John 10:1-10, Fourth Sunday of Easter
Sheep are interesting animals. They are neither predators nor aggressive. Sheep are simply prey species and therefore vulnerable. They easily flock together, unless some stray away. They are very sociable. They are not individualistic. Anyone of them can just lead a pack of sheep and all the rest will follow. They are easily afraid and frightened of external threats. Rather than fight, they run away. Ewes who have newborn lambs will fight back when cornered, if only to protect their young. They are one of the dumbest animals. They are below the pigs in IQ, but comparable to the cattle. We have two silly dogs in our Curia residence. One (half-labrador) is so laid back and the other (azkal) is so restless and paranoid as a result of persistent bullying by the former. But even with these conditions, I think sheep are generally dumber than these two dogs. Sheep to be fair, however, are gifted with good hearing and excellent peripheral vision. They can see what’s behind them without turning their heads!
Today’s readings are about the shepherd and the sheep. The Responsorial Psalm has it: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” The second reading from the first letter of St Peter says: “For you had gone astray like the sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” The verse before the Gospel is a declaration of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd,…. I know my sheep, and mine know me.” And finally, the Gospel refers to Jesus as the gatekeeper of the sheep: “The gatekeeper opens it (gate) for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd may appear offensive to some. Are we really like the sheep – unthinking, dumb, simply following, vulnerable and defenseless? In some sense, we really are like the sheep. Despite our learning, graduate degrees, even postgraduate degrees, we can still be dumb, weak, fearful, vulnerable and defenseless. I’ve seen so many intelligent people doing stupid things. They are so frail emotionally, so fearful of many things and they worry a lot. We are vulnerable and weak. Like the sheep, we need to belong to a group.
I think the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a radical one. It speaks of the tenderness of our God quite the opposite of how he was perceived in times past. Before the time of Jesus, God was thought to be distant, remote, unseen, unfelt and untouched. Even Moses and the great prophets in the Old Testament had no direct contact with God. Our notion at times of God is like this: distant, remote and disengaged. Jesus turns this Old Testament image of God upside down. God can be seen, felt and touched.
Pope Francis has time and again spoken about the tenderness of God. In one Christmas homily, he spoke about God’s gentleness and tenderness and that we should not be afraid of expressing our tenderness to people. Last month, in a TED talk, Pope Francis defined tenderness as “the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future, to listen also to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.” This is the shepherding of Jesus, always intimate with a personal touch, always listening to comfort and care for those in need. He may not have all the solutions to our problems, but he is actively listening to comfort us in our afflictions.
I was a very young priest in Culion when I said regular Masses for lepers who were abandoned by their friends and families. In the ward of these abandoned lepers, a blind woman was calling out my name: “Father, father, punta kayo rito.” I went near her, but all the while fearful that I may contract leprosy. Seeing her to be blind, I went even closer but I must admit being increasingly fearful about leprosy. And then she started to touch me. This was unthinkable: a leper touching me and rubbing her hand with my forehand. I panicked. But she wouldn’t let go. She was perhaps trying to say: “Dito ka muna. Huwag mo muna akong iiwan.” If there had been a thought bubble, it would have said: “Patay, magiging leper na ako.” I failed in tenderness.
Pope Francis then goes on to say: “Tenderness is the language of young children, of those who need the other. A child’s love for mom and dad grows through their touch, their gaze, their voice, their tenderness. I like when I hear parents talk to their babies, adapting to the little child, sharing the same level of communication. This is tenderness: being on the same level as the other. God himself descended into Jesus to be on our level. This is the same path the Good Samaritan took. This is the path that Jesus himself took. He lowered himself, he lived his entire human existence practicing the real, concrete language of love.”
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus stoops to our level as a shepherd would to his sheep. This is tenderness. This is the language I wish our leaders need to say and do. It is not the language ordinarily used by politicians.
Our world today is filled with the language of bitterness, not tenderness. There is so much division and violence. Today, France will elect its national leaders today amid so much division. There is so much division in the US, in Europe, in the Middle East, and here in our country.
The image of the Good Shepherd can radically change the way we approach God, humanity and creation. Let us allow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to comfort us, guide us, accompany us so we can also extend that to the way with deal with humanity and creation.