Heaven: Let's Make It Rejoice

View the readings for this Sunday.

Sept. 15, 2019, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

• Ex 32:7-11, 13-14
• Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19 1
• Tm 1:12-17
• Lk 15:1-10

By Marc Massery

In the Gospel reading this Sunday, considering themselves righteous, the scribes and the Pharisees criticize Jesus for associating with people they regard as "sinners."

In response to their criticism, Jesus does what He does best. He tells a parable that cuts to the core of the Gospel message.

He says:


What man 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.' I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance (Lk 15:1-7).

God the Father loves us so dearly that when we stray from Him, He can hardly bear it, any more than we can hardly bare losing someone dear to us whom we love. In fact, He longs for us so much that He comes after us Himself. And He's so happy when He takes us home that He forgets all the pain we caused Him and Heaven rejoices - more so than Heaven would rejoice over 99 people who have no need of repentance.

At first read, it might seem over-the-top, even unreasonable, that Heaven could appreciate one repentant soul more than 99 righteous who have no need of repentance. We might chalk this up to the fact that the Lord is simply merciful and loving beyond reason.

While this is true, there's more concealed in this detail than God's reckless love.

Remember, this parable begins with Jesus responding to the criticism of the scribes and Pharisees - the righteous. Therefore, we can reasonably assume that the 99 "righteous" Jesus speaks of here are the scribes and the Pharisees.

Of course, the scribes and the Pharisees aren't righteous. They merely believe they are. As St. Paul says, "There is not one who does good, [there is not] even one" (Rom 3:12). Jesus is calling them "righteous" ironically.

So, the essential difference between the scribes and the Pharisees and the sinners is that the sinners acknowledge their sinfulness while the scribes and Pharisees do not. Understood in this light, of course Heaven would rejoice more over a sinner who repents than 99 sinners who don't!

Through this detail in the parable, Jesus is answering the scribes' and Pharisees' criticism directly. He's saying that He comes to the tax collectors and sinners because they realize their need. He seeks them out, meets them where they are, and helps bring them to repentance. If the Lord went to the Pharisees in the same way, not seeing their need for a savior, they would reject Him.

The Lord never forces His love. He needs us to realize our need for His mercy - He needs us to separate ourselves from the self-righteous - before He can find us and lead us home.

As long as the scribes and the Pharisees look down upon sinners, they continue to misunderstand and criticize Jesus. Blinded by their own self-righteousness, they remain in their sin and miss out on receiving the reckless love of God. Therefore, we must identify with the sinners and tax collectors in the Gospel reading - we must identify with the lost sheep. Otherwise, we'll close ourselves off to God's love and mercy, too, and Heaven won't have reason to rejoice.

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