In today’s Gospel Christ, the good shepherd, invites us to think of his mission as like a search for missing sheep:
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? (Matthew 18: 12-14).
Now of course, the answer to this question may very well be ‘no’. There are all sorts of reasons why a prudent shepherd might choose to accept the loss of one miscreant rather than put the rest of his flock in jeopardy by abandoning them to undertake a search. The fact that Jesus uses this image tells us something, then, about how we are to understand both his own mission and the vocation of the Church.
To be merciful is to go beyond what is demanded from us in justice; it is to go the extra mile. Jesus is recklessly merciful. He is not obliged to go looking for us when we go astray. He would be well within his rights, as it were, to leave us to the consequences of our sin. Yet his mercy is so great that he comes searching when we lose ourselves. He continually holds out to us the opportunity of repentance and conversion, he gives us time and opportunity to return to Him, to choose life and love.
Against this background, we gain perhaps the smallest glimpse of why Jesus allows the Church to suffer in this life. In Matthew 10: 16 Jesus tells his disciples: ‘Behold, I send you like sheep among wolves’. While the shepherd is searching for the lost sheep, the ninety-nine He leaves behind are vulnerable to wolves and thieves. It seems to me that in a similar way, the Church will always be vulnerable to persecution and oppression as long as Jesus is offering sinners the time and opportunity to accept his invitation of love, for this invitation may well be rejected.
As Christ was crucified by those that rejected his offer of love, so his Body the Church will be crucified whenever this re-presented invitation is rejected after the Resurrection. Persecution, then, is an occupational hazard of a Gospel centred life: whenever the Church truly re-presents Christ to the world it runs the risk of being crucified. Yet this is a time of vulnerability because it is a time of conversion: God has given us this time so that he might draw us closer to him, and draw his lost sheep closer to him. If we embrace this vulnerability and return only love when persecution comes, then we co-operate in the Good Shepherd’s saving work both in our own lives and in the lives of those around us: we ourselves become instruments of salvation.
We are in a time of waiting, then, between the victory over death and evil at the cross and the final judgement at the second coming. In a certain sense, our entire Christian lives are an Advent, a waiting for the coming of Christ: but it is a wait that is slowly producing good fruit both in us and in others. May this season of Advent do the same.