When Jesus talks about himself as the “good shepherd” and us as his “sheep” I have a hard time thinking this is at all a term of affection from our Lord.
I’ve worked with real sheep: they can be pretty awful—stinky, stubborn, surprisingly aggressive (not just the rams, but the ewes as well), and while they have some good instincts, they can be so stupid.
I’m sure we’re all aware that for someone to describe any group of people as “sheep” is pejorative: it means they are easily led, and not necessarily led to a good place; they are naïve and overly trusting of those who may appear to be shepherds, but are actually leading them to slaughter.
So, what do we think of our saviour, our redeemer, our guide, who calls us all a bunch of sheep?!
Is this someone to follow?
Indeed, over the course of the past fifty years we’ve seen a falling away from the Church, even as many of those who distance themselves from their Catholic parish maintain a sense of Catholic identity. They still want to get married here, have the baptisms, the first communions for their kids, to have a parent’s funeral mass here, but they back away from being made a true member of the herd, whipped into line, and told where to go and what to do. They’d rather be, to ironically twist our Lord’s own words, “sheep without a shepherd.”
Christian and Catholic life according to apostolic teaching doesn’t look like freedom to them, this liberating of the prisoners that Jesus speaks of in the gospel. Rather, it looks like the taking on of a burden of rules and regulations, of disciplines and duties, and if this is the cross Christ would have us take up, no wonder so many would rather leave it lying there.
Must we be part of the flock? Why can we not strike out on our own? Are we not free? Do we not have free will? Why be like mindless sheep, and do what the Church tells us, and to do it, sheepishly?
Such thoughts put me in mind of Immanuel Kant who rightly spotted the modern error in reasoning this way. Free will, the independent mind, these things given to us by God are not to be understood as some kind of perverse torture inflicted on us by the Almighty: you have free will, freedom to choose, but if you don’t choose my way, you will be punished! You have free will and reason but stop thinking and obey! We then see the shepherd, not with his protective staff, but rather threatening with his corrective rod.
No, Kant got it right. The freedom we have is not a perverse freedom to choose to disobey God’s law, it’s not the freedom to rebel and be punished. The freedom we have is from something else: it’s a freedom to move past our animal nature and go in search of God. That is what we are free to do.
To be clear, this isn’t refusing your appetites and desires for its own sake. That’s the philosophy of stoicism: that self-control, self-discipline, the rational ordering of one’s life is its own reward.
There is some truth in that. Reducing the chaos of life by exercising control in the limited sphere of one’s personal life does help. A clean home and a disciplined mind help one cope with all sorts of problems, but more importantly provides the environment and intellectual disposition to do work productively, whether it’s writing a novel or building a boat.
The Christian life, however, is to go beyond mundane pursuits, and seek eternal communion with God.
Now St. Augustine famously wrote on this question of our free will and concluded that while we potentially can recognize in our intellect what is good, our will does not always obey what logic and reason tells it is best. As St. Paul quipped, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. We are fallen from grace as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. It is only by God’s grace that we have any capacity to be freed from the oppression that is our animal nature. We need God to find God.
Our animal instincts, our biological drives, these can be overpowering and we can become their slaves. Try to keep sheep from green grass, cattle from the feed trough, and you see how strong is the drive to satisfy hunger; think then about sexual desire. You take you life in your hands when you stand between the stallion and his mare, between the bull and the cow.
When we look at Jesus we see in Him a man who masters himself in both regards. We have reports of his fasting; we know he has no wife, and no apparent concern to have one; and that is not a condemnation of marriage for it is something that our Lord was happy to celebrate.
Rather Jesus is showing us where to search, and what will be needed to taken on the journey of discovery: you will need virtue, continence in all things, and that includes chastity, prayerfulness and patience, and the willingness to give all away, including your life, if it should be required.
One of my great heroes of the faith is Basil of Caesarea, or St. Basil the Great. He was a man of towering intellect who helped untangled the conundrum that was the trinity for the early Church; he established what many consider the first hospital, he was a great innovator in what we today would call social services, the care of the poor, the sick, the widowed and the orphaned through good organization and administration of the Church’s resources both in money and talented people.
His starting point in developing all this was not in going to the ancient equivalent of management school; it was through mastery of self, of following Christ’s example so as to tame the desires and control the appetites.
In this he recognized that of the two holy choices set before him: of marriage or celibate singleness, the latter was to be preferred. The sense one gets from his many letters to parishioners and friends abroad was not that he regarded singleness as inherently superior, but rather easier in terms of his goal of eternal communion with God.
Family life and worldly career were both filled with temptations, true, but also the heavy weight of responsibility for one’s family, one’s spouse, one’s children that tug upon us through the deep biological drives. It is not that there is nothing worthy in loving one’s children, or striving to achieve in this life so as to bring honour to your family, it’s just that these things can be so absorbing, sometimes distracting, often emotionally painful, and so, discouraging; and because ultimately they are about this world that we forget our heavenly vocation. We then substitute for life with God the goals of, say, marriage, owning our own business, our home mortgage-free, putting all the kids through college, retiring to Florida or Arizona. It’s not that those things are wrong in themselves; it’s just not, in Christian understanding, the ultimate point of this life. You then see how Basil came to the conclusion that choosing celibacy and eschewing a worldly career seemed the easier path to God.
Nonetheless, Basil achieved much in his life and you would speak of it as a career. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, he courageously stood up to the Emperor in defense of the faith, at risk to his life; through his writing he laid the foundations of much of what is core Christian doctrine.
He achieved these things by following Jesus, by being guided by the Good Shepherd, even as he may have passed up what may have looked like greener pastures, cooler still waters as he was guided to something much, much better.
Basil trusted Christ, not only to take him to that better place, but also to keep him from the wolves; from sin that stalks us and seeks to tear apart our souls; sin that more often than not comes like a wolf in sheep’s clothing; comes as the worldly concern that leads us to worldly solutions, the broad, flat, downhill path to that wide and open gate that leads to perdition’s flames. Basil trusted in Christ because Jesus is the Good Shepherd who has laid down His life so as to defeat sin, and in our trust in Him will always chase off those wolves; He never runs away. Basil trusted in Him moreover because Christ shows the way, He knows the path; because Christ knew Basil, as He knows each of us, calling us by name so as to call us back into the sheepfold; but not to be mere sheep. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has yet to be revealed; but that will be known if we follow the Good Shepherd.