Knowing When to Quit – Arnel Aquino, SJ

John 10:11-18, Fourth Sunday of Easter 2015

I’ve read this beautiful Gospel passage so many times in my life, I thought I would no longer find any new message in it, until I pondered over it again this week. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the phrase Jesus keeps repeating here is “lay down my life”. He says the phrase 5 times, in fact. “A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep…and I will lay down my life for the sheep…. I lay down my life in order to take it up again…. I lay it down on my own…I have power to lay it down.” And we get it, don’t we? We know what it means: that a good shepherd is a heroic shepherd. He will give up everything, including his life, for people he loves.

But here’s my question: if a good shepherd lays down his life—and in the most extreme case, actually dies for his sheep, then that leaves the flock without a shepherd, doesn’t it? Pero kung talagang mahal ng pastol ang mga tupa, ‘di ba dapat pangalagaan din niya ang kanyang sarili kung ayaw niyang mawalan ng gabay ang kanyang mga alaga?

As soon as I thought about this, I remembered what Pope Francis said during his anniversary this year: “I have the feeling,” he said, “that my pontificate will be brief—four or five years, even two or three. Two have already passed. I feel that the Lord has placed me here for only a short time.” Sisters and brothers, I am 49 years old and like many of you, I’ve been through at least four popes, from Paul VI to today’s Francis. I’ve noticed that what three popes had great difficulty doing in the last 49 years, Francis was able to accomplish in only two: he’s purging the Vatican of its dirty politics, he put arrogant bishops and cardinals in their place, but most of all, he gathered the flock tightly together, including the sheep of other flocks. In other words, Pope Francis, for me, is an example of a good shepherd. But here’s the thing: I bet he will also resign like Pope Benedict did, when he realizes that he’s too old to lead the flock—even when he’s been a terrific shepherd. Francis is the kind of leader who will lay down his life for his sheep, even if it means resigning, so that another shepherd may lead the flock.

Now, I hate to say this, but compare this shepherd with the quote-unquote “shepherds” of our country, the people who sit as our national leaders these, say, fifty years? More than half of the political surnames I memorized in Araling Panlipunan when I was in grade two are still the same names that come up during elections, scandals, cases of plunder, bribery, political dynasties, graft, corruption. Many of them started out as good shepherds, yes. But many have become bad—and they’re still at it, they’re still being bad. So I was thinking, maybe the best thing they could do for the sheep is to “lay down their life”, meaning, retire or resign or fade away. After all, they’ve had their time. Nakakahiya man sabihin, they’ve already fattened their bank accounts, their promises are all broken, and they care pretty much only for themselves and their families. So the greatest favor many of our national shepherds could do, is to “lay down their lives” for the sheep—meaning, retire, resign, fade away.

But enough of the politicians, my point is this: part of being a good shepherd means knowing when to quit. That’s the new meaning I find in the phrase “lay down (one’s) life for the sheep;” knowing when to quit, to let go of power, to turn in one’s badge, to step down when it’s time to step down—yes, even when you think you’ve been doing such a great job, and yes, even when you think that the sheep just love you. If you really are the good shepherd you say and think you are, this presumes you’ve prepared other people to continue the job. Death by martyrdom is only one meaning of laying one’s life down. It also means having the incredible humility to accept that we are human shepherds, therefore, not indispensable. Human shepherds, therefore, not the authors of our own power. Human shepherds, therefore, not incorruptible gods. And one very clear sign of being a good shepherd is the willingness and peace to go back to being a sheep with the rest of the flock—just the way everyone started out.

Our Lord, the Good Shepherd, did not quit on his flock. He was forced to quit precisely by people who refused to lay their life down, people who had power and authority in a stranglehold. But remember what the Lord said? “I lay my life down freely, I have the power to lay it down.” So I bet, he knew that his disciples were ready to carry on as shepherds of the flock—even if they themselves didn’t believe so. The Lord made sure he personally trained and mentored his friends so they can continue his mission. So he believed in them, number one, and he believed in his Father—who would send them his Spirit to be with them. Years later, every single apostle, except John, died a martyr—which means none of them ever became greedy of power and authority. You see, if Jesus and his disciples had but an ounce of the self-entitlement of today’s many political and religious leaders, they would’ve fled death, and instead founded an oligarchy, and marshaled a private army to protect themselves at all cost. If they were anything like many of our leaders today—political and religious—they’d have expected that their sheep lay their lives for them.

But Jesus did no such thing, taught no such thing, or taught any such thing. Yet, this Good Shepherd remains the greatest power in the universe.

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