Gospel Reflection for April 29th

Gospel (Jn 10:27-30)

Jesus said:
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”

Reflection

This gospel describes the beautiful relationship between us and God. Throughout scripture God’s relationship to us is described as that of a father to his children and a shepherd to his sheep.

We can easily appreciate the loving bond between a father and a child but what is it about sheep and shepherd that would teach us something about our relationship to God?

Earlier this week, I found a book on the shelves in my office that was written by a man who, before becoming a pastor, had been a shepherd.

In reading, I learned that, unlike you might suppose, sheep cannot just take care of themselves. In fact, they require endless attention and more meticulous care than any other kind of livestock. By nature they are timid and fearful, somewhat restless, easily bothered by each other’s behaviors and almost always hungry. If they’re not well-tended, these traits overwhelm them and, unable to relax, they stray from the flock and become lost.

Interestingly, when a sheep is lost, it is only the shepherd himself who can provide rescue. Like turtles, sheep can get turned upside down, cast, with no way to help themselves. Only the shepherd whose voice the sheep knows can make it possible for the sheep to return to the flock, to rest happily, to thrive and to flourish. As such, the fortune of any particular sheep and the condition of the herd depends entirely on the devotion of the shepherd.

As we hear today, we are God’s sheep and, fortunately for us, we belong to the best possible shepherd, Jesus–the one who devoted his life to caring for us. Like sheep we are sometimes afraid, sometimes worried, sometimes upset with each other and sometimes completely unsure where we’re headed.

But no matter how upset we may be or how lost we may feel, we are never alone. Jesus is always there feeding us, guiding us and comforting us. In the care of the Good Shepherd we have all that we need to thrive and to flourish–the presence of Christ’s endless attention and the promise of His eternal, meticulous care.

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8 Responses to “Gospel Reflection for April 29th”

  1. David Fitzgerald Says:

    If you drive west from Cong into the Conemarra region of western Ireland you will quickly be in country not all that different from the one Yeats described. There are many miles of pasture, overlooked by the Twelve Bens between county Galway and the sea. Although you won’t see many humans, just the occasional lonely homestead, you will find many sheep. They are indeed, quite wayward. They
    will, without a care, wander on to the road and jog along side, or infront of, a moving vehicle. They are quite foolish and my young boys took to them immediately, perhaps a kindred waywardness?

    In addition, you will immediately notice, that each sheep has a different color spot spray painted on his hind quarters. The fields are full of sheep with red spots, blue spots, green spots and orange spots, where God never intended those colors to be. I suppose that is so that their shepherds, when they round them up for the annual sheering can recognize which sheep belongs to whom.

    I thought of those sheep and those spots today at Mass… “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” How are we marked that the Good Shepherd would know us? The Church has an ancient saying, that the faithful are “marked with the sign of faith”. It’s a curious thought, we are wayward sheep, out in the pastures, “marked” by our Master. We’ve done nothing to deserve it, nothing to merit it, in fact, most times we ignore the mark and many of us may be too foolish or wayward to even know it is there, like those sheep in county Mayo who mindlessly chew their cud with a big orange spot on their butts.

    Nonetheless, at shearing time the Good Shepherd comes and gathers us in…he knows his sheep. What a comforting thought. All we have to do is stand and bleat. The Good Shepherd will do the rest.

  2. Timothy Peach Says:

    If memory serves, the mark of faith is contrasted, in Revelation, against the mark of the beast taken by the unfaithful (in their hands or on their foreheads). End timers I know think that bar codes, adapted for “organic” use, are going to be the beast’s marks. I always took both marks to be choices — difficult ones, of course, but choices nonetheless.

    The metaphor of the sheep and the Shepherd is a powerful and pervasive one, but all metaphors break down at some point. I believe that, when push comes to shove, we will be required to do more than hope our rear ends are the right color. We have to get our butts to the right part of the corral. We sort ourselves out by our actions.

  3. David Fitzgerald Says:

    With apologies to Fr. Sampson….While I think it is true that our choices are imporatnt (perhaps infinitely so), an undue focus on their importance undercuts both the message of Good Shepherd Sunday as well as the nature and power of God’s salvific will. Jesus was no Greek. The concept of dialectic was foreign to him. As such, he dealt principally in images designed to convey his sense of and abiding faith in the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God…”Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I long to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks.” “You shall not enter into the Kingdom, unless you do so as one of these children.” The focus, almost exclusively, is on how God acts and will act to bring salvation.

    If you read the Scripture carefully, there is very little there about “choice”, but much about faith. Jesus asks us to have the faith of a sheep, that the shepherd will come (even on the Sabbath) or a chick, that the hen will gather her in, or of a child. The appropriate response to God’s activity in history strikes me not as a “choice” (that overemphasizes our importantce) but a confident and non-anxious trust that God’s saving grace will be efficacious. In the end, I think that is at the heart of the mystery of the Passion and Resurrection, that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

    This is a hard saying. It requires adopting a very negative, passive, self image, foolish sheep, anxious chicks, non-decorous and rowdy children. The temptation is for us to say, “I’m not like that, I’m a responsible adult, my choices have meaning and they are important in shaping my life and my destiny.” This self image is not far from the non serviam of the fallen angels. The trouble, as Scripture and St. Augustine readily point out, is that out choices, even our well intentioned choices, so often go wrong, “all we like sheep, have gone astray.”

    The first, and perhaps most difficult step, of the Christian life, is accepting just how wretched we are and just how good God is. If we can get past that (and very few do) then we wil be on the path to wisdom (and sainthood).

  4. Mark Grannis Says:

    Isn’t this just one more case in which the truth lies in the paradox? Not in choosing one answer over the other, or even in the middle, but in choosing both answers at the same time? I actually imagine it (appropriately enough) as a three-part paradox, if that’s not a contradiction in terms:

    1. We are called to choose perfectly.
    2. We cannot possibly choose perfectly.
    3. God loves us perfectly anyway.

    Leave out the first and you get “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Leave out the second and you’re just insanely counterfactual. Leave out the third and you get a sort of “Jesus is coming, with an uzi” spirituality.

  5. Timothy Peach Says:

    I’m pretty sure we’re not disagreeing. The choice is to accept our radical imperfection and the impossibility of “self salvation”. The choice we’re making isn’t to be saved, it is to put up our hand. Faith is the belief that the hand of God will come down and grab it. And then grace is when that hand actually comes down.

    The choice here is the choice to try to be a certain kind of person, a sheep that is trying hard, despite all its limitations and impulses, to stay in the part of the field closest to the Shepherd’s house.

  6. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Yes, Mark, quite good (and may I say, economical). It is St. Paul’s (and Martin Luther’s) biography of course. Paul only comes to understand the grace of God when he realizes how utterly impossible it is for him to find perfection, or even any justification at all, through the Law.

    However, is not the striving for perfection, or, more precisely, clinging to the, to use your excellent word, “counterfactual” self image such striving rationalizes, that is our greatest downfall?

    Given that, I might reorder your list and change some of the terminology.

    1. We cannot possibly love perfectly.
    2. God wants us to love perfectly anyway, that is what we are built for, and so He is constantly at work perfecting our love.
    3. Through that effort, we are drawn to greater love of God and neighbor, which, as free beings, we can accept or reject.

    It’s funny, but I think the Gospel can be summed up as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Not, of course, in its common prejorative sense. Rather, it is our anxiety about having our needs (material and spiritual) satisfied, and the lack of faith in God’s unceasing love for us that such anxiety reveals, that is the source of unhappiness and causes us to make choices as if we, and not God, were ultimately in control of our future. Because such choices are driven by an understanding of reality that is (here’s that excellent word again) counterfactual they can’t possibly help but be wrong.

    It is, I think, why the image of the child is so pervasive in Jesus’ teaching. Children don’t yet suffer from the “control” delusion. They ask for help, un-self consciously, and fully expect that help to be given. They know they can’t do things for themselves, that doesn’t bother them and they believe that those who love them and care for them will provide all that they need. Jesus says we must become like this, both in regard to our own self image and our image of God, if we are to enter the Kingdom.

    I have a feeling that Jesus knew this was easier said than done.

  7. Timothy Peach Says:

    Not for nothing, but I don’t know whose children you had in mind when you said that children “don’t yet suffer from the ‘control’ delusion.” If the behavior of my children was what Christ had in mind for adults, then maybe he needs a few remedial shepherding lessons.

    My kids, although adorable, are monsters. They seize control of everything, and when they can’t do something, they don’t come lovingly to me for help — they either start smashing things, or they start making shrieking demands.

    I think the road to selflessness may lead us to a “childlike” state in a certain sense (perhaps in that it is a psychologically simpler state), but children are hardly selfless. In fact, they are intensely selfish — God made them that way so that they’d have a good shot at surviving — and they need their parents to train them to be less so.

  8. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Tim:

    Do your kids and mine have a secret blog where they are comparing notes?

    Now we are getting at it. Your children (and mine, my three year old has taken a fancy to reminding me about how “chubby” I am) are brutally honest. When my sons can’t figure out how a toy works they get horribly frustrated, they may scream that they hate the toy, they may say (cringe) to the gift giver, “Why did you buy this for me when I really wanted Buzz Lightyear?”, they demand immediately that I stop whatever it is I’m doing to help get the toy to work. As a parent you are shocked and dismayed (as we all are) that they are completely un-self conscious about their own beastliness. As you rightly point out, that brutal honesty (which we find so dismaying as parents) provides (one could say forces) the indispensible moment for us to, your word, “train” them.

    Imagine how difficult it would be (will be when they are teenagers, if not sooner) to work on them if they were deceptive. If they tried to hide their frustration or pretend it didn’t exist or, were capable of rationalizing their behavior as really not all that bad. After all, they tried to get the toy to work.

    Christ is in that exact position vis a vis us. It is our lack of honesty, our self deception, our rationalizations (usually taking the form of “I”m trying as hard as I can) which blocks his grace. Until we are honest about our own anxiety, until we admit that we simply cannot get that toy to work, grace will have a hard time working on our imperfect love.


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