Going After the Lost

The following is my homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings can be found here.

I lived in a fraternity once in which things would mysteriously go missing or show up in strange places. The guardian of the house would routinely make announcements at dinner, “Has anyone seen the stapler? It’s not in the mail room.” Or “Why is the paper cutter in the kitchen? Who was using it and what were you doing?” Without exception, no matter what it was, the response was always the same: silence. No one ever seemed to know where things were, who had used them, why they were broken. It was like the objects in our house were like Toy Story characters who came alive when we weren’t looking and hid themselves in strange places.

This, of course is not the case—things do not get up and get lost on their own—people lose them. They forget about them, get distracted, maybe even treat them with negligence.

It may sound like an extremely obvious point to make—you’re sitting here wondering, “Did Fr. Casey just find out that Toy Story isn’t real?”—but I think remembering this fundamentally shapes the way we interpret our Gospel today. So often, when we hear the parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, and lost son, we place ourselves in the position of the thing that is lost. We read them as Jesus telling us that even though we are lost, God will continue to search for us, continue to seek us out. The story is about how we need to return to God with a contrite heart and he will take us back.

And that’s true, for sure. But I’m not sure that that is the really what Jesus is trying to teach here. Because, remember, objects don’t lose themselves. The coin did not jump out of the woman’s bag and run away; no, the woman had to have misplaced it, dropped it somewhere. The sheep probably walked away, but are you really going to blame one of the world’s dumbest animals for getting itself lost? Of course not. The sheep is lost because the shepherd lost track of it, because he didn’t do his job and let it go astray. Even with the lost son: science tells us that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until you’re 25; I know I’m in the presence of the cream of the crop, students who never did anything foolish in high school, or yesterday… but the fact of the matter is that the part of the brain that makes decisions is really impulsive when we’re young. We all have free will, sure, but the story of the lost son could be as much about a father giving a teenager his inheritance and letting him run off to a foreign country.

In all three stories, the active character—the one responsible for the situation—is not the one who is lost, but the one who lost. These stories are not about comforting those who are lost, convincing them to repent and return to God; they’re about demanding that we take responsibility for those we have lost. The coin did not have a change of heart. It didn’t decide, “Oh, I’ve been bad, I should go back.” No, the woman tore her house apart to find it. She changed her life so that she could get it back. The sheep did not all of the sudden think, “I’ve been foolish. Why did I walk away from the pack?” No, the shepherd left the 99, he took a huge risk of losing more, he went out of his way to retrieve it. But the son, you say? He sinned horribly and repented before returning. Yes, but it wouldn’t have mattered to the father. Even before the son could say a word, the father ran to him and hugged him. When he apologizes, the father never even acknowledges it. What matters is not the son’s contrition, but the joy that the father has to have him back. “Who cares why you’re here, I’m just so happy to have you back.”

These parables are not about the lost, but about those who have lost. These parables are not about our relationship before God in our sin, how we go astray, but about how we, as Christians and ministers, are to respond to those whom we have lost, those on the peripheries, those who are not always welcomed.

I’m talking about our friends and family who have left the Church because we failed to evangelize and catechize. Those people who say “I used to be Catholic,” who come to mass on Christmas and Easter, who feel no connection, no welcome, no fulfillment.

I’m talking about those who have been abused by the Church, who trusted us only to find that trust exploited, who have gone through life burdened with pain and suffering at our hands.

I’m talking about our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who feel that they have no place in the Church because so many Catholics have told them that they have no place, who routinely are told that they are not real Christians, that God hates them, that there is something disordered about them.

I’m talking about those those in prisons and in gangs, those who live in destitution and poverty, who know nothing but suffering in their lives, who find themselves cut off from the human family and do not know the love of God.

These are the lost coins, the lost sheep, the lost sons of our world, not us. Our exhortation today is that we must be like our heavenly father who rejoices when one of these are found. That our relationships must not be based on merit—what someone can offer us, what others have earned—but rather on mercy: like the father to the son, “who cares why you’re here! I’m just so happy that you’re here!”

But even more than that, Jesus does not want us to simply wait for them to return, to “hope” that they magically find their way back, as if the coin will just appear on its own. No, what he is telling us today is that if we want to share in the Father’s joy, we must actively go after those who are lost. If we really love our brothers and sisters, if we really care about the state of their souls, the state of their lives, we must be willing to do all that we can to go after them, even if that means being inconvenienced, dropping everything and tearing the house apart. We must be willing to take a risk, to leave what’s comfortable, in order to go after that one sheep. We must be willing to accept that we might be the reason that they left in the first place, that there is something wrong with our home, something we failed to do, and have the humility to change ourselves in order to welcome them back.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: we love with humility, not because of who they are, but because of who we are. It is not about deserving to be in this place. None of us deserve to be here! The problem of the Pharisees, and why these parables were directed to them specifically, is because they could not accept the wideness of God’s mercy. They could not imagine a God who loves sinners, who welcomes outcasts, who goes out of his way and risks his own life for people who do deplorable things. But that is what our God did. He died not just for the good, but for all. He welcomes not just the repentant, but all. He loves us, all of us, so much, that he’s just happy that we’re here.

If we want to be his disciples, we must go and do likewise. No one is outside of God’s love, and so no one should be outside of our care. Go to the lost and forgotten, go to the hurt and abused, go to those tax collectors and prostitutes of our world, and make it your life’s work to welcome them with love.

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