In the United States, most of our ranches are self contained. By that I mean that the rancher has his own fields for crops or grazing and his own facilities to care for his livestock.
That is not the case in the most of the rest of the world, not just the ancient world of Jesus, but even in the modern world. In much of the world, the animals belonging to various families are kept together in a large pen. This is particularly true regarding sheep.
Now sheep all look pretty much alike, perhaps except to each other. So if there are 200 sheep in a pen, how is a shepherd able to pick out his 50 sheep? Actually, it is the sheep who do the work. The shepherd just stands at the entrance of the pen and calls to his sheep, or perhaps he just sings to them. His sheep know his voice and follow him out. If he is going through the hills and comes across another shepherd with his sheep going in the opposite direction, the sheep will mingle together. Each shepherd will just keep singing or calling, and their own sheep will follow their Master’s voice.
Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd. His sheep know his voice. We are His sheep. We know His voice. We know if something we hear is coming from him or from another source.
We know this in many ways. First of all, we can tell if He is calling us to do something or not do something through our conscience. We know right from wrong. We don’t have to be moral theologians to know that people who post hurtful things about others on the internet are doing something very wrong. We don’t get our morality from civil law. We don’t judge the merits of something according to whether or not there is a law about it. Our civil laws must flow from our morality. Our morality should not be determined by our civil law. A law may be needed to protect society, but right or wrong is not determined by the law; it is determined by the Voice of God. We also know that whether we are caught or not has nothing to do with whether something is right or wrong. For example, we might be driving in our neighborhood and can see clearly enough that there are no police cars around. But we don’t speed because there may be children outside playing, or folks crossing the street in the middle of the block. We don’t want to endanger the life of a little child or another person just because we are in a hurry. Or, there is no law saying that we should look in on the elderly man two houses down who didn’t pick up his paper yesterday, but it is the right thing to do. Right or wrong is determined by conscience, not by law.
Sometimes people will say, “Catholic guilt” when we don’t feel right with something we have done or not done. They act as though the Church is imposing guilt upon them. That is not true. Conscience is not imposed upon us from outside of us. It is within us. A conscience committed to doing the right thing is itself the Voice of the Good Shepherd. Sure, other voices try to draw us away from that which is right, but we listen to the voice we need to follow. What is imposed upon us from the outside is not guilt, what is imposed upon us is the immorality of a society that calls us to follow it instead of follow the Voice of God.
Our conscience also speak to us by continually asking us, “How well am I living my Christianity?” The Christian lives his or her Christianity throughout daily life, in the home, at the workplace, in the world. You are acting on the voice you hear within you saying, “I have to do something to help out. I am only doing what a Christian must do to be a Christian.”
Sometimes, we have to perk up our ears to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. There are so many distractions in life, that we have to listen closely to hear His voice. That is why we need to make time in our lives for daily prayer. Those prayers we say at night or in the morning every day give us the opportunity to hear His voice and to follow our Shepherd.
There are times, though, that we need help discerning the voice of the Lord. Life is complicated. We often have to ask ourselves, “Is this coming from the Lord or from another source, like my pride or ambition, etc?” Jesus gave us a guide to answer this question. He said, “Check the fruit.” Actually he said, “By their fruit you will know them.” What are the long range results of an action or inaction? Are they good or bad? For example, people will say that there is nothing wrong with taking this or that drug. Look down the road a piece. Have people who have been doing this for years fallen into deeper problems? Have bad relationships been established and good relationships been destroyed?
We can still be confused though. Sometimes we need to meet with people who may have insight into the best direction we should take in some given situation or other. So we go to a priest or deacon, or a spiritual director. Maybe ask a question in confession or we make an appointment for a sit down. We do this to get help with sorting out the complications of life. This is what we priests and deacons do, and we are honored that you share your concerns with us and are asking us to apply the Church’s teaching to your situation. We may not have the answers you seek immediately, but we do know where to look.
In the second part of the Gospel (Jn 10:1-10) Jesus adds that not only is He the Good Shepherd, He is the Sheep-gate. He is our protection against thieves and marauders who would steal and destroy our souls. The New Testament proclaims that all who stay united to Christ will live forever. It makes no difference what other people attempt to do to us, no matter how they attack us. They cannot destroy that Life that He has given us, the Life we celebrate particularly at Easter-time. Nothing can destroy His Life. The Sheep Gate protects us from eternal death. Yes, we may even suffer from a terminal illness that is attacking our body, but, like a dying 14 year old boy once told me, “Nothing can take Jesus from me.” We may be in a horrible family situation and be afraid for others and for ourselves, but with the Lord the negativity can become a source of growth as we are determined to find a way to draw closer to the Lord through the negatives of our lives. Or perhaps, we suffer from some form of psychological problem. We may be in recovery, but are continually battling the addiction. We don’t fight alone. We fight with the Lord, who protects us from the terrors of life.
The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Jn 10:1-10) forces us to ask ourselves, “Whose voice is it that I am following? Is it the voice of the immoral elements of our society? Is it the voice of the popular but self-absorbed? Or do I follow the voice of the Lord?”
As always, we pray today for the courage to be Catholic.