Father Leopold Fonck’s Commentary on Luke 15:4-7. The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Luk 15:1  Now the publicans and sinners drew near unto him to hear him.
Luk 15:2  And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying: This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.
Luk 15:3  And he spoke to them this parable, saying:
Luk 15:4 What man of you that hath an hundred sheep, and if he shall lose one of them, doth he not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after that which was lost, until he find it?
Luk 15:5 And when he hath found it, lay it upon his shoulders, rejoicing?
Luk 15:6 And coming home, call together his friends and neighbours, saying to them: Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost?
Luk 15:7 I say to you that even so there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need not penance.

These verses are used to introduce a first parable which is quickly followed by a second and a third.  It is the final one which is the subject of the reading.

In chapter 14 Luke had shown our Lord insisting on the need to be open towards the poor and outcast.  This chapter makes clear that the most poor and outcast are those who have sinned against God and His family and who, if repentant, should be welcomed back wholeheartedly.  What follows is an exposition of the Parable by Father Leopold Fonck.  The text of the parable can be read here (RSV) or here (Douay Rheims) or here (NAB).

In St. Matthew this parable belongs to the instruction on humility and the care to be taken to avoid giving scandal to little ones. After Christ had pointed out what a crime it is to scandalize an innocent child, He proceeded to show that to neglect children, to be indifferent to them, is contrary to God’s will. He illustrated this by an example taken from that pastoral life with which the disciples were so familiar. After some further instruction He concluded with the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

The simile was addressed primarily to the disciples (Matt 18:1), but as to when or where, nothing can be asserted with any certainty. Probably, it was proposed before our Lord’s last journey to Jerusalem (Matt 19:1) at the time of His sojourn either in Perea or in Galilee.

There is nothing to prevent the assumption that Christ on various occasions made use of similar examples from pastoral life with which every one was so familiar, and which is so frequently alluded to in the Scriptures. It would be, on the contrary, a wholly unfounded and arbitrary opinion if we were to suppose that our Lord proposed such a parable with its beautiful imagery, which in the rich pastoral country east and west of the Jordan would be so easily understood, on one occasion and with one signification only, and to suppose that the various circumstances indicated are due to the imagination of one or other Evangelist.

In St. Luke the similitude is the first in the fifteenth chapter, which is pre-eminently “the Parable Chapter.” It is prefaced by the Evangelist with the words: “Now the publicans and sinners drew near unto him to hear him.”

The verses are of decisive significance for the three parables which follow. Full of love and mercy, the divine Redeemer has taken upon Himself the care of those whom He came into the world to save. As the Good Shepherd, He had sought for the lost sheep of the house of Israel and called them to be converted and to do penance. Like a tender, helpful physician He had cared for these poor sick ones and had shown them the way to life and health.

But once more the heartless, uncharitable scribes and Pharisees set themselves against Him, and reproached Him because of the works of His divine love and mercy. In defense of His all-merciful charity our divine Saviour now again speaks, and by three examples illustrates the sentiments of His Heavenly Father towards sinners, and also the sentiments and the principles of His own divine Heart. Hence, whilst in St. Matthew, according to the sequence, His love of the little ones is more strongly accentuated, in St. Luke, in this and the two parables which follow, is above all manifested the divine love and mercy for sinners.

“The Parable Chapter” belongs to the portion of what has been described as “St. Luke s travel-narrative,” in which the events between the last Feast of the Dedication of the Temple and the solemn entry into Jerusalem are narrated. We may represent to ourselves as the scene of the instruction a village on the road along which our divine Lord was journeying, where the publicans of the whole district had thronged round Him, and where, perhaps, once more He had an invitation to the house of some such sinner.

After what has been said about the preceding parable, the image of the present one, in the portraiture of which Matthew and Luke are in perfect accord, requires no long explanation. When a shepherd in a hilly country (Matt) or in uncultivated plains (Luke) leads his flocks to the pastures, it often happens that a sheep lags behind unnoticed and gets lost in a hollow or amongst the rocks or the thorn-bushes.

The shepherd may not discover his loss until he collects his flock together or in the evening. Then his whole anxiety is to find the missing one. He spares no trouble; he goes into every valley, ascends every eminence, searches all the ravines, the rocks, the caves, and the thickets in the locality, until he finds his lost sheep. He is more concerned to get back this one unit of his flock than he is about all the others who are not threatened by any immediate danger.

When he succeeds in finding the lost one, his joy in its recovery is greater than is afforded him by the possession of all the others. He takes it on his shoulders and carries it home, perhaps to some cavern in the rocks where he and his companions find shelter during grazing time. He calls all the shepherds in the neighborhood together, tells them of his joy, and relates the trouble he has had, and how he sought everywhere for his sheep that was lost.

The image is so beautiful and so lifelike that any further explanation would but serve to weaken its force.

Christ Himself gives the spiritual signification by adding the words recorded in Matthew: “Even so it is not the will of your Father, who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish” (vs. 14). Just as a shepherd thus cares for the very least of his flock and exerts himself to the utmost to save a lost sheep, so does- the Heavenly Father care, above all, for the welfare of the little ones. Hence, it is His will and the desire of Christ that the disciples also should apply themselves especially to the care of children who are exposed to so many dangers.

In St. Luke, on the other hand, the exposition reads thus: “I say to you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that does penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need not penance” (vs. 7). Although it is only the joy of the shepherd which these words set before us as a point of comparison, still, it follows from them that we have also to apply the other chief features of the image to the antitype. In the image of the lost sheep we are to see the sinners who have gone away from God by sin and have strayed far from the right path. In the good shepherd, our divine Lord shows us Almighty God, without whose anticipating and helpful grace no sinner finds his way home again by means of repentance. All that God does and makes use of to obtain this conversion is not further developed, but may be inferred easily from the parable.

The finding of the sheep is an image of the sinner s conversion, and the shepherd s joy is a faint likeness of that divine joy with which God beholds His most longing desire realized in the soul which was lost. In accordance with human ways of thinking and feeling, God Himself describes this joy over the repentant sinner as greater than the joy over many just who do not need penance. For, amongst men, the joy which has been preceded by great sorrow is ever more intense.

To interpret the ninety-nine just as applying to the angelic choirs only, or to understand it as having reference in an ironical sense to the Pharisees, who regarded themselves as the just and did not consider that they needed penance, is scarcely in accord with the words.

By this joy of Heaven over the sinner s conversion our Lord again expresses the sentiments of His own divine Heart. He it is Who, in accordance with the Will and wish of His Heavenly Father, as the Good Shepherd seeks every where after the lost sheep, taking upon Himself the care of sinners that He may save them. He it is Who because of His love for sinners is, even while He speaks, attacked by murmurers and enemies.

Thus will He now defend this divine all-merciful love of His against the Pharisees by showing that it is a divine sentiment.

As was remarked in expounding the previous parable, from the very beginning the figure of the Good Shepherd has always been exceedingly loved in the Church. In the paintings in the catacombs, on the sarcophagi and in other carvings, there is scarcely any other figure which is met with so frequently. In the catalogue made by Wilpert of the paintings in the catacombs we find that the number of these of which the Good Shepherd forms the subject is one hundred and fourteen. In addition to these, a close examination of the six folios of Garrucci’s “Storia dell arte Christiana” results in the discovery that among the other memorials of ancient Christian art may be numbered about one hundred and fifty more representations of the same subject. And even this list cannot claim to be complete. The figure of the Pastor bonus is introduced, although in different ways, into almost every form in which ancient Christian art found expression. Thus we find the figure on the gold chalices and mosaics, on lamps, rings, medals, cut stones, statues, on the reading-desks, on the tombs. We meet with it most frequently in the paintings. Next to these, the sarcophagi afford the greatest number of representations (about eighty). The oldest pictures are to be found in the frescoes of the catacombs of which at least three paintings of the Good Shepherd belong to the first century, whilst there are thirteen dating from the second, about thirty from the third, and sixty-six from the fourth century. A remark of Tertullian leads to the conclusion that already in the second century the image of the Good Shepherd was frequently introduced on chalices and similar sacred vessels.

In addition to the many representations in which the actual idea of the parable is unmistakably worked out or which at least plainly have reference to it, there are numerous others in which less definite allusions to the image may be distinctly traced. Amongst these, in the first place, may be included those scenes in which Christ appears as Shepherd and as Judge clearly with reference to Matthew 25:31-34. Of the figures in bas-relief on the sarcophagi there is a group on a Roman sarcophagus in possession of Count Strogonoff which belongs to the above mentioned class of representations. A photograph of this group appears in Garrucci’s work already alluded to.  We find a similar group in a mosaic painting in the Church of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Although it seems that so far no authentic example of this mode of representing the subject has been found in the paintings of the catacombs, yet at the same time an unmistakable allusion to it repeatedly occurs in various pictures of the Last Judgment. We notice this allusion most plainly in the splendid ceiling paintings belonging to the second half of the third century which adorn the chambers in the catacomb of the Nunziatella.

In the same category may be classed as representing the idea of the parable, though in a different manner, the numerous scenes in which sheep and lambs are introduced in connection with our divine Saviour. At one time, we see them at His feet whilst He is represented between Saints Peter and Paul or in the circle of His Apostles; again, instead of the figure of Christ, we see a lamb on a hill, or the Cross, or the letters I. H. S. with lambs standing on each side or approaching from right and left very often, as it wrould seem, from the symbolic cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The idea to which in these and other pictures the artist has tried to give expression is closely connected with the present parable. But we must forego further pursuit of this subject and confine ourselves to those art memorials which have precise reference to the text of the present similitude and the previous one. Amongst these latter, three groups may be distinguished which we shall discuss briefly.

The oldest and most numerous in the class of pictures which we have to consider show us the good shepherd as Christ portrayed him, according to St. Luke, in the parable of the Lost Sheep. He is carrying the sheep that had been lost and was found, on his shoulders back to the flock, which is usually grouped on both sides. All the pictures previously mentioned of the first and second century belong to this first group. Taken collectively, Wilpert catalogues ninety-three paintings of this type to which may be added one hundred and three examples given in the four last volumes of Garrucci’s work.

With few exceptions, there is but little difference in the manner of representation. “The conception and composition,” says Wilpert, “were so perfect from the very beginning that they were never further developed. Thus, as we see them in the oldest paintings, so in those of the latest period. Apart from the variation in the number of sheep, the only changes are in the dress of the Good Shepherd” (p. 4, 33, “Malereien der Katakomben”). Although these words have reference to the paintings only, yet, with certain limitations, something similar may be observed in memorials of other kinds.

The principal figure in all these scenes is the shepherd with the sheep which he has found. He is carrying it, as a rule, across his shoulders, and usually the fore and hind legs are held separately, two in each hand; occasionally he is represented as holding the four legs together in front of him, either with one or both hands. On a fragment of a sarcophagus preserved in the Kircher Museum, a bearded shepherd is represented carrying a young lamb on his back; the little animal is wrapped in his cloak, the ends of which are knotted on his breast. On another sarcophagus in the museum at Algiers we see two shepherds, each of whom carries a lamb on his left arm clasped to his breast; one holds in his right hand, which hangs by his side, a milk pail, the right arm is wanting to the other figure, having been broken off. In other pictures the shepherd holds his flute in his hand whilst the faithful sheepdog lies at his master s feet. The shepherd is usually represented as of youthful figure and beardless; sometimes, especially on the sarcophagi, as an old man and bearded.

In the statuary and many other works of art the shepherd with the sheep alone is represented. Generally speaking, however, two or more sheep are placed at the shepherd s feet or at each side of him, in allusion to the flock to which he is bringing back the one that was lost but now happily has been found. Very often, to complete the picture, a few trees appear in the background.

The constant recurrence of the figures of this first group, which at once from the earliest ages found permanent place on all the productions of ancient Christian art, shows us that the idea which finds expression in them has won the special predilection of the Church from the beginning.

In reply to the question as to what this idea is, we shall not err, if in the first place we recall that love of the good shepherd which was described so touchingly by our divine Lord in these two parables. We may regard these pictures as splendid memorials of the love of the divine heart of Jesus, which were so many reminders to the Christians in those early ages of our divine Redeemer s love and tenderness, thus serving the same purpose which the pictures of the Sacred Heart serve in these latter days.

This general meaning is by no means inconsistent with that particular one which is attributed to these representations. For the explanation of the figures on the sacred vessels Tertullian affords us a certain clue. He regards the sheep on the shepherd’s shoulders as a symbol of the sinner who has been reconciled with the Church, this being quite in harmony with the words of the Gospel (De pudicitia, c. 7). He gives this explanation, not as his own personal view, but as being universally known and accepted both by friends and enemies. The only point whereon he differed from the Catholic views of his opponents was that of the extension and the application of this meaning. From the standpoint of his Montanistic doctrine, he thought that the reconciled sinner should be understood as having reference only to the newly converted pagans, whilst the ancient Catholic and perfectly correct view was that every sinner was entitled to be counted as such, even though as a Christian he had fallen into grievous sin. We ought not to limit this meaning, which is directly suggested by our Lord’s words, to these particular figures alone. It is extremely probable that the same meaning is to be read into many other representations of the Good Shepherd.

Another obvious and very natural meaning is suggested by most of the other representations on or near the tombs of the Christians, in the subterranean mortuary chapels, and on the sarcophagi. In these the sheep on the shoulders of the shepherd symbolizes the souls of the departed who have been summoned by our divine Lord to the hosts of the elect. Wilpert favors this interpretation, which is upheld by other archeologists also. It is further supported by the connecting of the good shepherd with images of eternal happiness, such as occur especially in some old liturgical prayers and
in a passage from Prudentius. In the Sacramentarium Gelasianum, for instance, we read in the first passage in the prayers said after the burial of the dead: “Debitum humani corporis sepeliendi officium fidelium more complentes, Deum, cui omnia vivunt, fidcliter deprecemur, ut hoc corpus a nobis in infirmitate sepultum in virtute et ordine sanctorum resuscitet et eius animam Sanctis et fidelibus iubeat adgregari, cuique in iudicio misericordiam tribuat, quemque morte redemptum, debitis solutum, Patri reconciliatum, boni Pastoris humeris reportatum, in comitatu aeterni Regis perenni gaudio et Sanctorum consortio perfrui concedat” (III, 91. L. A. Muratori, Liturgia Romana Vetus, I, 751). In the Sacramentarium Gregorianum the conclusion of the Preface, pro pluribus defunctis, runs thus: “. . . transitum mereantur
ad vitam et in ovium tibi placitarum benedictione aeternum numerentur ad regnum” (II, 290 and 356). In the Greek burial service also, the same figure is used, the departed being supposed to utter these words: “I am the lost sheep. Call me back, my Redemeer and save me.” Prudentius pictures to us in graceful verses the Good Shepherd carrying the sheep which was lost and has been found to the fields of Paradise (Cathemerinon, VIII, v. 37-48.
M. 59, 859 A):

“Impiger pastor revocat lupisque
Gestat exclusis, humeros gravatus,
Inde purgatam revehens aprico
Reddit ovili.
Reddit et pratis viridique campo
Vibrat, impexis ubi nulla lappis
Spina nee germen subidus perarmat
Carduus horrens;
Sed frequens palmis nemus et reflexa
Vernat herbarum coma, turn perennis
Gurgitem vivis vitreum fluentis
Laurus obumbrat.”

The examples in the second class of pictures of the Good Shepherd are not so numerous, and their origin can be traced only to the third century. They correspond more to the simile as it is recorded in St. John, and the lost sheep
finds no place in them.

The manner of the representation in most of the examples of this class is similar to that of the first, the shepherd’s attitude excepted. He is not represented carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, but either standing or sitting, and sometimes we see him feeding his flock; usually, he is leaning on his staff with his flute in his hand, and very often he is represented stroking the head of one of his sheep. As a rule, his dog, his faithful companion, is at his side. The sheep are represented in various positions, some grazing, some resting or listening attentively to the voice of their shepherd; others again have turned away from him or are looking away from him out of the picture; sometimes mixed with the flock we see one or two rams, or it may be several goats. The pasture is indicated by trees and bushes, or hills covered with all kinds of plants and herbs. Sometimes the letters I. H. S. or the Alpha and Omega are inscribed near the shepherd in allusion to the Good Shepherd.

Some of these representations are worthy of particular attention, as they bring into relief a characteristic feature of the parable. There is an interesting fresco in a chamber near the Chapel of St. Januarius, first made known by Wilpert, in which a shepherd is depicted clothed in a short garment which is girded up (exomis); he is wearing sandals and leggings and carries the usual shepherd s wallet. “His right hand is lowered, and he is pointing to the flock consisting of seven sheep, which are crowding together as if frightened whilst they look towards the shepherd. On the other side of the shepherd is an ass and a pig, two animals very rarely seen in the paintings of the catacombs. The pig has its snout to the ground, as if seeking food, whilst the ass with pointed ears stretches its head with a greedy air in the direction of the sheep. Neither animal, however, can come near the flock as the shepherd keeps them off with his stick. In the background are trees, in the top branches of which are birds.”

Wilpert rightly considers that in this “representation, which is as unusual as it is of great importance, the idea is expressed that Christ is defending His flock of the Faithful against their adversary, the devil, who, according to the usual ancient symbolism (e.g., the Physiologus) might be represented under the image of the wild ass, and also as an unclean spirit under that of the pig. Another possible explanation is that He is defending His flock against heretics and unclean men in general, of whom the devil makes use to injure Christ’s flock.

Still more forcibly are the words of the parable concerning the defense of the flock by the Good Shepherd brought home to us by the manner in which they are illustrated on the famous ivory casket or lipsanotheca of Brescia, which dates from the fourth century. In a walled enclosure are five sheep, whilst in the arched gateway with Corinthian pillars by which access to the fold is gained stands Christ, keeping back with His hand the raging wolf who is trying to spring upon the flock; on the right hand is seen the hireling with his staff in hand taking to flight.

On a sarcophagus from Toulouse are depicted two separate scenes by which perhaps it may have been intended to illustrate the same idea. On one side we see the shepherd leaning on his staff and accompanied by his faithful dog as he keeps guard over the flock; on the other side a man with a staff or spear tries to keep a wild animal at bay. Unfortunately the sketches in Garrucci’s “Storia dell arte Christiana”permit of no decided opinion with regard to this work.

The general meaning of the various representations of the Good Shepherd to which we have referred already may be accepted as that of the pictures of the second class also. The love of the shepherd, who leads his flock to rich pastures (Ps. 22:2) and defends it against the attacks of enemies, in these pictures finds touching illustration.

This Shepherd gives to His sheep eternal life. He is come that they may have life, and life more abundantly (John, 10:10). Hence in these pictures, which mostly were intended in the first instance for Christian burial places, we may recognize a profession of faith in Christ and His Church, a declaration of membership with His flock of the Faithful and at the same time an expression, suitable to the Christian resting place of the dead, of the hope of eternal life. These representations illustrate beautifully the words of Abercius who in the famous inscription on his tomb describes himself with justifiable pride as the “pupil of the divine Shepherd who leads His flock to the hills and pastures.”

The same Bishop Abercius calls attention to one of the chief labors of the Good Shepherd for His flock, when he adds that this Shepherd had taught him “wholesome laws and reliable knowledge.” Thus we shall not err if in these pictures of the shepherd and his flock we recognize an allusion to our divine Lord s activity as a teacher. Indeed, the cases for holding rolls of manuscript which we see in some of them expressly refer to His labors in instructing the multitudes.

That, sometimes at least, the idea of the shepherd’s loving care for the lost sheep, that is for the sinner, was present to the artist in the representations of this second class, is proved, perhaps, by a fragment of a sarcophagus from the catacombs of St. Calixtus. On this we see the shepherd seated on a rock and his flock grazing round him (all the figures except two under some trees having unfortunately been broken off the carving). A man has thrown himself down before the shepherd and is kneeling on his left knee; his left hand hangs at his side, whilst the shepherd grasps his right. Garrucci, who discovered the fragment and published a drawing of it, explains it thus: “The Shepherd sees at His feet the sinner to whom in token of pardon He extends His right hand. We may assume that here there is represented to us the manner in which a penitent confessed his sins to a priest in those days.” How far such an explanation is warranted we leave to others to decide.

There is a third class of pictures to be met with in the works of ancient Christian art, which relate directly to the similitude of the Good Shepherd. We find these sometimes in conjunction with the pictures of the first and second class, and sometimes as special representations. In these pictures, beside the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulders, or beside the good shepherd who is tending His flock, a second shepherd is represented seated on a rock or on rising ground and milking a sheep or a goat. Occasionally in separate pictures the Pastor bonus is depicted alone in the act of milking one of his flock. But the milk pail is constantly introduced into the pictures of the first and second class, sometimes in the Good Shepherd s hand, sometimes at His feet, or beside the sheep; in other pictures he stands alone on level ground or on an eminence between two sheep, whilst close by, tied to his staff or to a tree, is another sheep; some of these latter pictures are amongst the oldest examples of Christian art and belong to the end of the first century and the first half of the second.

The vision of St. Perpetua, which Wilpert recalls, makes the meaning of these pictures clear. The Saint, shortly before her martyrdom, whilst she lay in prison, was transported in vision into Paradise. She describes the vision as follows :

“beheld a vast garden and in the center the venerable figure of an old man dressed as a shepherd, engaged in milking the sheep. He raised his head, and seeing me, said: It is good of thee, my child, that thou hast come. And he called me to him and gave me some curds of the milk that he had milked. I received it from him with joined hands and ate it. And all those standing round cried: Amen. At the sound of my own voice I awoke and I had the taste still of I know not what sweetness in my mouth.” Wilpert adds: “The way in which Perpetua received the morsel is exactly like the rite of receiving Holy Communion. The action took place, as was remarked, in Paradise. Thus the holy Martyr received, as St. Augustine says, a foretaste of the joys of Heaven that she might be strengthened for her approaching martyrdom. In all paintings, milk is to be interpreted in the same sense as an allusion to eternal happiness; whether the milk-vessel is in the Good Shepherd s hand or at His feet, no matter where it is placed, it always relates directly to the image of the Good Shepherd” (p. 444).

The applications of this parable are exactly similar to those of the previous one. In connection with our Lord’s words, we have three principal points for sermons and meditation. First, the sad fate of the sheep that goes astray and is lost. Second, the Shepherd s love and care for His sheep, and the trouble wiiich He takes to find it when lost. Third, His joy at finding it.

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One Response to Father Leopold Fonck’s Commentary on Luke 15:4-7. The Parable of the Lost Sheep

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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