Handles – John Foley, SJ

John 10:11-18, Fourth Sunday of Easter

In Sunday’s Gospel Jesus makes a wonderful comparison, of the good shepherd to the mere hired hand. The good shepherd cares about the sheep. The hired one is mainly interested in getting paid. When wolves come, he simply runs away.

To discern the difference, take a poetic example.* First, imagine that there are “handles” on what you possess. Everything—honors, assets, etc.—everything has a “handle” that someone could grab in order to take it away from you. Looks, home, car, reputation, career, money saved up for the children’s education, respect from others, pleasure, youth, you name it. What do you own that you could not lose? You grab your own handles and hold on tight.

But an ominous power comes into play at this point. The forces of greed tell our hearts that everything in the whole world is there just to be grabbed for oneself and kept. “Greed is a virtue,” these forces say, in fact it is the only virtue. The mess of the world situation in this second decade of the 21st century does seem to prove that. It is the hired hand’s way of life.

But there is an alternate way. It has to do with love, the kind of love that the good shepherd shows us. Its motto is this:

The real value in life is to receive and give, not to grab and possess.

All that you have and all that you are is a gift from the good God. If you open your hands, so to speak, you will let God pour into them whatever you really need! And keeping them open lets you can easily release your gifts and let them pass on to others in need.

Two ways of life: “Grab and Keep” on one side. “Receive and Let Go” on the other. Hired Hand versus Good Shepherd.

There comes an epic battle between these two ways of life. It is waged on the cross. Evil seizes and tears away from Jesus everything with “handles” on it—friends, followers, career, respect, relation to God, comfort, slaking of thirst, breath, life itself.

Evil wins. It takes everything.

Yet there is a fatal flaw in the grab-and-keep philosophy. It thinks that nothing at all exists without a handle on it.

So we ask, what about love? Love lets go, receives humbly, gives humbly. There is nothing to grab about real love, nothing by way of a handle. Since the devil only sees grabbing and selfishness, to him love must be just another form of self-interest!

So the he burrows down to the innermost sanctum of Jesus’ soul on the cross, greedy to seize the ultimate prize itself, the power of God. Ravenous for it, salivating, unable to hold back, he throws open the tabernacle doors of Jesus’ soul! And he finds that the sacred space is empty, completely empty.

Oh, something is present there, but it has no handles. The quiet stillness—receiving gratefully and lightly letting go—these are surely there, but the devil cannot see them. So he goes on his way, confident that everything is now his.

But it isn’t. Love wins because it has already given everything away. This is why the Good Shepherd can lay down his life for the sheep. This is why the Father loves him. And us if we follow.


* I learned the simple poetic explanation of this reflection from Rosemary Haughton’s book, The Passionate God (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), especially pp. 112 ff. This is one of my favorite insights so I have tried to boil it down and present it to you here. No promises, though.

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