In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about the shepherd who goes out and finds a lost sheep, one of of a hundred sheep, who has lost his way. He is responding to the Pharisees who object to Jesus eating with sinners. The basic message of the parable is clear: Jesus spends time with sinners because he loves them and wants to be in relationship with them. Jesus is also reframing the way that we look at sin. What does it mean to see sin as something more like losing the way, or going off track, and needing to be found again? It is a way of reframing sin and rejecting the idea that all sin is deliberately enacting evil. Instead, sometimes our wrong actions are more a matter of getting lost, and needing to be found again.
I find it helpful to reframe sin in this way both when thinking about others’ mistakes and my own. If we look at others who have hurt us as “bad people” who don’t deserve the time of day, then we are no better than the Pharisees whom Jesus is gently rebuking. Finding someone who has gotten lost feels different to us emotionally. We can all think of times that someone we loved was lost or maybe when we were the lost ones.
For example, many years ago now, one of our children got lost at an amusement park pool and hotel area when we were all on vacation together in Orlando. Our child had run back to our hotel room in order to get a pair of goggles and then couldn’t find us afterwards. When we were all unable to connect after considerable searching, we started to panic a little–after all, what if something awful had happened? So the lifeguard radioed other staff, and finally we were reconnected, to the great relief of everyone. There were hugs all around, and a lot of outpouring of love.
What if we thought about others’ hurtful actions in this way, as a failure to connect, or a need to get back into loving relationship or loving community after getting kind of lost in something else that does not lead us to love? What if I also thought about my own sin in this way? There would be less condemnation and far less shaming and self shaming. My colleague Jim Keenan SJ has often said that sin is a “failure to love.” If we sometimes fail to love one another, then the goal is to get back into relationship and community again, and not to avoid or to shame.
Jesus doesn’t avoid or shame. Jesus seeks out the lost sheep–which is every single one of us, at different times in our lives–and seeks restoration of relationship, not shame and condemnation. We see the same when he heals someone and then says, go and sin no more. Whether we are the ones hurting others or the ones experiencing the pain, Jesus suggests that if we reframe sin as a matter of getting lost and needing to get back home again, we can have a better understanding of the person who has been lost. We can remember times when we ourselves have been lost. And like Jesus, we can seek restoration of relationship, and enact God’s love in the world.