Light and Life – Sept-Oct 2020, Vol 73, No 5 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province
[Fr. Bartholomew Hutcherson, O.P is a Dominican Friar and priest of the Province of the Holy Name of Jesus in the Western USA. Ordained in 1997, he has spent most of his priesthood in university and parish ministry. Now, as an Itinerant Preacher, he uses storytelling, teaching, retreats, and pilgrimages to share the Gospel with others. His retreats and missions are rooted deeply in his love for the Word of God and a deeply Catholic understanding of Sacred Scripture. When Fr. Bart is not on the road, he teaches Homiletics at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley. He currently resides at St. Albert’s Priory in Oakland, CA. You can learn more about Fr. Bart and his Preaching Ministry at www.FrBart.com.]
“I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me …My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me…” (John 10:14 and 27)
Jesus spoke these words to Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. They served as both a critique of the leadership of those authorities (whom he compared to hired-men who had no care for the sheep), and as comfort and instruction to those who were looking for the Messiah, an alternative shepherd.
Jesus presents himself as the fulfillment of Old Testament promises which envision the Messiah in pastoral terms. Who would not want to follow the shepherd of Psalm 23 who accompanies us through the valley of darkness, and prepares a banquet in the face of enemies? Or to follow a Jeremiah’s shepherd who relieves fears and terror (Jeremiah 23:4)? The Messianic promises of ancient Israel are replete with images of the Good shepherd, which the Ancient Church then applies to Jesus in sacred writings and art.
I wish to focus on a single aspect of the Good Shepherd metaphor in John 10 that I believe is essential in constructing and living our Christian life in the 21st Century: the voice of the Good Shepherd. Jesus told the crowd listening to him that his sheep know his voice and would follow him, rather than a stranger’s voice they do not recognize. Vital to the most basic following of Jesus is the recognition of his voice, and distinguishing his voice from all those that would lead us in other directions. Today, we live in a world with so much noise that it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the voice of Jesus among all other voices. I believe that this is by design. Even Jesus himself warned us: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
VOICES CONTRARY TO THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Even in Jesus’ own time, he had to contend with voices of opposition, especially from Israel’s religious leaders. Today there are certainly voices that are openly hostile to anything remotely related to Jesus. Those are perhaps the easiest distractions to discern and overcome. The more subtle voices can be more difficult to discern. For example, in recent weeks, I have been more attentive to the news media than normal. The reality of a global pandemic and social unrest have piqued my interest and I find myself both actively and passively consuming media. There was a moment last week when I realized this was not only cutting into time I might normally spend praying or studying, but it was also distracting when I was praying or studying. Certainly, there is no evil in staying informed of current affairs, but the pervasive and negative nature of modern news media can be both psychologically and spiritually damaging if we are not careful.
The goods we enjoy as part of our lives—our work, possessions, food, festivities, even our relationships—can become so powerful that they drown out the voice of the Good Shepherd. Any of these good things can become overwhelming, such that we lose perspective and the temperance that orders these things to living well. In the worst cases, the balance can become greatly distorted, and we find ourselves addicted to voices calling to our worst selves, rather than our best.
Then, of course, there are the evil voices which can distract us. They compete with the voice of the Good Shepherd, leading us from his path into sinful behaviors which are destructive of our bodies and souls. They call us to join other flocks which lead only to our being consumed. These voices are like those of which Jeremiah spoke: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd and they became food for wild animals.” (34:2b-5) The Good Shepherd wants to help us avoid this fate by listening to his voice and belonging to his flock.
DISCERNING THE GOOD SHEPHERD’S VOICE
It stands to reason the more time I spend in conversation with another person, the more I will come to know and recognize his voice. I am more likely to recognize the voice of a sibling, roommate, or colleague than that of a stranger or acquaintance. The same is true in our relationship with the Good Shepherd. The more I spend time with him in conversation, the more likely I will be able to pick out his voice among the noise. In many ways the following are basic suggestions for spiritual growth: develop a private prayer life, participate in the life of the Church, study, spend time with other Christians, surround yourselves with reminders of the Lord’s voice, invoke the Holy Spirit and read the Scriptures. I will touch on all these suggested tools of spiritual growth, but I really want to focus on two: staying close to the Church and devouring the Scriptures.
“Staying close to the Church” is fundamental to drawing closer to the Good Shepherd and recognizing his voice. John 10 says that the Good Shepherd calls us by name, and we follow him. He leads us out of the sheepfold as we go out to find pasture. The Church itself can represent both sheepfold (Jesus says that he himself is the gate to the sheepfold) and pasture. It is pasture in that it is the place that we find nourishment for our life as disciples, especially in the Sacraments. For example, baptism makes us part of his flock, the Eucharist nourishes and strengthens us to follow him, and by Reconciliation our wounds are bound up and healed.
As sheepfold, the Church is a place of refuge. As such, the Church helps us to hear and recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd through association with other disciples, usually called “fellowship.” Our brothers and sisters in Christ help us to discern the directions in which the Good Shepherd invites us to walk. This pilgrimage is best walked in the company of other believers who can help us authenticate the voice of Jesus. Christian friends support us when we struggle on the journey and help us to correct our course when we have lost our way. As a place of refuge, the Church also helps us to grow as disciples. It offers opportunities to study and pray, both of which help us to grow in familiarity with the voice of the Lord. Staying close to the Church helps us discern when the wolves in sheep’s clothing try to snatch us away from the flock of the Good Shepherd. The Holy Spirit was given to the Church as teacher and animator for the faithful. The Holy Spirit also guides the Church and helps her remain faithful in her teachings and practices. The Good Shepherd also left a vicar to keep us united as a flock. The Holy Spirit is at work in an extraordinary way in the Vicar of Christ. One way we can be sure that we are listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd is by remaining in union with the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and the magisterium.
Above all, we always know that there is one place we can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd: Sacred Scripture. We, as Church, hold that “the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself,” and that “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” (Dei Verbum 11) Knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures is essential to following the Good Shepherd. St. Jerome famously warned: “Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” The converse is also logical: To know Christ, know the Scriptures. We call the Bible “God’s Word,” and we know we will encounter that Word when we read and study the Bible. Scripture study is literally an exercise in hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. These timeless texts, written in human language, prepare us to hear and follow their true author, God himself. St. Paul told his young protégé: “All scripture is inspired by God (literally God-breathed) and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) The more familiar we are with the sacred text, the more we will be able to discern Jesus’ voice.
Finally, we should not expect the voice of the Good Shepherd to always be the loudest. Sometimes we need to get quiet to hear his voice. The Prophet Elijah experienced this on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-13). God sent him to a cave to wait. Elijah knew God would pass by. As he waited for God, there were three natural events: a fire, an earthquake and a mighty windstorm, all of which, in other times and places, portended the presence and power of God. But Elijah knew the voice of God well enough to know that God was not present in those events. Afterwards, there was a “gentle whisper,” and Elijah hid his face because God was in the silence. Sometimes, we just need to turn off the noise around us and get silent, listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd in the depths of our hearts. When we learn to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd, he promises to lead us to more abundant life (John 10:10).