It was one of the boldest robberies in the city’s history.
A book store in Nanjing, China began to notice that many books had been missing from its shelves. By the end of the day sometimes as many as thirty titles would be unaccounted for. At first they wondered whether there was confusion among the employees about how the books should be organized on the shelves. However, after taking an exhaustive inventory of their stock, it was clear that the store was the victim of theft. Because of the volume of books being stolen, they concluded that it had to have been the work of as many as fifteen thieves.
To put an end to it, plain clothes detectives began casing the store, walking up and down the aisles and keeping an eye out for any suspicious behavior. One day, they noticed a man who would park his electric bike at the entrance to the store, browse the shelves and walk out the front door with as many as twenty books in his satchel and take off down the street. They were shocked that the thief stole the books so brazenly. And, when they followed him down the street and caught up with him at his apartment, they were even more shocked at what they found inside.
The thief whom police identify simply as “Mr. Lee” admitted to having stolen as many as eight hundred books from the local store. Their subjects ranged from history to social science to biology. When the police asked him why he stole so many books, he admitted, “I could not comprehend the meaning of life. I was hoping to find the answer by reading those books.” Unfortunately Mr. Lee also admitted that despite all the reading he had done over those months, he was no closer to understanding what the purpose of life on this planet is. However, he will have plenty of time to reflect on it behind bars.
Unfortunately, of all the books Mr. Lee managed to make off with, the one he did not read was the Bible. In it, he would have learned that he was created by God and that he was good. He would have learned that all men have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God but have also been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. In those pages he would have discovered that he has an eternal destiny to live forever with God in heaven and that this life is a preparation for an eternity of bliss. He would have come to find out that the meaning of life is that we deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, our master.
Sadly, in our world today, there are many people like Mr. Lee. They might not steal hundreds of books, but their hunger for meaning and purpose in life manifests itself in different ways. They are the young who cannot seem to find their way in life. They are the addicts who try to escape the burdens of life but instead find themselves shackled to alcohol and drugs. They are the intellectuals who hope to find meaning in science but end up with more questions than answers. And, finally, they are the people who have just given up, who fail to expect anything at all out of life and are just trying to get by.
It was for these people that Jesus came to earth. As today’s gospel tells us, it was just such people that Jesus welcomed and ate with. He did not come to congratulate those who were already good, who thought they already had all the answers. Rather, he came precisely for those who were stumbling through life, going down one dead end after another, looking but not finding. He came to bring the light of faith and truth to just such people. And He rejoiced whenever they accepted His invitation to leave everything behind and follow him.
Jesus saw something in sinners and the lost that we often fail to notice. It is they who have the hunger within them, the burning desire, to know the truth. It is they who have the courage to go out of their comfort zones and try new things. As the poet, T.S. Eliot wrote, “It is only those who are willing to go too far who discover how far one can actually go.” Jesus knew that it was just such people - people with a desire for truth and the courage to pursue it - that would make the kind of disciples he needed to transform the world. And it was just such people that He welcomed, ate with and challenged to follow Him.
As followers of Jesus ourselves, confronted with the challenge of today’s gospel to seek out and find those who are lost, we have a decision to make. Will we be like the Pharisees who were self-satisfied, who did not want to take risks, who were happy to sit back and criticize everyone else who did not meet the standards of righteousness they had set for themselves? Or will we be like Jesus and those who chose to follow Him? Will we have a hunger to know the truth and the courage to pursue it? Will we get up and go when Jesus calls us or will we tell Him that we are too comfortable where we are?
During his trip to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day in 2013, Pope Francis said this to the three million young people gathered there:
Today, we need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey; a Church able to make sense of the “night” contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a Church which realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture.
If we are to be true followers of Jesus, then we have no choice than to seek out the lost sheep of His fold. We have no choice but to share His love for those who are seeking the meaning of life but have no idea where to find it. Then we can rejoice with Him, and with all the saints and angels in heaven, as the lost - ourselves included - begin to find their way home.