Spiritual Meaning of
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THE LOST SHEEP.
And He spoke this parable to them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, does not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say to you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety and nine just persons, who need no repentance.
By man is here to be understood the Church, as to the understanding of truth; as in the following parable concerning the lost piece of silver, by woman is to be understood the Church as to the affection of truth. These two parables, therefore, are in connection with each other; the first relating to the good of one who repents, signified by the lost sheep; and the second relating to the truth belonging to him who repents, signified by the lost piece of silver. The obvious tendency, therefore, of the two parables united, is to show that both good and truth, when lost and restored again, are rendered dearer and more precious than if they had never been lost.
Sheep, in the Sacred Scriptures, denote such as are principled in heavenly good, agreeably to which idea Jesus Christ calls His disciples sheep(John 10:27), and says to Peter, feed my sheep (John 21:16, 17). By sheep, therefore, are to be understood goods in the abstract, and by a hundred sheep, the complex or aggregate of such goods.
If the sheep are considered in regard to persons, then by losing one of them is to be understood the falling away from good in a Church in general, or in a member of a Church in particular. But if by sheep are to be understood goods in the abstract, then by losing one of them is to be understood deficiency of any particular good.
The wilderness, according to a spiritual idea, signifies what has as yet little of life, or what is altogether uncultivated. It denotes also an obscure principle of faith and love, and likewise a state of spiritual temptation. By leaving, therefore, the ninety and nine in the wilderness, is to be understood, that in consequence of a falling away from good, or of the deficiency of good, signified by the sheep which was lost, the other goods in connection with it were brought into distress and trial, and thus into a diminution of life and power, such being the connection between the various orders and genera of goods, that if one perish or be lost, all the rest suffer injury, and experience a deprivation in some measure of their life.
By that which is lost, it has been already seen, is meant the good belonging to the man who repents; and by going after this good is to be understood, the endeavour to recall it to its original; in other words, to bring it back to conjunction with the Supreme Good, which is God. For the case with the lost sheep, or the good belonging to the man who repents, is this, that it becomes what is here called a lost sheep, by declining from the Supreme Good, and imagining itself to be a good in a state of separation from the Divine Good. To go after this lost sheep, therefore, is to recall the good signified thereby to re-conjunction with its Divine Original; and to find it, is to restore it to that original.
But it is said in the parable, that when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
By the shoulders, whenever the expression occurs in the Sacred Scriptures, is always understood the highest degree of power and energy; and, therefore, by laying the lost sheep on his shoulders, is to be understood, in reference to the good which is here signified by the sheep, the calling it to its original with all his might and energy.
The term rejoicing is here applied to denote the joy communicated on the occasion, by the restoration, to its Divine Original, of a good which had been separated from that original, this being the joy, as we are afterwards informed, which the angels themselves experience, and which is declared to be a greater joy than that which results from the possession of a good which has never thus declined from conjunction with the Supreme Good.
It is further said, that when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.
By the man, here spoken of, as was observed above, is meant the Church, as to the understanding of truth, and the understanding of truth is said to come home, when it enters into conjunction with the good from which it is derived, and towards which it pants. For all truth is derived from good, and is always seeking conjunction with its parent. Whilst, therefore, it is in a state of separation from its parent, it is said to be abroad, and is called, in Holy Scripture, a wanderer, or vagabond, but when it returns to conjunction with its parent good, it is then said to come. Thus Cain, when he had slain his brother Abel, and thereby extinguished charity in his own mind, was willed a fugitive and vagabond in the earth (Gen. 4:14). And thus it is said of the children of Ephraim, when they separated knowledge from the life of knowledge, which is heavenly love and charity, that they should be wanderers among the nations (Hosea 9:17).
Friends and neighbours, according to the literal or natural meaning of the terms, mean persons so related, but according to the spiritual idea they mean principles, and those who are related and connected according to such principles. Thus by the friends and neighbours, here spoken of, are to be understood all heavenly principles of understanding and of life, and they who are connected by those principles. And since all heavenly principles of understanding and of life have relation to love and wisdom, or, what is the same thing, to goodness and truth, or, what is still the same thing, to charity and faith; therefore these principles are what are here respectively signified by friends and neighbours. Thus these two terms involve in them all the angelic host, and also all that are good and wise here upon earth; for these being principled in heavenly love and wisdom, goodness and truth, charity and faith, are properly the friends and neighbours of all those who stand in the character of the man here described in the parable, who had recovered his lost sheep.
By calling together these friends and neighbours is, therefore, signified association and conjunction with the angelic host, and with all the wise and good here upon earth; and by saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost, is meant a dictate from the understanding of truth in the Church, that all heavenly principles of love and of wisdom, or of charity and of faith, ought to unite in the affecting sentiment that the good of repentance, or a good restored after it had been lost, is a greater good, and, consequently, an object of greater joy than the original good which has never gone astray. Accordingly, it follows, that joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance; where by joy in heaven is to be understood, joy amongst angelic principles; and by over one sinner that repents more than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance, is to be understood, on account of a good lost and recovered, more than over the good which has never departed from its original rectitude.
From this parable we learn, in the first place, to adore that divine mercy, which is ever waiting and labouring to call sinners to repentance, and which is disposed to receive the wandering sheep back again into its bosom. We learn, therefore, never to despair of the tenderness of that mercy, whenever we are willing in sincerity to forsake our sins, and to take refuge in the arms of our God and Saviour. And, lastly, we learn, to our unspeakable consolation, that whenever we are sincere in doing the work of repentance and conversion to our heavenly Father, our sins will not only be remembered no more, but they will also be made to administer to our greater happiness in the heavenly world, by rendering us more sensible of the compassion, tenderness, and love of our heavenly Father, than we could otherwise have been. Let us resolve, therefore, now on, in compliance with the above lessons, to hasten our repentance and conversion without delay, not abusing the mercy of God by continuing in sin, but rather using it as an encouragement to repentance whilst we see it disposed, not only to blot out our transgressions, but also to make them subservient to the promotion of our greater happiness, whenever we truly hate and forsake them from a real principle of love towards God and our neighbour.