Thoughts from the Early Church
Commentary by Peter Chrysologus
There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
The tradition of the Fathers and the authority of holy scripture both affirm that there are three renunciations which every one of us must strive to practice. To these let us turn our attention.
First, on the material level, we have to despise all worldly wealth and possessions; secondly, we must reject our former way of life with its vices and attachments, both physical and spiritual; and thirdly, we should withdraw our mind from all that is transitory and visible to contemplate solely what lies in the future and to desire what is unseen.
We read that the Lord commanded Abraham to make all three renunciations at once when he said to him: “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house. First he said your country,” meaning worldly wealth and possessions; secondly your kindred, that is our former way of living, with its habits and vices which have grown up with us and are as familiar to us as kith and kin; thirdly your father s house, in other words every secular memory aroused by what we see.
This forgetfulness will be achieved when, dead with Christ to the elemental spirits of this world, we contemplate as the apostle says, “not the things that are seen but those that are unseen, for what is seen is temporal but what is unseen is eternal.”
It will be achieved when in our hearts we leave this temporal and visible house and turn the eyes of our mind toward that in which we shall live for ever; when, though living in the world, we cease to follow the spirit of the world in order to fight for the Lord, proclaiming by our holy way of life that, as the apostle says, “our homeland is in heaven.”
It avails little to undertake the first of these renunciations, even with wholehearted devotion inspired by faith, unless we carry out the second with the same zeal and fervor.
Then having accomplished this as well we shall be able to go on to the third, whereby we leave the house of our former father, of him who fathered us as members of a fallen race, “children of wrath like everyone else,” and turn our inward gaze solely toward heavenly things.
We shall attain to the perfection of this third renunciation when our mind, no longer dulled by contact with a pampered body, has been cleansed by the most searching refinement from every worldly sentiment and attitude, and raised by constant meditation on divine things and spiritual contemplation to the realm of the invisible.
Finding something we have lost gives us a fresh joy, and we are happier at having found the lost object than we should have been had we never lost it. This parable, however, is concerned more with divine tenderness and compassion than with human behavior, and it expresses a great truth.
Humans are too greedy to forsake things of value for love of anything inferior. That is something only God can do. For God not only brought what was not into being, but he also went after what was lost while still protecting what he left behind, and found what was lost without losing what he had in safe keeping.
This story, then, speaks of no earthly shepherd but of a heavenly one, and far from being a portrayal of human activity, this whole parable conceals divine mysteries, as becomes clear from the number mentioned when Christ says: “Which of you, if you have a hundred sheep and lost one of them … ”
You see how the loss of a single sheep made the shepherd grieve as though the whole flock were no longer in safe keeping but had gone astray, and how this made him leave the ninety-nine to go after the lost one and search for it, so that its recovery might make the flock complete again.
But let us now unfold the hidden meaning of this heavenly parable.
The man who owns the hundred sheep is Christ. He is the good shepherd, the loving shepherd, who in a single sheep, that is in Adam, fashioned the whole flock of humankind. He set this sheep in a place of rich pasturage amidst the pleasures of paradise, but heedless of the shepherd’s voice it trusted in the howling of wolves, lost the protection of the sheepfold, and was pierced through by deadly wounds.
Christ therefore came into the world to look for it, and he found it in the Virgin’s womb. He came in the body assumed at his human birth, and raising that body on the cross, he placed the lost sheep on his own shoulders by his passion. Then in the intense joy of the resurrection he brought it to its heavenly home. “And he called his friends and neighbors,” that is the angels, and said to them: “Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep that was lost.”
The angels joined Christ in gladness and rejoicing at the return of the Lord’s sheep. They did not take it amiss that he now reigned over them upon the throne of majesty, for the sin of envy had long since been banished from heaven together with the devil, and it could not gain entry there again through the Lamb who took away the sin of the world!
Brothers and sisters, Christ sought us on earth; let us seek him in heaven. He has borne us up to the glory of his divinity; let us bear him in our bodies by holiness. As the apostle says: Glorify and bear God in your bodies. That person bears God in his body whose bodily activities are free from sin.
Homily 168: PL 52, 639-641
Peter Chrysologus (c. 400-450), who was born at Imola in Italy, became a bishop of Ravenna. He was highly esteemed by the Empress Galla Placidia, in whose presence he preached his first sermon as bishop. He was above all a pastor, and many of his sermons have been preserved.
**From Saint Louis University