Ezk 34:11-16; Rm 5:5-11; Lk 15:3-7
In the year 597 before Christ, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, deposed its King, and deported many of its leading men to Babylon. Among them was the Prophet Ezekiel. From his place of exile Ezekiel thundered out dire warnings for the Jewish people who remained behind. His message was of impending punishment, ruin, disaster, destruction, slaughter, if the people did not repent of its sins and turn back to its God. Ten years after Ezekiel’s own exile, Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem for its final overthrow. This time he would utterly destroy the City, raze its Temple to the ground, bring its monarchy to an end, and deport the great majority of its surviving inhabitants. We read in the 34th Chapter of his prophetic book what Ezekiel had to say to the shepherds or leaders of Israel, as the Babylonian army moved in for the kill: Thus says the Lord: I am against the Shepherds... (34:10).
But then, typically of the Prophets, there is an abrupt change of tone. Ezekiel turns from harsh denunciation, and the lurid depiction of impending horrors, to offer instead consolation; the promise of a future, wonderful beyond imagination; the coming of a Golden Age, or a Messianic Age, in which God’s Rule over his people will be perfectly established, in peace and happiness. Thus says the Lord: I am going to look after my flock myself... (34:11). This is the passage we heard in our first reading today. The same image of God as Shepherd of his people occurs in a well known passage in the Prophet Isaiah:
He is like a Shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast, and leading to their rest the mother ewes (Is 40:11).
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus taking up this tradition, and applying it, by implication, to himself. We are in St. Luke’s 15th Chapter, where Jesus responds to the criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees, that he welcomes sinners, and eats with them.
What man among you with a hundred sheep, he asks. He appeals to their own finer feelings, and natural instincts, and that seems quite straightforward. But maybe it isn’t, quite. We can read this parable, if we will, as having a rather dark background. Because leaving the 99 sheep in the wilderness seems to be the action of one who is willing to abandon them to their fate. And who are the 99 virtuous men who have no need of repentance? Surely they are the Scribes and Pharisees themselves? They imagine, but very mistakenly, that they have no need for repentance. They think they are righteous; but they above all are the ones who separate themselves from God, by their pride, and by their rejection of Jesus.
If we were to pursue this line of thought, we might discern a parallel between Jesus and Ezekiel not only in their words of consolation, but also in their words of warning. For in the Year of our Lord 70, the Romans came and carried out a more complete destruction of Jerusalem than the Babylonians had ever achieved. Only in this case there was no prophecy of happy restoration, and the Temple was never to be rebuilt.
All of that is an image of sin, and of the consequences of God’s people rejecting his love. Part of the mystery of the Heart of Jesus is that, precisely as the fountain of holiness, it is the seat also of his great horror and hatred of sin. Yet it was precisely to overcome sin, to set us free from sin, that Jesus came, and suffered, and died.
Today then, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we celebrate the love of God which comes to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. This love is not content with watching us go to our ruin; not content even with warning or threatening us. As today’s parable indicates, God in his love, in Jesus, sets out in pursuit of the sinner, refusing to accept his loss. Each one of us is that sinner. Each one of us is loved personally by God, and has a place in the Sacred Heart of Jesus: that Heart which is a burning furnace of love. Jesus came in order to bear each one of us, personally, individually on his sacred shoulders; carrying each one of us, personally, individually, to the joy of our heavenly homeland.
In the refectory these days the community is listening to the life of St. Faustina, the Apostle of Divine Mercy, who died in Poland, aged 33, in 1938. Of course Faustina speaks a good deal about God’s Mercy. But precisely in that context, she does not gloss over our need for conversion from sin, and for repentance, and for reparation; nor is she silent about the terrible possibility of being finally lost, if God’s offer of Mercy is refused. Faustina had boundless confidence in God’s mercy, yet she was moved to pray with intensity for sinners, and to desire that many others do the same.
One very striking aspect of Saint Faustina’s prayer was her persistent imploring of Mercy for her own country, for Poland. This appears at first rather baffling, because it would seem that her prayer was decisively rejected. Only a year after Faustina’s death, Poland was invaded, and as a nation underwent a veritable crucifixion, lasting without respite for years.
Yet I think that, through this paradox, we can glimpse something of the nature of divine Mercy. Because the final calamity for us, the only one that really matters, is separation from God. And the ultimate blessing God could give us is not prosperity, comfort, security, success, health, and all the other things people desire on this earth, but union with himself; a share in his eternal joy; the conformity of our heart to the Heart of Jesus. While this life lasts, these blessings are entirely compatible with suffering, defeat, humiliation, loss. Poland as a nation experienced all that. Yet also, through this experience, Poland became a nation of martyrs, and of Saints. Jewish holocaust researchers have shown that, far more than in any other occupied country, Polish people risked or gave up their lives in the attempt to hide or rescue Jews. And Poland produced for the Church in our day plenty of Saints, including Faustina herself, and Maximilian Kolbe, and Pope John Paul II.
The Scribes and Pharisees complained that Jesus welcomed sinners, and ate with them. The banquet of Jesus with sinners in the Gospel points us to the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. And the Eucharist reminds us also that Jesus abides with us; that his Mercy is always active and open for us; that his love endures forever. A sign of that is our Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament today. This is an invitation to us, to receive God’s love with open hearts; to thank and praise him for it; and to abide with him, in adoration returning love for love.