By KATIE GROSS
“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 he 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,
they did not realize what he was trying to tell them."
In both yesterday’s and today’s Gospel readings, Jesus presents us with the beautiful metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep for God and His people. It seems simple enough: we just have to listen for the voice of God and then follow it, right? If only. In fact, the root of all sin is our human tendency to resist following the voice of God. We are proud. We are stubborn. Our hearts are hard. However, if we focus on humbling ourselves and then being totally open to the call of God, we can overcome sin and truly listen to what God has to say.
Although Jesus used this figure of speech, they did not realize what he was trying to tell them. At my old public school, we had an “accelerated” program for students that had a certain IQ. The program consisted of pulling students out of normal English and History classes for more diverse instruction in music, history, logic, and the humanities. Everybody loved it. However, in my last year of public school, we had a long-term sub that really got under some people’s skin. He walked into our “accelerated” class and immediately wrote his name (and Army rank!) on the board. Then, he looked us all in the eye and said: “I’m not sure if anyone has ever told you this, but you’re not that smart.” Parents complained. Kids ranted angrily on social media.
Now, I’m not suggesting that every teacher out there should take this approach with their students. However, on a fundamental level, I think the teacher had something important to teach: contrary to what Protagoras says, man is not the measure of all things.
If there is one thing that this world truly lacks, I would venture to say that it is humility. Lord knows we all struggle with being humble. We receive so many subliminal messages on a day-to-day basis that we should be self-sufficient, stoic, and even self-obsessed. As a teenaged girl, I can barely watch television without being told that I must be in control of my life, the way my hair looks, etc. Perfection and total self-control is demanded of us. Somebody has to tell us that we can’t do it all! Somebody has to tell us that we are not all that bright! Good thing Jesus does.
Just like we hear today, most people that heard Jesus speak did not understand what he was trying to tell them. Jesus frequently had to go back and simplify his language-- which he had already attempted to simplify through the parable, nonetheless. On top of that, we are compared to sheep in this parable. In case you didn’t know, sheep are perhaps the dumbest animals on earth. The whole reason that shepherds have to carry staffs is to keep the sheep from running themselves off cliffs. If we think that we do not need a shepherd, if we think that we have our lives under control on our own, then we are sheep running ourselves off cliffs. Thus, the first step in hearing the voice of the shepherd is to realize our need to be shepherded. The first step is humility.
When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. Again, what does it take to follow the shepherd? First, humility. Then, openness.
In today’s first reading, we hear Peter explain God’s revelation that Gentiles may be baptized and accepted into the Christian Church. This revelation was entirely contrary to all laws that had been set forth by the Jews and the early Church. Jews and Gentiles did not mix—or so they thought. Peter initially put up a fight when God asked him to “eat the unclean animals,” or metaphorically, baptize Gentiles. However, through a series of visions, God challenged Peter’s beliefs and showed him that Gentiles could in fact be saved. What connects this story from Acts to today’s Gospel is that it is all about listening to God’s voice and following it, wherever it may lead.
But again, it’s not that easy for us. Early Christians had to abandon years of deeply ingrained prejudices and accepted laws to baptize Gentiles. They had to give up all notions of what they thought was correct in favor of what God thought was correct. In other words, they had to be open.
I recently got back from a retreat. Something that I really appreciated was that the retreat leader urged us before we even heard from a speaker to be open to what God was telling us. It is easy to go into a retreat with preconceived notions of how things will go, ex: the speaker will try to force an opinion on you, you will not accept it, you will try to get out of conversation, etc. Similarly, many Catholics today have convinced themselves that they will never accept a certain teaching or attitude of the Church, and close their mind like a deadbolt door at any mention of the subject. Imagine if Peter had done this. Imagine if he had flipped out at the first mention of baptizing Gentiles, and refused to listen to the voice of God any further. It is safe to say that if Peter had done this, today’s Church would not exist. Thus, if we really want to follow the voice of the shepherd, we must be open to listen.
Something else that they talked extensively about at my retreat was “bearing each other’s burdens.” It is so difficult to persevere in faith these days. It is so difficult to be humble as Christ was. Let’s agree to pray for each other, that we may all be more humble and open to the voice of God.