Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 96; Matthew 18:12-14
We are so familiar with this example of the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to go in search of one stray that we fail to see how irrational it probably is. Of course if the ninety-nine are safe or are being cared for by someone else then it makes sense that the shepherd will try to find a stray. But if that is not the case, and there is the risk of losing even more of them, he will surely cut his losses and take care of the ones remaining. If the stray does then turn up of course it is an extra joy, and will feel like a bonus. But the thought of leaving ninety-nine at risk to go in search of one seems a bit crazy.
And that is the point. Luke brings it out more clearly in his version where he combines it with the story of a woman who lost a coin and searched high and low until finally she found it only to spend at least as much on a party to celebrate its recovery. And the third unbelievable story in that triad in Luke 15 is, of course, the story of the Prodigal Son, received back by his father with love and celebrations.
In modern times people often contrast faith and reason as if they were opposed to each other, which of course they are not. The real contrast generated by the gospels, however, is not so much between faith and reason as it is between love and reason. Saint Catherine of Siena talks about the madness of the Divine Love, how crazily in love with His creatures God is.
The beautiful love song that is today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah sings of this crazy love of God. Now the highway through the wilderness is not for the people returning from Babylon to Jerusalem, it is for the Lord returning to Jerusalem to dwell once more with His people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, Isaiah says, or, in another translation, speak to the heart of Jerusalem. It is a time for tenderness and a fresh start, for gentle shepherding and warm care, a time to experience once again the everlasting love of God.
The contrast between the lovers is extraordinary, on the one hand a people that is poor flesh, as enduring as the grass, here today and gone tomorrow. On the other hand is the infinite and eternal God, creator of all things, whose word stands forever and whose love is constantly searching to turn the heart of His people back to Him.
'Let creation rejoice' is another cry of the Advent season. Nature always sings for lovers: the hills are radiant and the trees dance, the rain is playful and the sea thunders praise, the meadows rejoice and even the animals know something special is going on. This is the world being transformed by the presence of God's glory, a glory He wants us to see and to share. We do it by turning again towards Him and learning His ways anew, by opening our hearts to the comfort and tenderness of our Good Shepherd.