A man with 99 sheep safe and sound leaves them all to recover a lost one and, finding it, rejoices as if it is all he owns. A woman with ten coins loses one of practically no value but like a miser turns the house upside down until she finds it, then throws a party when she does. If you find this behavior strange, surprising, or even mystifying, know that you’re not alone.
Also know that our Lord is delighted to hear it.
That’s because parables aren’t supposed to make sense on the surface. They’re meant to sound strange, to surprise, and even mystify us. Their unexpected behavior or surprising twists should give us pause, make us stop and reflect, prompt us to ask questions, and look beneath the surface for answers. The question for today’s parables is obvious: What is it that would make someone go so far out of their way to recover something it seems they could so easily do without?
The answer is the infinite, overwhelming, passionate, mysterious, all-consuming love of God.
This is a love that sees as we do not. We tend to value people not only for who they are but also for what they can do for us. On those terms what is one sheep compared to 99 or one nearly worthless coin compared to the other nine? In contrast, God’s infinite love values people not just for who they are but because they are. Thus, even one lost soul is of infinite importance. This overwhelming love assures us that even if we were the only person ever created God still would have suffered and died for us. Not only that, he wants his standard of love to be ours as well; to make the world a place without hatred, bitterness, resentment, or injustice, where we rejoice not when an enemy dies but when they repent, come to a knowledge and love of God, and live as he intends.
That brings us to the second point of the parables, which is that God’s love brings the joy of conversion. Again in human terms, we tend to equate joy with an emotional high; a good feeling. But true joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, the happiness that comes as we pursue and come to possess our greatest good: Eternal union with God. This is what lies at the heart of the parables – the passionate joy that comes from finding what was lost but so priceless; the joy we too will know as we attain more and more perfect union with Almighty God.
Finally, the parables teach us that the love of God works mysteriously through the process of conversion so that no matter how hard we search for Christ, it isn’t we who find him but he who finds us. Our life stories are a testament to the truth of the parables and Isaiah’s words that we have all gone astray like sheep (Isaiah 53:6). It’s who we are in the self-centered weakness of human love; left to ourselves we drift, fall into habits that may be comfortable but lead us further away from God. And it is who Christ is in the glorious strength of his all-consuming love that he comes to us like the shepherd and the woman in the parables, seeking out and saving what was lost (Luke 19:10) no matter the cost. This is the love that literally consumed him, leading him to the cross and beyond.
It is always there that such infinite, overwhelming, passionate, mysterious, all-consuming love leads. None can possess real love without giving it away, know its deep joy without plumbing the depths of its sacrifice, or attain its life without letting our own life go. It’s very hard to comprehend that kind of love but that’s good because it gives us yet another question to contemplate. Ask yourself, what is the measure of my own love? Consider in your contemplation the answer given by the great saint Francis de Sales centuries ago, who perhaps had in mind these very parables.
The measure of love is to love without measure.