Good Shepherd Sunday
Few there are who, on hearing the parable of the Good Shepherd for the first time, are not moved. There is something about this discourse that any honest person cannot fail to relate to. We all have in us a deep desire to be led by the strong and loving hand of a good shepherd to eternal life, and we all know that without such guidance we are terribly at risk. From the moment we emerge from our mother’s womb to our last breath of life, we know instinctively that we are in need of guidance and protection, and that all guidance and protection of simple mortals is feeble and ephemeral. And so, the outstanding loving care that the Lord Himself here declares He has for His sheep cannot fail to reassure us, all the more in that He had told us through he prophet Ezekiel that He would Himself be our shepherd: Thus saith the Lord God: Behold I myself will seek my sheep, and will visit them. As the shepherd visiteth his flock in the day when he shall be in the midst of his sheep that were scattered, so will I visit my sheep (Ez 34:11-12).
When we take a closer look, however, we cannot fail to be not just surprised, but stunned even, shocked, by the boldness of some of His expressions. That Our Lord would say that He wishes to guide us to eternal life amidst the verdant pastures, as Psalm 22 (23) states so eloquently, that He would have special attention for each of us, that we can understand. But that He would lay down His life for His sheep, that leaves us speechless. Is there any comparison between the life of a man and the life of a sheep? Is not the life of the shepherd of more worth than all the sheep in the world? What kind of shepherd would die defending his sheep? A normal shepherd would certainly let the wolf have a sheep rather than lose his own life.
This is where we don’t understand. Nor did the people who first heard it. St John tells us that at the end of the discourse, an argument broke out among the Jews. For many of them, Jesus had to be possessed by the devil or at least out of His mind. This is sheer nonsense, they said. But others rightly pointed out: These are not the words of one who is possessed by the devil. And besides, can a devil open the eyes of the blind? (Cf. Jn 10:19-21).
In this passage we see St John doing what he does so well: portraying the demands of Jesus’ teaching and at the same time the obligation we are in to accept it. The same thing happens during the discourse on the bread of life in chapter 6. The words seem to be those of one who is deranged. But such a one does not speak with such power, and above all does not perform miracles. Jesus has proved in so many ways that He is the Son of God, through so many miracles, and so when He teaches us, if we are reasonable, we have only to believe His words. And besides, if the omnipotent God makes irruption into our earthly life, is it surprising that He would have some things to say that shock us? Would it not be more shocking if we understood it all without any difficulty?
But 2,000 years later, the words still puzzle us. Why does God have such love for the wretched creatures that we are? Why would He go so far as to take flesh and to die a cruel death in order to save us? Clearly we mean a lot to God. Clearly He thought it worthwhile both to create us and to save us when we had gone astray. The immense dignity of human beings is here made clear. God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life (Cf. Jn 3). God so loved the world. If God so loved us, it is that we are loveable, we are worthwhile. Such is the source of the doctrinal revolution by which Christianity changed the world from one in which physical strength and cunning diplomacy won the day to one in which each human person is loved and respected, in which the one who has the greatest respect is precisely the one who is the weakest and the most needy. Indeed, each one is called to see God.
This amazing dignity has another dimension to it, that St Augustine pointed out when he wrote that if God made us without us, He will not save us without us. He made us rational creatures endowed with free will, who therefore must be proactive in their own salvation. To believe in God’s word and to actively cooperate with God’s grace by the performance of good works, such are the two tasks by which we are ennobled further and reach the full destiny of our nature. And the starting point for that is to hear the Shepherd’s voice. The sheep must let itself be led by the shepherd. It must go where the shepherd leads. Further on in the chapter the Lord will say: My sheep hear my voice. And I know them: and they follow me, (Jn 10:27 ) and to the Pharisees: But you do not believe, because you are not of my sheep (Jn 10:26).
My sheep hear my voice. Those who are not my sheep do not hear my voice. Or if they hear, they do not listen, they do not understand. The question arises for us: how do we know we are hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd? A Bible-believing Christian will reply: we hear the voice of the Lord in the Bible, for God speaks to us through His written word. Most modernists, be they Protestant, Catholic, or of any religion for that matter, will reply: if you are sincere with yourself, then you are listening to God in your heart.
In every error, there is some truth. It is true that the voice of the Good Shepherd speaks in Holy Scripture; when we humbly and lovingly meditate God’s word in the Bible and are open to His inspirations, we can rest assured that this is a very good way of hearing the voice of God; but it fails to take into account the admonition of St Peter: Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation (2 Pt 1:20), and there are some things (in St Paul’s epistles) hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures (2 Pt 3:16). We need guidance to understand the Scriptures, and that is precisely the role of the Magisterium of the Church, which has been given to us to ensure that God’s authentic Word is not lost, perverted or deprived of meaning.
It is also true that God is in our heart, our heart of hearts, deep down where we get beyond all the facades and pretend; but it’s precisely the getting down there that is the challenge, for all too often we let ourselves be led astray by what we feel at a superficial level. We are very good at fooling ourselves. It’s not necessarily because I feel good about something that it has come to me from the voice of the Good Shepherd. I must exert self-discipline and be prepared to following Jesus, as St Peter tells us in today’s epistle: Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps…. When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten… He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross (1Pt 2:21-24).
So our discernment must go in two directions, back in time and forward in time. A first question to ask ourselves is this: is this inspiration I have in conformity with what the Church has consistently held and done throughout the centuries? We do not stand alone. Even all the Christians throughout the world must not only have a synchronic unity with each other but also diachronic unity with all the generations of faithful who have gone before us. If we do not share the same convictions of faith with St Augustine, St John Chrysostom, St Thomas and St Ignatius, by what stretch of the imagination could we possibly be Christian and therefore listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd? The second is looking forward and Our Lord Himself has given us the measure: By their fruits you shall know them (Mt 7:16). If our inspiration produces the good spiritual fruits of the practice of virtue and authentic holiness, then it is truly the voice of the Good Shepherd that we are hearing.
But when it is a matter of choosing between two or more things all of which are in conformity with Tradition and all of which produce good fruit? Then we must pray much, be attentive to the instinctus Spiritus Sancti, (the instinct of the Holy Spirit in our heart), consult wise and holy guides and above all remember that the life of Christ is itself the norm for a Christian. He humbled Himself so that we could be lifted up. The true Christian walks that path and seeks to humble himself to be filled with the grace of God. He also remembers that what seems folly to the world is wisdom to God. Remember the question of the good Jews after the discourse on the Good Shepherd: these are not the words of a mad man or possessed. They discerned that, in spite of the apparent madness of the words, the One who pronounced them was true, and we can never go astray when we put our trust in Him. If we have gone astray, now is the time to return to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1Pt 2:25).