On Becoming Good Sheep
Yesterday we the Church celebrated the Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is annually referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because the Gospel — in all three of the Lectionary Cycles — always comes from part of Jesus’s “Good Shepherd discourse” in the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to John. In John’s Gospel, we are told by Jesus himself that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and the reason why he is the Good Shepherd is that he lays down his life for his sheep.
If you’re at all like me, sometimes when hearing a reading during Mass that I am fairly familiar with, it can be easy to “zone out” or think to one’s self “Oh, ‘Good Shepherd,’ I know this story…I know how this ends” and then gloss over the proclamation of the Word until, like those awoken from a standing sleep, we instinctively say together “Praise by to You, Lord Jesus Christ” and sit down.
One of the things that I think gets lost on us who have become so accustomed to the pericopes of Scripture is the absurdity, foolishness and startling quality of Jesus’s words, which reveal a powerful Truth of who God is and how God loves.
Take the definition of the Good Shepherd, for instance. What shepherd in what setting would ever be expected to die for his or her sheep in order to be known as “good” at his or her job? See, this is precisely the point. The distinction Jesus makes between himself (the Good Shepherd) and a “hired helper” is an important clue to how he is changing the expectations of his hearers. For the way he describes the hired helper is precisely what a shepherd does: tend sheep to make a living. To say that a good shepherd is one that lays down his or her life for the sheep is as ridiculous as saying a good car salesperson lays down her life for her Ford Taurus! Or that a good pretzel salesperson dies for his pretzel cart!
Shepherds would be expected to care for, tend, and protect their sheep insofar as they were able, but to die for their livelihood in the face of real danger? Not so much.
So why does Jesus say this?
I believe it has a lot to do with turning the expectations of his listeners upside-down. In addition to Jesus foretelling his impending betrayal and crucifixion, and his willingness to do so for the sake of his Flock, he is also revealing that the love of God is so abundant, so gratuitous, so overwhelming that it defies any possible expectation we might imagine. God’s love is so large that it appears irrational, foolish and even unreasonable to us — just as a shepherd dying for his sheep would appear to Jesus’s audience.
It is in the spirit of Jesus’s turning his hearers’ expectations upside down that I have proposed that this week, following the Good Shepherd Sunday, become known as “Good Sheep Week.” That we revisit the Sacred Scripture passages from this Sunday to see the clues to becoming what we might call “Good Sheep” as those who follow the one, Good Shepherd. We already know what makes Jesus the Good Shepherd, he tells us in the Gospel, but do we know what makes “Good Sheep?”
1. Good Sheep are Humble and Hopeful
This insight comes through in the First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (4:8-12), where we encounter Peter in mid-narrative. He is receiving all sorts of credit and attention for what he and the early followers of Jesus are doing: healing, preaching, conversion, good works, etc.
Instead of taking personal credit for the good works he is doing, he refers his listeners instead to the source of all good gifts: God in Jesus Christ. He explains that the healing is done in Jesus’s name and lives out a stance of humility that allows him to become an instrument of God’s good action in the world, while giving all credit to God. A good sheep lives similarly, following the example of Peter in Acts, aware of the goodness of God’s gifts in his or her life and world.
But there is a second point that comes toward the end of this passage when Peter talks about the Salvation that has also been given to us in Christ Jesus. This is the source of hope that grounds the good sheep in their daily lives. Aware of what Christ as already accomplished for us, good sheep reflect that hope in a world that is in desperate need of good news (i.e., “The Gospel”). A good sheep is hopeful.
2. Good Sheep are Part of a Flock
There is no such thing as a solo good sheep! Nor are there independent-contracting good sheep! Good sheep know that they are part of a flock. We hear this insight in the Letter of John, the second reading, in which we are told that we are all “Children of God now.” We share a connection, a union, a family bond in God as children and with Christ as brothers and sisters. What is often missed in that assertion is how we children of God. It is not who we are, what we do, what we think, with whom we associate, and so on — the Scripture says that it is simply God’s love that makes us who we are. But good sheep must come to recognize that relationship as a member of God’s family.
This comes through strongly in the Gospel, when Jesus uses the flock imagery to describe who is “in” and who is “out.” Jesus tells us that there are other sheep that do not appear to be in this flock, but nevertheless they are part of it, because there is one shepherd, the Good Shepherd, and one flock, His flock!
We need to be aware of this today as it is often far too easy to exclude others, to pretend so-and-so or “this or that type of person” is not part of this flock. But that is our division and our fabrication, as children of God loved into existence, we are all part of the flock. And we should live that way. Good sheep come to recognize their relatedness to the stranger, the other, those with whom we disagree, and those we choose to ignore, and the good sheep sees a kindred sheep in that person, recognizing they are all part of the same flock.
3. Good Sheep Hear the Shepherd’s Voice and Know Him
Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel that He knows his sheep and they know Him; they hear his voice and know Him. But do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd today? To we know how to recognize it?
I think it’s very difficult to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd today, not because His voice is quiet or challenging in its own right to find, but because we are bombarded by far too many voices in our world. Voices of other shepherds that Jesus warns us of in the Gospel, shepherds who are only in their ‘line of work’ for themselves, for money, for ulterior motives. They do not actually care for their sheep, let alone risk their whole lives for the sheep. We find these other shepherds all over the place in every sphere of our social, cultural, political, religious, familial, and work lives. And this makes it very difficult to recognize the voice of the one, Good Shepherd.
See, the thing about hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, is that it requires our attentive listening. And listening takes work. Good sheep set aside time, make space, create an environment in which they can learn to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd so that they know where to go. This can happen at Church, throughout one’s day, during a retreat or day of recollection or the like, but it needs to be intentional. Good Sheep listen in order to hear and recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow His lead in life.
May you have a blessed “Good Sheep Week” and come to live with humility and hope, recognize our shared relationship as Children of God and sheep of the one flock of Christ, and take time to listen and hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who is always there calling us and leading us to the green pastures of salvation.