Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. (1 St. Peter v. 6,7)
Trinitytide is all about participating in the life of God the Holy Trinity. In the season of Trinity, we are exhorted to return to God the Father, through Jesus Christ the Son, and by the effectual sanctification of the Holy Ghost. What we are invited to participate in is nothing short of the eternal dynamism of the Triune God. This eternal dynamism was intended for us from our very inception and creation. Man was created to live in and through the Father alone, by way of obedience to His Word, and by the Spirit. Man was made to reflect and imitate God’s threefold nature in his own existing, and knowing, and willing. Man was made to perfect his nature through an understanding that God’s Word would generate by the inspiration of the Spirit. God made man to discover and know the good, to freely deliberate over it, and to will it in his life. Man was made as Trinitarian.
But in Adam because of sin all are lost, fallen, and have died to God. In Jesus Christ alone can all be found, purified, and made alive. Jesus Christ alone enables us to enter the life of the Holy Trinity. To do so, we need to discover the tools that enable us to submit to God’s rule and governance once again. Prior to the Fall, Adam possessed these tools. The tools are the virtues. The virtues reveal what we know and how we will the good that God intends for us. St. Ambrose tells us that this morning’s Gospel helps us to begin to acquire both.
In the teaching of our Lord which preceded [today’s] Gospel reading you learned that we are to put away all carelessness, to avoid conceit, to begin to be earnest in religion, not to be held fast to the things of this world, not to place fleeting things before those that endure for ever. (St. Ambrose: Exposition of the Gospel)
St. Ambrose teaches us to be careful about holy things, the things that matter, or what pertains to our salvation. He tells us to avoid conceit since an overinflated sense of self takes up space in the heart that is meant for the real healing and sanctification. He tells us to be earnest in religion because we must be determined to pursue the things that pertain to our salvation. The things of this world cannot save us. They are impermanent, fleeting, and always passing away. We must set our mind’s vision and our heart’s affection on the permanent things that endure forever.
To use an illustration, we must find ourselves this morning in the good company of publicans and sinners who draw near to Jesus to hear Him. (St. Luke xv. 1) The publicans and sinners have a greater reason to draw near to Jesus to hear Him. (Idem) They have been rejected by the religious people of their day. The publicans were Jewish tax-collectors working in the service of the Roman overlords. They were judged to be traitors by pious Jews. The sinners in Jesus’ time have been identified and marked out by the religious establishment as notorious livers –drunkards, prostitutes, lepers, and so forth. Both groups are unlikely to be moved by any arrogant conceit and thus draw near to Jesus to hear Him because He has shown a real interest in their lives. Jesus did not shun the publicans and sinners because He knew that they were ripe for His mission. They seemed most open to what moved and defined Him because He did not condemn them but wanted to help them. They seemed to know also that they were in some way lost.
Can we come to know ourselves as lost sheep in need of a Good Shepherd? We might be tempted to dismiss both the publicans and sinners and Jesus in today’s Gospel the way that the Scribes and Pharisees did. What do we read? And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. (St. Luke xv. 2) More often than not, we Christians think that Christ is for other people, for the notorious livers that surround us. We pride ourselves in being right with God because we do good works and are basically people of integrity and nobility. Externally we give off the appearance of goodness yet internally we are so pathetically insecure and unstable. Therefore, we measure ourselves in relation to others and conclude that we are good and they are not. Our condition is summarized succinctly by Thomas Merton:
I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken
what you failed to take and I have seized what you could never
get. Therefore, you suffer and I am happy; you are despised and I
am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something,
and I am the more something because you are nothing. And I thus
spend my life admiring the distance between you and me; at times this
even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who
have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was
beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on
my death. (The Seeds of Contemplation, pg. 33)
Such is our spiritual condition when we refuse to identify with the publicans and sinners. When we live in this way it is we who are truly lost and not the publicans and sinners. We cannot really find ourselves because we are caught up in the feverish pursuit of importance that relates only to other men and not to God. Merton goes on to say that when we behave like the Scribes and Pharisees, we are afflicted with spiritual pride. Thinking that we are moving up in the world, we are really moving down in God’s eternal judgment of our lives. They have forgotten that they are first and foremost the sheep of God, always in danger or erring and straying from His ways, as the Morning Prayer General Confession reminds us. They have forgotten too the words of Jeremiah: Hear the word of the Lord, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock. (Jer. xxi. 10)
Identifying with the publicans and sinners is a good way to begin our journey into the life of God the Holy Trinity. Only those who are despised, broken, abandoned, and even exiled by their fellow men can know and feel the need for God’s saving power. Jesus uses today’s two parables to show knowledge of their condition and His remedy for it. In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus shows that he has compassion on those who have foolishly and unwittingly ended up spiritually lost. Sin is oftentimes an ignorance. (Trench: Parables, p. 288) St. Paul tells us that he was once a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. (1 Tim. i. 13) How often have sinners fallen into a sin that they thought was a form of the good or a type of remedy that would, at least, alleviate an already too painful life? How often have sinners fallen into sin thinking it was the best that earthly life could afford to them? In either case, objectively speaking, the sinner deserves wrath and yet Jesus the Good Shepherd offers God’s patience and pity.
How often have men done sinful things before they even knew that they were precious sheep being pursuing by a loving Shepherd? How often have men done sinful things before coming to know that they were the offspring of God and belonged to a greater fold? Think about the countless numbers of men who throw themselves away because they think that they have no value, no meaning, and no worth. How long is it before they discover that they have been stamped in the image and likeness of God and that they are a royal people whose very natures are minted in the treasury of a great King? How long is it before they discover that they are like the lost coin of a woman who lights a candle, sweeps the house, and searches diligently until she finds it? (Ibid, 8)
Jesus spake these parables to publicans and sinners because they were nearest to the Kingdom of Heaven. They are nearest because they discover that Jesus the Good Shepherd knows them. The parables prove it. In them He reveals that He knows that they have erred and strayed foolishly from God’s ways. He reveals that He knows that they have forgotten their true meaning and worth. He knows them and so lovingly reveals that His Mission and End is to find them and carry them back to God the Father! They have been lost to the love and concern of their fellow men for too long. They have been demeaned and devalued by all others for the same duration. But now they find one who will do all that He can to find, redeem, and save them. He will enter the darkest, dreariest, and deadliest place to save them. He will do all that He can to bring them back to His Father’s Kingdom. He will not weary when the thorns would cut into His head, His hands, and His feet. He will not tire when the way would wound and even crucify Him. This Good Shepherd would lay down His life for His sheep. (St. John x. 15)
Publicans and sinners alone can be saved by Jesus Christ. Because they discover that they are known and loved by Jesus Christ, they can learn to know and love God. Jesus finds them. He knows them. He understands their foolishness. He loves them. He values them above all else. He articulates their predicament. And so, He desires to carry them back to the Father. Jewish publicans and sinners in Jesus’ day would have recognized the image of God the Good Shepherd. The time that Jesus spends with them is the first finding of God’s lost sheep. They must respond with repentance. We must respond with repentance. For if it be only one of them that does repent, one of us that does repent, there will be joy in Heaven. The repentance of one last, one least, one seemingly insignificant lone penitent triggers the ecstatic joy of the angels. And so today let us be humbled under the mighty hand of God. Today, God’s knowledge finds us in Jesus. Today, God’s love makes us one with the publicans and sinners through the Holy Spirit. Today let us join them in pursuing the perfection of God the Holy Trinity in our being, knowing, and loving.