Choosing Our Own Shepherds: Sunday Reflection

Wikimedia Commons.

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 10:11–18:

Jesus said:

“I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”


Many readers may have heard of the children's game-book series Choose Your Own Adventure.  Launched in 1979 and popular with adolescents and pre-adolescents until cheap electronics largely eclipsed their inventiveness, the books didn't aspire to great literature. Instead, they engaged young readers by transforming them into the protagonist of each tale, and changing the story based on their decisions at various points in the story. 

One can understand why this concept proved so popular with children -- before computers and smartphones put an end to this gentler approach to game-play. The story mattered, certainly, but by placing the child at the center of the story and requiring choices that actually mattered to their 'adventure,' the CYOA series gave these young readers a sense of purpose and direction, while also teaching them gently about decision points and their consequences.

Today's readings from the New Testament, and in particular today's Gospel reading, reminds us all of the lessons, benefits, and dangers from choosing our own adventure, especially in a spiritual sense. 

Jesus warns about this while creating one the earliest and most enduring images of His love for us: the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd does not work for pay, and a good shepherd cares for his sheep more than himself. "I will lay my life down for the sheep," Jesus says, as opposed to the hireling or brigand who abandons his sheep at the first sign of danger or lack of reward. Jesus then speaks of other sheep "that do not belong to this fold," clearly a reference to the Gentiles, who will hear His voice through the action of the Apostles, who must become good shepherds themselves.


What intrigued me most about this passage today, though, are those sheep who choose to follow the hireling or brigand. Why choose to follow someone who does not truly love the sheep? In a sense, they are choosing their own adventure too, following those or that which will not save them or even account for them in the end. 

Who are these false shepherds? We certainly could name some of the archetypes: corrupt ministers, fad philosophers, secular gurus selling their goods, services, or brands. For that matter, we can add practitioners of Scientism who corrupt legitimate science for their own purposes, celebrity worship, and all sorts of cults promising the Secret Knowledge Of Everything as a means of salvation by controlling Creation.

But in the end, the most seductive of these false shepherds is ... ourselves. Rather than following the love of God, we choose to follow our desire to become God. Many of the false-shepherd archetypes I just mentioned, and many of the ills that plague us today, are just a means for the narcissism that drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden in Genesis. 

We don't want to just choose our own adventure. We want to choose everyone's adventure by claiming the authority of God for ourselves. Rather than work with the Author of the Book, we claim to be the Author and remake the world according to our own self-image. This is the root of Original Sin: rebellion against God, the rejection of His love, and the attempted usurpation of His authority. The sheep reject the Good Shepherd to find others that suit their corrupted appetites, and more often than not end up being their own shepherds and getting lost as a result.


 Rejection is the theme that runs through our other readings today as well. In our first reading from Acts 4, Peter rebukes the leaders of the temple for ignoring the signs Christ demonstrated and quotes Psalm 118, which is also our responsorial today:

“Leaders of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed. He is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

In the context of today's Gospel, we can also say that the leaders of the temple rejected the Good Shepherd. Jesus gave them many signs and wonders by which to recognize Him. (Jesus Himself declares this to the Pharisees later in the same chapter, John 10:24-39.) Because the temple leaders wanted a different kind of Messiah -- one that would give the Hebrews back their temporal kingdom -- they rejected the Good Shepherd and stuck to their own devices.

We can wag our finger now at this, but in truth we must ask ourselves not whether we would have chosen that same adventure, but if we are still choosing it now. Our sins are just the same kind of rejection of the Good Shepherd, in matters smaller or larger. We are still committing these sins because we want to 'choose our own adventure' through Christ's commandments. We are still putting our authority over His when we sin, in essence declaring that the single sheep knows better than the Good Shepherd where the flock should go. And when we pull other sheep in the same direction, we are unprepared for the consequences, both here and in eternity, and will abandon them to save ourselves in the crisis.


Choosing your own adventure has its consequences. But set against that is the love of the Lord, who also preached that the Good Shepherd would search and find tirelessly those sheep who wander away from the flock and allow them to return. It is this message of caritas and forgiveness that makes our hearts burn with love for the Good Shepherd. Even if we have chosen a very dangerous adventure, we can always choose to come back to the Lord in repentance for our rebellions -- and He will welcome us back to the road of salvation. 


Previous reflections on these readings:

The front page image is a detail from a fresco in the Catacomb of Domatilla, depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd, c.200-300 AD. Via Wikimedia Commons

“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.  

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