April 29, 2012
Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
Of the years of my life, I have lived all but one in cities: New York, Washington, D. C., Detroit, London, Freiburg, Bologna, and Madison, of course, longest of all. Consequently, I am unqualified to talk about shepherds and sheep. All that I know about both I learned from reading Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd. But in the crunch, I find that novels are better on donkeys than on sheep. I know because I met a donkey once when driving through the English countryside. He was not going up or down the road, but standing across the road like a rural tollbooth. In order for me to get past this donkey, I had to drive my car on the shoulder of the road about two inches from a stone wall on the left and one inch from the donkey’s nose on the right. Considering the placement of the driving wheel in British automobiles, the donkey and I just missed kissing as I inched by.
Which leads me to say that Anthony Trollope introduces a romantic donkey into his novel Dr. Thorne. Against the orders of his marry-for-money parents, Frank Gresham of Greshamsbury goes to Boxall Hall to propose marriage to the relatively penniless Mary Thorne while she is riding on a donkey. Trollope tells us that with his eyes on the ass’s ears, Frank “walked there by her donkey’s side, talking thus earnestly of his love for her.” The author further indicates that “the donkey himself was quite at his ease, and looked as though he was approvingly conscious of what was going on behind his ears.” My experience, then, real and fictional, tells me that donkeys have an individuality lacking in sheep.
Nevertheless—not to leave sheep out of this capsule survey of Victorian fiction—George Eliot speaks of sheep and shepherds in her novella Janet’s Repentance, where she dramatizes a Good Shepherd in the Evangelical minister, Edgar Tryan, who seeks the one that was lost in Janet Dempster, the alcoholic wife of a brutal husband, and thus does exactly what Jesus urges his listeners to do in Luke’s gospel (15:3-7), which gives us the same parable with some variations that John does in today’s reading. As it was to those who heard Jesus in his day, this proved a scandal to the well-off in George Eliot’s day. That “the misery of the one” should cast “so tremendous a shadow as to eclipse the bliss of the ninety-nine” outraged a rapidly industrializing society which supported the ideology of progress founded on Utilitarianism, which held that the good of the many was always more important than the joy and sorrow, the weal and woe of any one individual. The parable of the Good Shepherd in contradicting this principle just totally offends all politics and morality founded on simple arithmetic.
And so the parable of the Good Shepherd remains a scandal in our day too. For it continues to confound the inhumane ideologies everywhere evident in the world around us: in dictatorships like that in Zimbabwe and North Korea where many are left to starve; in the Middle East where Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd are turned into killing abstractions. And here in the United States we have dangerous notions like National Security and Budget Deficits to say nothing of virulent ideas like Racial Profiling and Voter Fraud among many another. Each of us can easily conjure up around us equally ridiculous idiocies because the robo calls never stop and the TV ads are in our eyes ad nauseam. And to add insult to injury the Vatican’s recent reprimand of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for differing “at times, from views held by American bishops” about the right to life and human sexuality (Reuters 20 April 2012) shows the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as ignorant of the meaning of today’s gospel and as ideologically blind to freedom of conscience as the varieties of secular intransigence already mentioned. To each of these forms of doctrinal inflexibility the individual falls victim if not by bullet or bomb then by legal maneuvers, program cuts, and the willful suspension of human rights. And each of these wolfish ideologies produce lost sheep who have no shepherd to protect them.
The three readings for today suggest that sanity as well as salvation lies in Jesus, who defines himself as the Good Shepherd. Additionally, Jesus is Peter’s stone—indeed the cornerstone—that the builders rejected; Jesus is John’s example of one who has laid down his life for us as we ought to lay down ours for one another; Jesus, as John says, is the one whom God knows and who knows God: the Good Shepherd whom wolves cannot frighten into leaving his sheep. That is why we are here with him today.
To me this Jesus is as stubbornly defiant as any donkey standing across a road and asserting his rights as an individual against a machine. For me this Jesus is as wise as a donkey approving of a young man’s proposing marriage to a young woman and wanting—indeed, insisting—on taking part in the love-scene. But the love-scene that is traced out in the Scriptures goes way beyond any more or less ingenious analogy that I can draw when John in his letter says this to us: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before God whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything. . . . And this is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another. . . .”
Nicholas D. Kristof, who forever seems to be in some unvisitable part of the globe, has given us examples of people who live this belief in their everyday lives—people “whose magnificence lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness.” Singling out “Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and Cabrini Sisters in Africa” he writes, “Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference” (The New York Times, 18 April 2010, p. 11). These certainly are one example of Good Shepherds in our time who seek out the very people whom too many in authority in church and state see as lost. We may not be able to be as remarkable as such individuals are, but each of us will inevitably encounter, as John says, “a brother or sister in need.” Then it will be our opportunity to enter tellingly into this demanding parable.