“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is John 10:1–10:
Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
A shepherd leads a flock, and a flock follows a shepherd. In today’s Gospel, Jesus issues a warning to both the sheep and would-be shepherds: Follow those who follow the Lord, rather than those who attempt to usurp the Lord.
We have the themes of shepherding and calling throughout today’s readings, and not just in the Gospel. In 1 Peter 2:20-25, Peter writes Christ has laid down an example for his followers in order for them to cease being led astray and return to “the shepherd and the guardian of your souls.” In Acts 2, Peter exhorts those in Jerusalem: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.”
Jesus brings both of these themes together by noting that the sheep know the sound of the true shepherd’s voice, and will follow him through the mercy of the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper is the Father, and Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd. The Father has opened up Christ so that the flock may enter into paradise. Those who try to lead the flock for their own purposes are nothing more than usurpers attempting to steal what rightfully belongs to God, but those with God’s grace can resist and remain in salvation.
The literal and analogical meaning of this analogy isn’t a mystery, of course; Jesus ends up explaining it to everyone because the Pharisees didn’t understand the lesson. But this isn’t just a warning to the Pharisees, nor is it limited to Jesus’ time. The lesson about listening to the true shepherd applies to the sheep as well.
Jesus speaks of those who enter into the sheepfold in order to rob and plunder the flock. But these have no power if the sheep remain in the care of the true shepherd, because they won’t recognize his voice. If, however, we get distracted by temptations of this world, pretty soon those strangers will start to sound pretty familiar. The more time we spend with those distractions, the more the call of Jesus becomes the strange one we don’t recognize, and the one from which we run.
Sin is very much like that — a kind of addiction that grows stronger while dulling the senses to our perception of it. Poets might call this a siren’s call (well, bad poets, anyway), but the attachment to sin acts more like a compulsion that pays off less and less even while the ability to resist it fades more and more. It pulls us away from ourselves and from our community, wrapping us in either loneliness or pushing us into relationships with similarly lost sheep. The longer we stray from the flock, the less we recognize the voice of the shepherd, and the more we respond to those who would rob from God. We begin to believe that sin is just relative, that eros is the same as agape and caritas, and that pleasure for its own sake validates our choices and is the highest form of human existence.
How do we fight our attachment to sin? I’m hardly an expert, but I find it helps to do lectio divina each day, along with regular prayer, as well as joining the rest of the flock each Sunday at church. (Never discount the power of community — in either direction.) The daily reading and contemplation of Gospel reminds me of the voice of the True Shepherd, training me to keep my ears pitched to the right voice. With that regimen, I can recognize sin more clearly and admit it to myself, but it also makes me aware of the movements within myself that make me vulnerable to sin. For me, this happens at low moments when isolation and some form of despair begin working on me. Instead of finding my flock and listening to my shepherd, I wander off into another flock and listen to those who would steal me from God — voices that undermine my sense of being a loved child of God and focuses on all of the ways in which I fall short.
Well, I do fall short, but that’s why I have to listen for the True Shepherd’s voice and stay with His flock. This passage warns that the sheep have to be careful, too, and not just the would-be shepherds who believe themselves capable of taking God’s authority. We have the responsibility to discern on which voice we follow, and to whose flock we belong. The more we place our trust in our Shepherd, the less likely we are to become lost and imprisoned in sin and death. Jesus calls us to partake in paradise, and we start by listening to His call — and no other’s.
Note: Image from the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (425-50 AD).