"I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance." St. Luke. xv. 7.
One often wonders whether some of the expressions of the Bible ought not to be understood as hyperbolical rather than literal. I do not speak so much of things like the numbers of the Old Testament for of them it is quite conceivable that they have not come down to us as they were originally recorded. It must have been so easy to change the numerals in copying, and when we think how many times the old manuscripts had been copied before they came into the hands of modern scholars we may not doubt that there was room for many variations from the original documents in such matters as the numbers especially. Think of the vast hosts slain in the old time wars. Of Sennacherib's army the angel of the Lord slew in one night one hundred and eighty-five thousand. Of the men of Benhadad there were one hundred thousand who died in one day, and afterward twenty-seven thousand perished by the falling upon them of a wall in Aphek. If these figures are thought to be doubtful because of their vastness we must ascribe it to the carelessness of the copyists, and the exceeding ease with which numbers in those old languages might be changed inadvertently, or it is not permitted us to think that the inspired writers could have made any mistakes in the facts they recorded.
But as I said, it is not so much of this sort of hyperbolism I would speak as of such expressions as that in the last chapter of St. John's Gospel, where he says "there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." Surely, one will say, that is hyperbole. In one sense it is, yet viewed more spiritually it is not. For who could record all that our Lord did even in His earthly life, the limitless effects following upon His great miracles and wondrous deeds of obedient love to His heavenly Father? These may not be limited by the possibilities of created being at all, they are as infinite as the Divine nature, therefore it is literally true that if every one of His great deeds were written down no room could be found in the universe for the storing up of such un-measurable records.
No doubt to many as they have read the words of the text for to-day, of the greater joy in heaven over the one penitent than over the ninety and nine just persons, the statement seems to have been exaggerated for the producing of an effect. How could it be literally true that the restored penitent is more lovely and admirable than the unfallen spirit? Think of a human soul, fresh from the hand of God, all unsullied, white and spotless, filled with supernatural righteousness, engaged through every hour of its being since God first made it in praising and honouring Him, never a dream of disobedience, never an instant's wavering when the most subtle and tremendous temptation is put before it. And think of the soul that created after this glorious sort should turn against its Maker, outrage His goodness, mock at His love, defy His laws, do everything in its power for years to destroy His kingdom, and only at the last turn to repentance and sue for pardon. The angels truly might be glad such an one had turned from the error of his ways, but how could they rejoice more over him than over that one who had kept himself as loyal and pure as themselves?
Several expositions are suggested for this passage:
I. It is said the direct application of the parable is to the Jews and the Gentiles. The former trusted in themselves that they were righteous, while the Gentiles discovering their own exceeding sinfulness had turned with honest repentance to God and had thereby given the angels wonderful occasion for joy. In this exposition the just persons are those who are just in their own eyes, the self-righteous ones, of whom the Pharisee is the perpetual type. Now while there is something in the interpretation it is manifestly insufficient, for it needs no such marvellous evidence as the three parables which make up the 15th chapter of St. Luke to teach us that God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.
2. Again it is urged that by the expression "just persons" is here meant only those who are not flagrant and defiant sinners, the true servants of God who indeed may have their faults, but remain through all the length of their lives loyal to Him. Our Bibles tell us of such men, as for example Noah and Lot in Old Testament days, and St. Joseph the husband of the Blessed Virgin, and Cornelius the centurion, in Gospel times. Of these last, St. Joseph and Cornelius, the very same word "just" is used as in the parable. It should mean then that the lives of these men were so good and holy that the angels delighted in them indeed, but that they were not so flawless as to cause the same wonder and delight to those heavenly ones as the full-hearted penitent returning to God with all tears and devotion of love. This exposition is certainly genuine so far as it goes, yet it seems to me still inadequate to the text.
3. Once more it is urged that the expression is only relative not absolute. The conversion of the sinner is so delightful a surprise, so unlooked-for a triumph of the Master's love, that the heavenly ones are stirred to especial enthusiasm because of it. Just as in the parable of the prodigal son which follows in this same chapter, we are not to understand that the elder son was really any less dear to his father than the younger, only that the wonderful restoration of the prodigal as if from the dead, was so unique an event the joy of it seemed greater than any other joy could be. This sense of the parable is also genuine, only not quite adequate either because the angels are not like human beings. They are too great and too wise to be carried away by transient enthusiasm as we should be. They see things with too broad a vision, too sound a judgment, to be swayed by passing impulses. If they rejoice more over the sinner that repents than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance we may be sure there is something intrinsically more admirable in the case of the former than in that of the latter. Yet what a strange thing this seems to involve when we take illustrations.
There is the Blessed Virgin, so fair, so pure, so undefiled, probably never guilty of the least actual sin. Are we to suppose that her gentle life was less lovely in the eyes of the angels than the life of the Magdalene for example? It were difficult to believe that. And indeed, if one may say it most reverently, the direct sense of the parable would seem to force us to the conclusion that the human life of our Lord, Who was preeminently the Just One needing no repentance, was not naturally so glorious as that of St. Peter if you will, who repented most deeply after his unhappy fall. I think we shall best get at the truth of the matter if we first set clearly before us certain fundamental principles involved in it.
One of these is that redemption is a more marvellous thing than creation. We have a right to think of the angels as more joyfully amazed at the salvation of fallen man than at his first entrance into being in the garden of Eden. If the morning stars sang together because of the loveliness of the newly-created universe, how much more rapturously do they now sing beholding the fruit of our Lord's bitter passion. It were marvellous enough that Father and Son and Holy Ghost all sufficient unto themselves in the sublime Triune Deity should so overflow with love towards creatures that the universe should be brought into being; yet how much more marvellous it is that when man had rebelled against his righteous Maker, had blasphemed His Name, spurned His love, and set at nought all His commandments, that Maker instead of overwhelming him with His just wrath, and banishing him from His face forever, should have put forth the energies of His love to redeem the sinner, even at so great a cost as the death of the Eternal Son in human nature upon the Cross. Truly redemption is a more awe-inspiring work of God than creation.
2. A second principle is this, that by reason of redemption the creature is made capable of more godlike nature than he could have attained to without redemption. I would not have you think that merely because of the Incarnation this is so. Undoubtedly our Lord by taking on Him our humanity has glorified the life of man as it never could have been glorified otherwise. For while it may be held without error that the Incarnation would not have taken place except for the Fall, it may yet with probability be held that had man never sinned the Son of God would nevertheless have taken human flesh that so His creatures might be raised up to the greatest possibilities of created being, even into vital union with God and the beholding of His Face. Indeed many most holy and learned teachers in the Church have believed that the Word would, have been made flesh and have dwelt among us even had there been no need for man's redemption.
And I believe the fact of redemption has added a possibility of development to our race that even the Incarnation without redemption could not have supplied. For the most complete development of human life must come through the energy of love, and nothing can so enlarge and nobly expand love as the sense of gratitude. The moving spectacle of the Son of God in human nature dying upon the Cross out of love for man, that He might deliver him from eternal death, is one that must draw forth the most intense devotion of every earnest soul.
If we take the case of an earthly deliverer who had saved one from death, there would go out at first spontaneously the most ardent gratitude. Afterwards if the deliverer were not naturally lovable and attractive there would remain only the sense of the duty of gratitude without any thrilling emotion of love. In the case of our Lord however no such thing could be, for He is altogether lovable, wholly and supremely such as to draw out from every noble soul unceasing and ever-increasing affection. No doubt the soul that never had been redeemed, because needing no redemption, would perforce love Him with boundless love when once it had come to know Him in His loveliness, only no human being could know all the ineffable tenderness of His heart without the vision of the Cross of Calvary. In this way redemption has made it possible for us to love our Lord as we could not have loved Him without redemption; because of the greater love thus made possible for us, the capacity for attaining to the most true God-likeness is ours as redeemed sinners, and could not have been ours in equal degree had we never sinned.
3. One other principle must not be overlooked in our inquiry. The Master says indeed "More than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance," but we must not forget that there are of our race no such just persons. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." The angels are the only creatures of God of which we know anything who have had their probation and yet have nothing to repent of. They are just persons needing no repentance, and we know from the teaching of Holy Scripture that in spite of all their glory and beauty in comparison of ourselves now, they are not at the last to be so wonderful in God-likeness as human beings exalted to Saintliness. Our Lord took not on Him the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham, and the faithful of the human race at the last day shall be so like their Master Christ that of them it may be said as it was of Him 'Made a little lower than the angels to be crowned with glory and worship.' We may surely say it is true that man is destined to greater dignity than the angels simply because he has been redeemed while they are just persons needing no repentance. How beautifully is their unselfish nature thus portrayed by our Lord; they have more joy in the thought of our destiny than in their own high estate. They are perfectly happy after their kind, they could know no greater bliss than that they enjoy, yet so wondrous are the ways of God that just because we had fallen and have been redeemed we have power of attaining to a more wonderful sphere of being in eternity than they. Let this not be forgotten then, that so far as the human race is concerned there are no just persons needing no repentance.
Do you ask me What of the Blessed Virgin, our Lord's Mother? To that the answer is easy unless one have embraced the Roman dogma of the Immaculate Conception. For she is not excepted from that saying "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." If indeed, as we may piously believe, she was sanctified while yet in the womb, as were Jeremiah and St. John Baptist, she nevertheless contracted original sin in her conception. The Roman Catholic, thinking by his new dogma to exalt the Mother of our Lord, in reality robs her of the possibility of the highest glory. If she never contracted original sin she had no need of redemption, she was then literally a just person needing no repentance. Over such the angels of God have not so great rejoicing as over the redeemed penitent. It is not true of God's Mother that she needed no repentance. She was conceived in sin as the rest of humankind, and the wonderful penances of her life, the dolours and the piercing sword were the glorious testings of her perfect obedience.
For every fallen creature of our race must strive to win back by obedience that which Adam lost by his disobedience. Though Blessed Mary never committed one actual sin, nevertheless such mortifications as she voluntarily inflicted on herself, and the marvellous patience with which she bore all the heavy things laid on her by the hand of God, were the full performance of such penance as is required of man because of his fallen state. All redemption is the work of our Lord and His grace alone can sanctify sinful nature, yet we on our part are required to co-operate with that grace by obedience. Therefore it may truly be said that the suffering life of the Blessed Virgin proves her to have been one of those happy sinners that repent and over whom the angels have so great joy in heaven.
And of our Lord in His suffering life this is to be said: We may not for one moment confuse His penances with those of human beings. His woes were for human sin, His obedience for human redemption, yet of course not for any fault of His own, nor because He had contracted original sin--such things may not be even imagined of Him--but only because He had come as a sinner, taking the penalty of our transgressions as if they were His transgressions, and by His obedience, as if He had before been disobedient, blotting out the guilt of us who were the disobedient ones. Doubtless there was joy, the sublimest joy, in the presence of the Angels of God over His heroic penances, even while angelic sympathy yearned to succour Him in His anguish, yet we must not overlook the fact that the joy was not that He was doing penance for Himself, but for us. His human nature was altogether lovely and adorable, His human life altogether admirable in angelic eyes not primarily because of His sufferings for man, but because His humanity was inseparably united to God the Word. The Hypostatic Union, the taking of human flesh by the Son of God, made the human life of Mary's Child incomparable, and rightly so even though He had not endured His passion for our salvation, though doubtless His sublime deed of redemption added its own unique lustre to His already infinitely glorious crown.
But to admit any creature, even the Blessed Virgin, to a place beside Him in this high preeminence were to come perilously near idolatry We may believe that all penances willingly undertaken by God's holy ones, as well as those which being sent by Him they endure with fortitude, bless and edify the whole body of the faithful; so far as this we may glory in the merits of the Saints. We may not however think of their afflictions as not required for their own souls' welfare. No one may say that it is not required of every man because he inherits Adam's fallen nature that he should by life-long obedience overcome the consequences of that first disobedience, for even so he does nothing meritorious save only as he unites himself with our Lord and becomes partaker of His merit. And the more devout and single-hearted the soul, the more will it strive to make the whole period of its earthly existence an act of obedience and supreme self-oblation to the Divine will. Blessed Mary doubtless caused the holy ones above the greatest joy because her lifelong penances altogether transformed the natural disobedience which she inherited into perfect and God-pleasing obedience.
After all then the Master's words in the text are by no means hyperbolical, but literally true.
Redemption more wonderfully displays the goodness of God than creation; the angels rejoice more because of the penitence of the sinner than they could rejoice had he never sinned, for they know that by means of penitence he can rise to greater love and more perfect God-likeness than if he had never had any fault to repent of; and this new glory of repentance is offered to us all since all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. There are no just persons among men needing no repentance, for even our Blessed Lady, contracting original sin as others contract it, had opportunity of a life of penitence which she willingly embraced, and by her perfect obedience through the merits of her Son overcame the disability she had inherited, thereby affording the angels of God greater joy in the contemplation of her penitential life than they could have known of her had she been immaculately conceived.