The Voice of the True Shepherd

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“When he [the shepherd] has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow,; but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

John 10: 4-4

To truly appreciate today’s familiar gospel of “The Good Shepherd” we need to know its context in the preceding verses. Chapter 9 of John concludes: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, “We see,” your guilt remains” (John 9: 41). Jesus is contesting with the Pharisees who have so objected to his curing of the blind man on the Sabbath. As portrayed in John’s gospel, the Pharisees are the “gatekeepers” of the religious community. Jesus is telling them that it is not they but it is God, in the One who is sent, who is the only gatekeeper, the one and true shepherd.

it seems to be a part of the human condition that we long for the power to be the gatekeeper. We want, on our terms, to determine who is fully human and who isn’t; who is justified and who isn’t; who is among the “we” and who are the “they.” Pharisaism is not confined to the Pharisees.

As we see in the readings from Acts during these days, in the very earliest times of the Christian faith, there were great disputes about whether or not non-Jews could be part of the community. Then, as throughout its history, the Church, as every human society, has wrestled with the kinds of people and what particular cultures are to be allowed to enter through the gate. In today’s passage from Acts, we read the challenging verse: “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (Acts 11:9). The voice of any human being who dares to usurp God’s place as the one gatekeeper will, eventually, cease to be followed. For, it is only the voice of the true shepherd that each person’s own deepest call can recognize.

Groucho Marx is famously to have said that he would not want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. The humor of his line lies in truth of the human desire for a status and identity that comes from belonging to something from which others, who are seen as less, are excluded. In truth, even those of us who see ourselves as liberally minded, are from moment to moment judging and discriminating. In the course of every day, we can presume to know what is behind what another says or does. We judge them in such a way that we may feel superior to them in some way. This presumption of superiority can influence those with whom we associate at the personal, political, and religious levels.

It is currently documented that not only neighborhoods but increasingly states and regions in the United States are becoming more and more homogeneous. The more that we live with like-minded people, the more that those who are different become alien to us. The early motto of the country was “out of many, one.” Although it initially referred to how one country could exist of out of many different states, it began in time to attain its more radical (and original) sense that the full appreciation and acceptance of diversity is not an obstacle to but rather a condition for unity. Today we realize that the living out and implementing of this truth is always a most vulnerable undertaking. As Jesus tells the Pharisees, in order to see a deep truth we must first become blind to our arrogance and presumption of personal, moral, cultural, and religious superiority.

We are quick to designate what is unknown and strange to us as “unclean.” In its very beginnings, the seeds of the Church could well have ceased to develop if it (as symbolized by Peter) had not heard the words: “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” This moment of crisis continues to repeat itself in the Church as well as in our personal lives. At each moment, we can close down on reality based on our own limited awarenesses and prejudices. On the other hand, we can open to the Mystery of the Other. We can realize that all that is Other is not to submit to our voice, but only to respond to that of “the true Shepherd.”

We also need to be humble and realistic, acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation. We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We  find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also  find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 36-7

 

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