to empire. We believe she’s not lost to God, indeed she is now called to share in a heavenly crown, reserved for all who are coheirs with Christ. We may have lost one Elizabethan age and one link with the past, but we believe God’s sovereignty continues and that He looks over whatever new age we have entered. God is supreme.
Nostalgia is not something we as Christians should engage in. Indeed one dangerous consequence of nostalgia can be that we think the Church and humanity’s discipleship of the Lord is inevitably going to be getting worse and worse. In stark contrast to this, our aim should actually be that we are more faithful than our parents, that our children are more faithful than us, our grandchildren more faithful than them. This will seem in some instances a gargantuan task but it is truly the call of us as labourers going out in to the harvest field to plant and gather seed for the Lord. When a Christian dies we’ve not lost a member of the Church, he or she is simply worshiping God in a different place, with a greater vigour and less distraction.
The welcome given to the returning formerly lost son reminds us of all this. In reality the first thing he probably needed if he’d been tending pigs was a bath but the gifts Dad gives him confer a dignity, they are an equipping and a preparation for a future life of service. The robe is placed on him, a reminder that we must all put on Christ (Romans 13:14), finding in Him a sure refuge but also a mantle of love. The ring is a sign of the faithful love with which we must serve the Lord; the sandals a preparation for the taking of the message with us: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news of peace,” Isaiah sings (Isaiah 52:7). The final element of the welcome, the fattened calk is killed and the celebrations begin. Yes, the only Son of God has our transgressions heaped upon Him and is offered in sacrifice for our salvation and on our behalf.
So let’s not be afraid of loss, indeed we need to lose stuff, we need to lose our self so we can be truly found again by God. May we aid others that they too may be greeted back to the fold of the Good Shepherd and as we witness people coming to the Lord may we hear the unparalleled delight with which God greets them.