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One of the features of the Aramaic language—the language spoken by our Lord and the other Jewish people native to Palestine—was that it lacked “superlatives.” In English, we have words like “good,” “better,” and “best” or “some,” “more,” and “most” to allow a speaker to indicate degrees of comparison. It is said that in our Lord’s language, such comparisons were difficult to make, and the speaker was often required to result to exaggerations in order to make his point. The term linguists use for this device—this use of exaggeration—is “hyperbole.”
For example, our Lord said that: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Now, it seems safe to say that no camels at all have ever passed through the eye of any needle; but, on the other hand, equally safe to say that at least some rich men have lived lives worthy of heaven. Clearly, Jesus was using this technique of hyperbole to indicate that great wealth might make a person’s salvation more difficult than average; that the rich man had to be much more careful than the average man to use his wealth for good purposes and to avoid evil ones.
Likewise it is unlikely that our Lord had actually encountered a hypocrite with a wooden beam in his eye (as He mentions in Matthew vii: 3-5); or that putting out one’s eye or cutting of one’s hand or foot was really His preferred method for avoiding sins of concupiscence (as in Matthew xviii: 8-9).
When we come to today’s Gospel, we can only hope that our Lord was using this technique of exaggeration in the opposite direction. We can hope that He was understating rather than overstating. We can hope—with fairly good confidence, I think—that the “one sinner in a hundred who repents” might be a much larger number, and still bring about “joy among the angels of God.” I have a picture in my home (some of you have seen it in the room where the Studies Group meets) that has Jesus walking in the midst of a number of white sheep. Almost hidden behind Him is one fuzzy black sheep, presumably representing the one in a hundred of today’s Gospel. I have to believe that a more accurate representation of the world in which we live would have included a lot more black sheep—and, probably, most of the white ones would have been at least a little gray.
In today’s epistle, Saint Peter seems to take this “universal grayness” for granted. Peter’s epistles are addressed to the Church at large, rather than to any single person or local Church. That is to say, then, that all of us are being cautioned to “Humble ourselves before the mighty hand of God ... to cast our anxieties upon Him ... to be sober and watchful ... and to resist the devil who goes about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” We are to “resist the devil ... for all over the world the same suffering befalls our brethren in the Faith.” There are a lot of gray sheep out here!
So, when we hear this Gospel, we ought to understand it in two ways. God is merciful to the sinner; even “joyful,” it seems, when one of His “lost and straying sheep” is gathered back into His fold. We can count on this mercy as long as we are honestly repentant—certainly God would not have sent His Son to suffer and die on the Cross if He were stingy with His forgiveness. Whether we are “black sheep” or “gray,” God extends the palm of Sacramental forgiveness to us.
That, of course, is not to say that we are free to presume on God’s mercy, and go about sinning with regularity because we expect routinely to be forgiven. That would be “presumption on the mercy of God,” a serious enough sin just in itself. Rather, as Saint Peter suggests today, we must be constantly on our guard against the tactics of the “roaring lion” that is the devil. There may be some suffering in this—at least in the self mortification that is necessary to overcome the many sins which stem from selfishness. But in the long run, after we have grown used to this self discipline, God will “perfect, strengthen, and establish us.” “He cares for us,” and will do this for us if we “humble ourselves under His mighty hand.”
The second way in which we understand this Gospel is in our dealings with others. Whatever we can do to help the other “black and gray sheep” to return to the fold will bring about joy in heaven. That is not always a great deal—most folks do not take kindly to being told that they need to mend their ways in this or that fashion. But, sometimes such “fraternal correction” is necessary, for people do not always think clearly on their own behalf. More often, our best effort is made through our good example. Sometimes it is in our personal forgiveness, or in our efforts to make sure that the repentant sheep are not kept away by any unnecessary embarrassment that we might cause them.
The Collect of today’s Mass tells us that “God is the protector of those who hope in Him; without Him nothing is strong, nothing is holy.” In that prayer, we pray with the Church that God will “rule and guide us, so that we may pass trough the things of earth, in order not to lose the things of heaven”—that we may abstain from the temporal to gain the eternal.
Let this holy Mass remind us that we must both pray for ourselves, and make the efforts at self control described by Saint Peter, so that God can make us holy. And, likewise, let it remind us to pray for those around us—our fellow gray and black sheep—so that they too may be gathered into the one fold of the one Shepherd. Remember that the repentance of one sinner (and of many sinners) brings “joy among the angels of heaven.”