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Wisdom comes in sheep’s clothing

Kate Barrett | Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Do you have many people in your life who know you – who really, really know you? Sure, we all have lots of friends, pals, buddies, acquaintances, section-mates; people we love to sit next to and chat with in this class or that; people we eat lunch with because we always see them in the dining hall on Monday-Wednesday-Friday. But with whom do you really have intimate, life-giving relationships, the ones that have built up layers of strength and knowledge, forgiveness and grace over time? Who do you trust enough to let in on your embarrassing flaws, your deepest fears, your most far-reaching dreams, and who has let you in on theirs?

One of the most famous images in all the gospels has given its name to the Fourth Sunday of Easter: Good Shepherd Sunday. This weekend, as we do each year on the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season, we will read from one of the gospel passages in which Jesus describes himself as a shepherd who knows his sheep so intimately that they will follow the sound of only his voice and no one else’s.

I have always wondered about this phenomenon – I mean, I get my own children’s voices mixed up sometimes, when I can’t see which one of them I’m talking to. And yet these sheep – perhaps hundreds of them, who by all accounts are dumb as dirt – know the guy who leads them in and out to eat each day just by listening for him, and don’t get it wrong, ever.

Jesus describes for the Pharisees a shepherd who knows the name of each of his sheep, and who leads them out of the sheepfold by means of an intimate relationship which has obviously been built up over time: “The sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out … He walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.”

Of course, Jesus used this analogy, which anyone listening in that sheep-laden time and culture would have understood, to explain why he came as God’s son – to know each and every one of us by name and to call us safely to everything we need. Those sheep needed only a patch of good grass to chew on and maybe somebody who would keep an eye out for wolves or poachers; we have a much more serious need for that shepherd who knows our name. The one who tells us, as we will hear on Sunday, that he came for us so we “might have life and have it more abundantly.”

Wouldn’t it be great if it were just that easy? If we could just recognize the voice of Jesus whenever we needed to figure out where to go, what choices to make, what direction to turn? If we have a significant decision to make, we just listen for the voice of Jesus, recognize it above all the competing din, and boom – we’re good. Just as the sheep, by listening to the shepherd, knew where to go for lunch, we could hear the voice of life and know exactly what to say, or do, or choose in our search for the life Jesus promises.

Here’s where we could learn from the sheep. They know the shepherd’s voice because they have made a habit out of listening for it, many times a day. Deep in their little brains, they know their very lives depend on that shepherd and that they’d better be paying attention. We will certainly recognize the voice of Jesus more easily if we make a point to pray each day, to listen intently to how our shepherd speaks to our hearts.

And here’s where we’re much luckier than the sheep. Our God, who knows each of us by name and knows the sound of each of our voices, speaks to us first of all through the sacraments and through our prayer, but also through the voices of those most significant and life-giving relationships in our lives. If we hear and recognize the voice of Jesus when we listen to or read the Scriptures, when we receive the Eucharist or the sacrament of Reconciliation, we will be able to discern his voice in the sounds of the people in our lives whom we love most deeply and who truly love us. We will recognize the “thieves and robbers” of the gospel for who or what they are – people, material things, ambitions, insecurities, false desires, that come to “steal and destroy” – and who will only distract and deter us from the abundant life God promises us through Jesus Christ.

Let’s learn a lesson from the sheep: listen, and listen good.

Kate Barrett is the director of Resources and Special Projects for Campus Ministry. She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.