The Lord is my shepherd. We sheep hear His voice, and He leads us. We are His people, the sheep of His flock. As St. Peter put it: Jesus Christ, risen from the dead–“the shepherd and guardian of our souls.” He leads us to pastures of abundant life.
Good Shepherd Sunday this Sunday. Fourth Sunday of the blessed Easter season. I daresay we have all heard homilies about how we are sheep. And sheep are dumb. And I daresay we’ve heard other homilies about how yes, sheep are indeed quite dumb, but not about everything. Sheep can skillfully recognize their shepherd’s familiar voice. And I daresay we’ve heard other homilies about how gently and lovingly Jesus shepherds us; mercifully, sweetly, etc., etc.
All true. All good. Yes, we’re dumb sheep. Yes also: we’re not totally dumb; we can recognize and follow the voice of Christ, the Word of God. Yes, His voice sounds in the ears of our souls, in the ears of our consciences—and it’s not a hard sound, but a soft one, a familiar one.
We do not doubt that Christ our shepherd leads us to salvation. We know that we reach heaven by humbly obeying Him, just like sheep obey the shepherd. We need His guidance. The demands of His doctrine touch us like a shepherd’s staff. We pray that we might have the grace to co-operate. All this is Christianity in a nutshell, and we are Christians.
But maybe we sheep can credit ourselves with enough intelligence to pose a question. We can allow ourselves to recognize a difficulty, an apparent contradiction in the Good Shepherd’s teaching.
On the one hand, Christ promises us a pleasant time when we obey Him. He declared, “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” His Apostle John wrote to us, “Keep His commandments. His commandments are not burdensome.” The prophet Micah put it like this: “What does the Lord your God require of you but to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?”
Doesn’t sound all that difficult.
But, on the other hand, Lord Jesus said: “How narrow the gate, how constricted the road that leads to life! Those who find it are few.” “If anyone come to Me and hate not even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” Jesus damned the selfish people to eternal hell for failing to offer Him a glass of cold water. They protested, “Lord, we never saw you thirsty!” We know how He replied. “Whatever you failed to do for even the least ones, you failed to do… for Me.”
Sounds pretty demanding. Pretty burdensome, in fact. Jesus Christ is a gentle, loving shepherd—with a staff that feels more like a whip on our shanks. He smiles, then whips us and says, “Hurry up and become saints right now.”
So we have an honest question: Lord, how can it be both hard and easy to follow You as our shepherd? How can it be both hard and easy?
I think there’s a way for us to resolve this apparent self-contradiction on the part of Christ the Good Shepherd. But it will be humiliating for us. To find the answer, what we have to do is: Acknowledge that, if we find obeying Christ the gentle Shepherd difficult, it’s our own damn fault.
As far as what He has done goes, He made it easy. He took the initiative of total love. He knew that the human race as a whole had fallen into hopeless sin. So He became one of us and offered the sacrifice to make things right. And He poured out the Holy Spirit upon us in such a way that, had we co-operated ever since earliest youth, becoming a diligent mature Christian would have involved far fewer challenges than we sinners have to do battle with. For the soul that keeps a pure conscience from childhood onward, growing into holiness involves maybe the kind of effort and exertion involved in a round of miniature golf.
But who among us can reasonably claim to have co-operated all along and maintained that kind of purity? Don’t we rather have to admit: “Okay, Lord. Keeping up with you as the shepherd feels to this particular sheep more like training for a marathon than like walking in a park. But that’s because I have sinned, and I have developed bad habits that make it hard for me to act with virtue. I have turned something pleasant into something hard. Forgive me! And please give me the help I need to stumble after You, and stay close enough to hear Your voice, in spite of the self-inflicted wounds I bear, which make me a slow and feeble sheep.”
Now, how does He respond to this? With the same immeasurable patience He had when He invited us to follow Him in the first place. “Come to Me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.”
Our sins have debilitated us; we are not just dumb sheep—we are maimed sheep, and we have maimed ourselves. But Christ’s medicine is stronger than the wounds we have given our own souls. He will even yet make the burden of following Him light, even for us. “Don’t give up, sinner,” He says. “The shepherd will gladly lay you on His shoulders.”