June 12, 2005

The Lost Sheep

In today's Gospel reading (Matthew 9:36--10:8), we find Jesus being "moved with pity" for those who are "troubled and abandoned." While today's reading has a spiritual dimension which tends toward the vertical, or man's relationship with God, it also has a spiritual dimension which tends toward the horizontal, or a person's relationship with other people. Let's take a look:

At the sight of the crowds, Jesus' heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd . . . Then he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness . . . Jesus sent out these twelve after instructing them thus, "Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give."

What is the proclamation that the apostles are to make? "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." But what is the sign of this kingdom? The relief of suffering -- cures for the sick, life for the dead, health for lepers, liberation for the possessed. The sign of God's kingdom is a love that does not count the cost; it is a recognition that we have received from God without cost, and that we are to give freely to others without cost. This sign of the kingdom is inseparable from the proclamation of the kingdom: we cannot proclaim God's kingdom without the accompanying signs, and we cannot fully do God's work without the proclamation of the kingdom. Evangelization and social justice are not two separate things. In Christianity, all of it is bound up together in Christ: truth and charity, faith and work, God and neighbor. Our work for justice evangelizes, and our evangelization works for justice.

Jesus was moved with pity for the crowds because they were abandoned, "like sheep without a shepherd." When does our work end? When there are no more sheep without a shepherd; when every lamb is fed and taken care of. But where does our work begin? Jesus gives us the answer to that: it begins in our own backyard. When Jesus first commissioned the apostles, he told them not to go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but to start with the lost sheep of Israel. We know that he eventually called Ss. Peter and Paul, through the Holy Spirit, to evangelize all people and to work for justice throughout the world. But in the beginning, he told the apostles to start at home, with their own people. Shouldn't we be doing the same? Can we really effectively fight global injustice if we can't fight injustice in our own backyard? That is one of the challenges that today's Gospel reading presents us with.

As I've been reflecting on this dimension of today's reading, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to hear my pastor's homily for this reading. Years ago, my pastor served as a missionary in East Africa for Maryknoll, and since his return to the United States he has stayed very close to the world of social justice. Without question, he sees social justice as inseparable from his vocation to the priesthood, and inseparable from man's general vocation to communion with God and one another. Over the weekend, he went to Washington, D.C. for various Bread for the World activities that concluded with BFW's annual Lobby Day on June 7. During his homily, my pastor told us about BFW's efforts to ensure that there are no funding cuts to food stamps and other national nutrition programs, and he also told us about BFW's efforts to get new bipartisan legislation recently introduced in Congress to pass.

The new legislation is called the Hunger-Free Communities Act of 2005, S. 1120 in the Senate and H.R. 2717 in the House of Representatives. The goal of the legislation is to recommit the U.S. to the goal of cutting hunger in half by the year 2010, to protect national nutrition programs from President Bush's proposed budget cuts, and to create a grant program for fighting hunger in local communities. Not only would this bill commit the government to reducing hunger by 2010, but it would also commit the government to eliminating hunger within our borders by 2015. As I mentioned, this bill has bipartisan support. In the Senate it is cosponsored by six Democrats and six Republicans (and one Independent), and in the House of Representatives it is cosponsored by 21 Democrats and 10 Republicans. In the Senate, the bill was initially sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), and in the House of Representatives it was originally sponsored by Rep. Tom Osborne (R-NE). I have little doubt that all of this bill's supporters see it as a piece of pro-life legislation, and rightfully so.

Sisters and brothers, this is an opportunity that Jesus wouldn't want us to pass up. This is an opportunity for us to be shepherds to the lost sheep in our local communities and our nation. This is our chance to commit ourselves to the maxim attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words." This is a chance for the kind of evangelization that Jesus calls us to proclaim in today's Gospel reading. Write to or call your senators and representatives. Let them know that you aren't willing to pass up this opportunity to be a shepherd to the lost sheep of America.

And when we've done something about the lost sheep in our own backyard, let's be sure to remember that there's a whole world full of lost sheep who feel troubled and abandoned. A good place to start is by signing the One Declaration, a declaration sponsored by the One Campaign to make poverty history. It commits us -- one person, one voice, one vote at a time -- to making a better world for all men, a world in which no one feels lost or abandoned.

Jesus is calling us out of the flock to be shepherds to his lost sheep. Are we listening?