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?
- Matthew 18:12
In this time of final exams, today's Gospel quote seems to be a good final exam question. But Jesus posed this to his disciples — and to us — to help us know God better. St. Ignatius uses this question in a Contemplation in the Spiritual Exercises, directing us to use our imaginations and to hear the question asked each of us.
Most of us might think this shepherd would be a fool to leave the 99 he had to go search for the one stupid sheep who has lost its way. If we do a SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis or a risk analysis or even if we use our "common sense," it would seem a foolhardy decision to risk the sheep we have to find the one that has wandered away. We all know the conventional wisdom that "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." We may be able to find our lost sheep, or not, but others may go astray while we are gone. It's just too big of a risk! The safe and sustainable thing would be to protect the ones we have; to care for the 99 and to "write-off" the one.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that God risks being thought foolish by us, for he loves and values the one as much as the 99. He does not abandon the 99, but he hopes they will help each other, and find protection and direction, as many parts of one flock. He searches out the one who is not part of the group. He works hard to find the one who may have made a bad choice or two, because He still loves and cares for each of His sheep regardless of what they have done.
This is the reason we celebrate Christmas. We rejoice — and should be in wonderment — that we all have a God who not only allows us back, but who also actively searches us out when we wander away. The Incarnation of Christmas is about the hope and knowledge that no matter what we do or don't do, God is actively seeking us out, to bring us back to the peace and joy of His presence. We glory in our God who loves us unconditionally, in ways far beyond our own human understanding or experiences.
As we think about Christmas, and its true meaning, let us bathe ourselves in the fact and mystery of God's love for all. We can rejoice in this, of course, but we can also allow this joyous mystery to infuse our lives with similar love and care for others. Let us pray that we may be more like our God, that we forgive the people who have wandered from us, and find little ways to help each other stay close to each other, to stay close to God. Sometimes, we may be the one lost sheep.
As we continue to prepare for Christmas, can we go beyond ourselves and reach out to people not part of groups? Can we be more like God, by not only being concerned with the 98 around us, but concerned as much about the one who has wandered away.
Remember: Each of us wanders from time to time and we need God and others to help us find our way.
Have a blessed Advent.
D. Highberger, S.J.
P. Stark, S.J.