Dominica IV Paschae C
12 May 2019
This weekend is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday because of Jesus’ use of the image of shepherd and sheep in the Gospel, the very same Gospel section where Jesus also proclaims: I am the Good Shepherd. Good Shepherd Sunday is also a time to give focus to prayer and to our efforts to encourage vocations in our parish by directly speaking to the young people in our midst and in your families about the call of Jesus in their lives.
Jesus says that his sheep hear his voice. The implication is that his sheep are familiar with him such that they recognize him because they can identify his voice. And hearing him, they follow him. You may not have a sheep, but if you have a pet you know this well. When I return after several days away on vacation my vacations always end in the same curious way: I go over to my mom’s house to… whisper! Why do I whisper? Because she keeps my cat and if he hears my voice from within the room he is kept in, he will begin a very loud and obnoxious whining meow. So, to visit my mom at the end of a vacation I sit in her living room and whisper about my trip because the cat knows my voice and if he gets making noise, my visit with mom is over.
We are familiar with many things. We know our sports teams. If you hear “Who dat?” you might well know it’s a reference to the New Orleans Saints. If you hear that Rumble is giving away tickets in the narthex you know we’re talking Thunder tickets. We know our songs. If you hear the rousing beat and the lyrics “Just a man and his will to survive” you could probably quickly respond with “The Eye of the Tiger.” We know our movies. If the altar boys are a bit rowdy before Mass and to remind them who is in charge I were to say “I am your father,” they know I’m making a Star Wars reference. If you press someone to give you the full story and they jokingly respond with “You can’t handle the truth!” you likely have a clear image of Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men. There’s nothing wrong with knowing these things and enjoying pop culture. But in truth these things aren’t worth much in the end. We would have to admit that so many things with which we are familiar and with which we identify don’t have a lasting value.
How familiar are we with Jesus? How familiar are we with his voice? Compare that with how immediately recognizable the “voice” of pop culture is to us, how easily we identity it. For as much as we so easily identify sports, music, and movies, if we are Christians shouldn’t we be all the more familiar with Jesus, with the voice of the Master, our Good Shepherd? While Jesus uses the image of a sheep and shepherd, he clearly is using it as an analogy. When he says he gives his sheep eternal life, we know he is saying there is something more critically important about following him, something more at stake in hearing and listening to him. Shepherds care for their sheep and their wellbeing in the natural order, but they don’t give them eternal life. To be familiar with Jesus, to hear his voice, and to follow him is worth much more than the voices and messages of pop culture, frivolity, or dissent that surround us. When we listen to him and follow him we are permitting him to shepherd us to eternal life. If we are more familiar with other voices and things of lesser value then we might risk being led astray because then we would be formed and guided by things that do not truly matter and that do not last.
In what ways do we hear Jesus’ voice? In what ways do we not hear it? What in our lives needs to change so that we are more attentive to his voice? In giving guidance and in caring to guard the life of the sheep, a shepherd has to make choices for the sheep that place limits on them, that create boundaries, that restrict them, and that require obedience. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are his sheep. Does your experience of following Jesus mean you know there are boundaries and restrictions that require obedience from you? Or is it inconceivable that you would have to change any of your ways in order to follow Jesus? Or is your default setting that whatever I think or feel like is what should be acceptable and okay with God? Not intending to belittle, I ask that question because it would seem that a prevailing attitude in our time is that if something about following Jesus just hits too close to home then surely it’s too much to ask of my obedience. We shouldn’t be unaware of this trend such that we are swept up in following voices and messages that are not our Good Shepherd. There can be no doubt that at some point you, like me, have come across someone claiming to be Catholic yet holding or professing an opinion directly contrary to clear Church teaching, usually in the arena of morality. Think of any current hot button issue and you can probably find a dissenting voice claiming to be Catholic. Sometimes the dissenting voice is wearing a Roman collar and ought to know better. Sometimes the dissenting voice means well but has been so poorly formed they don’t know what they are talking about. Other times, maybe the most insidious dissent, is the voice that chooses the authority and primacy of the self and simply will not listen to what Jesus and his Church teach. You can guess I have a number of conversations about faith and Church teaching. In a particular area of clear moral teaching an otherwise very fine person once told me, “Well, that’s not an area of life that I let the Church’s teaching impact me.” It’s a stunning statement. It’s simply a clear refusal to hear Jesus’ voice, to follow in obedience, and so to be led by his shepherding to the pastures of eternal life that Jesus wants to give. And I think that is more and more a common tendency in our time. We need to be aware of it. The tendency goes like this: A person has a challenge or a struggle that requires sacrifice; the person doesn’t want to feel badly about his or her situation; and so, he or she simply chooses to ignore anything from outside him or herself that sounds like an obligation to work, to change, or to follow what is difficult. Instead a more and more common default setting is to simply shut out the voice of Christ when it hits too close to home or requires too much.
If we are sheep of the flock being guided to eternal life by Jesus then we need to have the conviction that listening to Jesus’ voice and teaching in our own lives actually matters. And that it matters unto salvation and eternal life! Why would I make such a claim? Because in God’s love for us Jesus came to save us from sin and the voice of the serpent who wants to lead us astray, just as he did Adam and Eve. Jesus himself spoke clear teaching that confirms and upholds God’s Word from the Old Covenant. The voice of our Good Shepherd went still further and called us to a deeper demand to love in giving up ourselves. Finally, the Good Shepherd established his Church to proclaim his truth and to continue to guide us. Jesus himself said to his apostles and disciples, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Lk. 10:16). Remaining and living in the communion of the Church is where we the sheep most clearly hear the voice of our shepherd and where we come to know him and are known by him. Here we have the Sacred Scripture, the Sacred Tradition, the authentic worship that renews us and refocuses our eyes and ears on Jesus. Here we have the teaching of Christ guided in his Church by the Holy Spirit of truth. Here, if we will listen and obey Jesus’ voice, we can dwell secure in his hand. Here in the sheepfold we have the greatest means to become familiar with the Good Shepherd who calls us and who lays down his life and rises again so that we, too, might rise to eternal life in the pastures of heaven.