“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10)
Since there are so many books in the Bible, each coming from a particular time and place, it can be difficult to make generalizations about what the corpus of biblical literature states. Given the historical conditions and cultural and political realities of each book, not to mention developing theologies, what “the Bible says” often depends on the time period in which a book emerged. Each text was written by human authors who “made use of their powers and abilities” and with God “acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which he wanted” (“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” No. 11). Yet it is true that the historical period from the Book of Psalms to the Gospel of Luke, for instance, depending upon when a particular psalm was composed, offers us a time span of 500 to possibly 1,000 years. Many things change over a millennium.
But the church has always maintained that Scripture, as the word of God, is unchanging on matters of faith because it speaks with the voice of God. As the Second Vatican Council’s document on revelation goes on to say, “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” And however many things might change historically, socially or culturally, in the biblical books or elsewhere, on the matter of God’s desire to save humanity, one can look from beginning to end, literally, and find God reaching out to humanity at every time and in every place. God’s desire to save us has never changed and will never change.
If you think God might tire of lost humanity and our ability to stumble away from the truth down paths strange and dangerous, think again: God is the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost and comes to find the wandering sheep. From book to book of the Bible, spanning century after century, God is found seeking us out, reaching out to save us. While even definitions of what constitutes “salvation” might change from age to age—the focus in the Israelite period is on salvation from enemies, national or personal, rather than eternal life—God’s longing to come to the aid of people in need does not change. In Psalm 145 we are told that the Lord, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” and who “is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds,” also “upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.” Here is an image of God’s salvation at its most concrete: upholding people in distress.
Distress is not an ancient or modern reality, it is a human reality. For the African-American community in the United States, confronting once again the ugly specter of racism, to children in refugee camps longing for safety and a secure home, the suffering of human life stalks us through the ages. My mother, born in 1926, did not meet four of her siblings because they died in infancy years before her birth. How did her parents manage the pain of this loss? My father’s education was lost in the chaos of World War II and a postwar refugee camp; the pain would be greater were it not compared with the loss of a beloved father in a concentration camp, whose time and place of death would never be known. These are only personal examples, multiplied in families on earth in every time zone and in every place. Suffering is created by the reality of death among us and by human sin—personal, systemic and chronic.
As the Gospel of Luke shows us, Zacchaeus is transformed by his encounter with Jesus, when he turns concretely from his sin and meets salvation incarnate in the person and promise of Jesus. It is precisely in the midst of human sin and misery that Jesus the Good Shepherd comes seeking us out to redeem us and our suffering. Pope Francis in his Wednesday audience on Sept. 28, said Jesus “made a donation of love, from which forever flows our salvation.” Human beings might have perfected search-and-destroy missions, tearing lives apart, but God knows only one mission: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”