Have you ever met a person who was convinced they could do your job better than you? Of course, they have no clue what they’re talking about. First they would have to know what you actually do, not just at that moment, but the rest of the time. And they won’t know, ever, because you don’t know exactly either. You have some vague idea. You know you’re usually so busy, you can barely catch a break. So you’re absolutely positive your actual job description is so much more involved than what’s currently in your personnel file. And then there’s all the gaps you have to cover because people you work with tend to slack. But you’re a nice guy, so you don’t make a fuss. I know it’s Mother’s Day, but no. That’s not where I was going.
Instead, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is generally regarded as Good Shepherd Sunday, because we read from the tenth chapter of the gospel of John. We know Jesus is himself the Good Shepherd, and we his disciples and the people of his church are the sheep of his flock. We think we know what a shepherd does, that is, besides leading his flock to green pastures and flowing streams, and protecting them from wolves and lions and tigers and bears. The parable of the lost sheep quickly comes to mind. Jesus said he would leave the 99 other sheep, presumably in the care of his shepherd buddies or other helpers, and go in search of the one that had wandered off. And when he finds it, he carries it back to safety on his shoulders, then celebrates with his friends that he had found that lost sheep. Clearly, Jesus was referring to us, the sheep of his flock, and that God would go to great lengths to bring back the stray and the lost. So that’s just one more added task for those who today shepherd God’s flock in his name. It’s fine. I have no trouble with that in principle, but Jesus never addressed the challenge of sheep who have no desire to be found, rescued, or brought back. Analogies and metaphors can be tricky. They start off insightful and creative. But then they only go so far.
Earlier in this tenth chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus says the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. We know what he meant, that he was speaking strictly about himself. We would hope that those who shepherd God’s flock today would be as willing to go that far, but nothing in their job description addresses that. And whether or not they do does not take away from what Jesus claims about himself. Speaking on behalf of those who shepherd God’s flock today, I can only say we are not all cut from the same cloth. We are hired hands. And no matter how many times any of us make employee of the month, there is still and only one Good Shepherd.
Now what seldom gets attention or discussion is what it means to be the sheep of God’s flock. We do hear about the demands of discipleship, but not exactly in the context of this pastoral image of shepherd and sheep. Jesus tells us that we should love one another, turn the other cheek, love our enemies, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, welcome the stranger, hear the Word of God and put it into practice, forgive one another from the heart, build our house on solid rock, take up our cross each day and follow after him. Clearly, discipleship is not for wimps. And yet we have little trouble referring to ourselves as his disciples despite our quick, shameless, and willing admission that we don’t do many of those things, are in no hurry to change our ways of thinking or behaving, and have no intention to take his teaching more seriously than we do right at this moment.
In light of Good Shepherd Sunday, there is an emphasis on our status as a collective body. We are a flock, made up of several sheep. But we are a flock nonetheless, several sheep in God’s flock. A flock is made up of several individual sheep, individual sheep with individual qualities and quirks, individual appetites, preferences, abilities, and faults. Not in any way dismissive of all this unique sheep individuality, the shepherd will still relate to the flock as a unified entity. The shepherd leads the whole flock to green pastures and flowing streams, including those having a bad hair day, those who would rather stay home and play video games, and those who have renounced the shepherd’s authority over them. He protects and defends the whole flock, regardless of those who prefer to take matters in their own hands and claim they will protect and defend themselves, those who decide they need neither protecting nor defending, or those who claim conscientious objector status. And the flock also relates to the shepherd as a unified entity. They hear his voice and follow him. At times they’re just going along with the crowd, but in the end, they’re walking right behind him.
But this is where the analogy breaks down. We the sheep of God’s flock are a bit more discerning than regular sheep. We might show up to mass along with everyone else on the weekend because that’s what we do, joining in the praying and singing to the best of our ability, but we still reserve to ourselves the right to think and behave as unique individuals in many ways. We decide our level of participation in the life of the parish. We choose if and how we support the church financially. And we are perfectly within our rights to form an unbiased opinion of the hired hand who leads the flock in the Good Shepherd’s name. And to be clear, we may have a right to our opinion, and to express it. But discretion is still the better part of valor.
We walk a fine line between just going along with the flock or doing our own thing. But there are no hard and fast rules. When Paul and Barnabas spoke at Antioch to their largely Jewish audience who they thought would welcome a message about Jesus, they met with opposition. But they did not retaliate with threats of fire and brimstone. Instead, Paul and Barnabas redirected their efforts to the Gentiles. Jesus the Good Shepherd does not demand from his disciples blind undiscerning compliance. We have to make decisions for ourselves, but our choices will have real consequences. The image in the book of Revelation of that “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, (who) stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands, … who have survived the time of great distress, (and) have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” tells us these who are given a place of honor before God’s throne are not sheeple, thinking and acting blindly and mindlessly along with the flock.
Jesus the Good Shepherd does not want a flock of blind and mindless disciples. He asks us to place our faith in him, and commit ourselves to his cause, but not before we encounter him deeply and decisively. In turn he gives eternal life to his own. The Good Shepherd knows how to do his job. We probably should learn how to do ours.
Rolo B Castillo © 2019