Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Difficult Message on Good Shepherd Sunday

Reflection for Mass
St. Vincent de Paul Parish
Easter IV Sunday
May 11, 1014

A Tough Task: Jesus Speaks to the Pharisees
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today we have before us a most difficult task. For today Jesus brings to light a difficult reality, a hard truth. What, you may ask, could be so difficult or challenging? It is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” ‘Sean, did you not hear the responsorial psalm?’: The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. Fresh and green are the pastures, where He gives me repose (Ps 22). Indeed, the Lord Jesus is our shepherd. He will lead us and guide us along the right path. But be careful. Today’s parable is directed at the Pharisees. And dare I say that Jesus’ words to the Pharisees are neither flattering nor consoling, but rather convicting and challenging.

What, then, is the analogy? Jesus uses the image of a sheepfold, which is some sort of pin or fenced off area where the shepherd can leave the sheep for the night. As a home or place of refuge, those who do not enter through the front door, where the shepherd lay guarding the entrance, are presumably thieves and robbers, seeking to steal and to destroy the sheep. We even see this truth when we joke that someone had “to break” into their own home after being locked out, sliding in through an unlocked window or back door. Indeed, only those welcome or wishing well enter the house through the front door.

To this Christ makes it perfectly clear that He is the gate to this sheepfold, the door to this house. Yet, what is the sheepfold and who are the sheep? As a place of refuge and safety we see clearly that it is the Church and we the sheep. In fact, St. Augustine says “Keep hold of this, that Christ’s sheepfold is the Catholic Church.”[1] And in another place: “Certainly they were Catholics. If they were faithful Catholics, they were sheep.”[2] If, then, Christ is the door to this house which is the Church and we are those sheep (Catholics) who have entered through Christ into the fold, Jesus is making it perfectly clear to those Pharisees that one cannot enter into the safety of the fold unless he pass through Him; salvation, that is, can only be attained through Christ, the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). We can see this very truth incarnate in our Church building with the Baptismal font at the entrance to the Church. Indeed, baptism is traditionally called the door of faith through which one enters truly into the Church.[3]

Difficult Reality; Rereading the Parable: It is here that we must delve into that difficult reality confronted by Christ in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus says that all who come apart from him[4]are thieves and robbers looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy. In other words, all those who try to enter this blessed house, the Church, without entering through the door, who is Christ, come with mal intent, wishing harm upon those sheep, we who believe. And while these dangers might seem a bit farfetched or intense—could there really be people or ideas out there with such mal intent?—I think we can understand them better if we think of a household and our mothers. For not only is it Mother’s Day, but the Church, as seen in Mary, is our mother, Holy Mother Church. She is the one to whom we always return when times get tough. Indeed, like that child at the playground who comes running back to mom after bumping his head or scrapping his knee, we come back to Mother Church looking for a sweet and gentle kiss of grace that will make things all better.

Worries and Concerns of Mothers: Now all mothers know that there are a great many threats to her children. First, there are those dangers who try to enter our homes from the outside. These people or activities dare not enter through the doorway for they know that mom and dad will not approve. So they enter apart from the parents, working their way in through the TV, computer, iPhone, radio, etc… These influences—you know, the drugs, sex, and rock’n roll stuff—creep into our homes looking to steal our children’s innocence, and destroy the safe haven of a loving home. Likewise, Mother Church knows these dangers that try to enter apart from Christ, her spouse. These dangers primarily consist in the temptation to simple pleasures. In our weakest moments, these thieves and robbers find us and offer to us a quick fix, a short term distraction from the present difficulty or trial. But what do such “highs” really mean for those sheep that already have eternal life through Christ? Yet do to our own negligence and individualism, they dare to enter through the cracks and gaps left in our Church. So be vigilant, brothers and sisters, and help one another. Look out for those among us who struggle with addictions of any kind, whether they be drug related or simply found at the click of a mouse. For there is a sheep being taken by a thief, a brother or sister robbed of the abundance of life offered by Christ.  

Yet all mothers know that the dangers are not limited to those who want into our homes, but there are those who try to draw our children out away from the home; strangers who seek to steal the love and affection of our children by mimicking the care of us parents, thereby destroying our own influence and care. These dangers consist in popular role models whom our children follow, imitate, and desire to emulate. Likewise, Mother Church must guard her children from those dangers, which stand outside her walls. These dangers mimic the voice of Christ, her spouse, stealing the love and affection of her children and destroying her influence over them. These offer a new home, or a different mother who is more “hip” or entertaining, more with the times than our own. Such dangers can be “mega churches,” and other Christian alternatives which offer a powerful emotional experiences and even coffee during their services; or extra-curricular activities. This latter is the hardest. Can we honestly say that we have more love and affection the Church than these extracurricular activities? Again, help each other out. Many of you participate in the same activities. Help each other get to mass on Sundays no matter where you are. Help each other tell coach, teacher, instructor that practice is good, but there must still be time for Church and religious education. How many children leave the fold of the Church confused by these alternative activities which have won their love and affection away from the Church!

Yet what is more is that a mother knows that such dangers are not limited to the outside. There are those within the family who have listened to these outside voices and are taken by them. Like sheep within the fold who linger next to the fence, they listen and learn from these outside dangers, and, then, considering them good and non-threatening, they go around spreading such destruction from within, fracturing the family. A brother or sister, aunt or uncle, even a spouse or one of our own children already won over by these dangers can work against us parents to lead our kids astray. Here within the home can often be the greatest battle of all. How do you protect your children from the influences of one’s own family? The pain of separation and breaking up the family, which this causes, can be excruciating. Likewise, Mother Church has her fair share of children who have listened and succumb to these outside influences. And while they still desire to be a part of the family, they spread false teachings and destructive counsel around, confusing and fracturing the Church. Here are politicians advocating laws contrary to our faith, big name Catholics living a witness inconsistent with the faith, catechists and teachers shying away from difficult topics, and priests and religious dissenting. How many inner sects and groups within the Church are created by such individualism and selfishness? So again, really for the love of God help each other out. Do not give into to the temptation to say: ‘Well I would never do it myself, but who am I to tell someone how to live their lives?’ Help each other live out the truth in charity, that we all might remain faithful to the flock in which we find eternal life.

Make Light; Hope: Well, Sean, it is your last weekend. And what a way to end it: what a downer. Ah, but there is hope. Mothers, although you worry to no end over your children, you always retain a bit of hope. But like any good mother, your hope does not consist in a sort of hush-hush, hope against all odds that the children will turn around and return to her loving care. No, the hope consists in speaking about it openly with your children, trusting and hoping in their goodness and ability to recognize your loving voice. Here is the hope of the Church, that by consistently and thoroughly proclaiming the saving message of Christ, the sheep will indeed recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. And that the sheep will not follow a stranger, and will run away from these dangers because they do not recognize their voice.

[1] Commentary on Gospel of John Tractate 45, 5
[2] T. 45, 11
[3] Cf. Porta Fidei, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
[4] While NAB translates this phrase as “before” which clearly reflects the Greek προ and Latin ante, as St. Augustine points out it is better understood as “apart from” or praeter (Tractate 45, 11).

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