The conversation of Jesus in today’s gospel took place around the time of the Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah as it is called today. In the year 164 BC the Maccabees revolted against the Greeks who occupied Palestine at that time. The Greeks had desecrated the Temple putting up a statue of Zeus in it. This was the abomination of desolation in this holy place. Judas Maccabeus ordered the building of a new altar and rededicated the Temple to the worship of the one true God. In the spirit of this historic event the Jewish people remember their heroes of old and hope that history might be repeated by a messiah who could rout the Romans occupiers.
In the midst of such a mentality Jesus presents Himself not as a liberating warrior but as a loving shepherd who would lead his folk to the fresh waters and green pastures of everlasting life.
The imagery of shepherd and sheep is a difficult one with which to relate. It doesn’t come out our life experience but for the people of Jesus time was a common one. Shepherds and sheep were an every day sight. When shepherds brought their sheep to market there was a common enclosure where the sheep could be safely kept. Shepherds had their own call or whistle. When their sheep heard it they recognized it and responded. Jesus tells us that his sheep hear his voice and follow him.
There is a prayer priests pray every day the refrain of which is: if today you hear God’s voice harden not your hearts.
I read this article by Ron Rolheiser in which he asks the question, “Where does God speak in our world? How does God speak?” He maintains,
Whenever you hear a voice that sounds coercive, threatening, overbearing, that is somehow loud and in your face, you can be sure that, no matter how religious and holy it might claim to be, it is not God’s voice. God’s voice in this world is never coercive or overbearing in any way, but is always an invitation and a beckoning that respects you and your freedom in a way that no human institution or person ever does. God’s voice is thoroughly underwhelming, like a baby’s presence.
God’s voice does judge and it does condemn, but it judges and condemns not by coercive force, but in the same way that the innocence of a baby judges false sophistication, in the way that generosity exposes selfishness, in the way that big-heartedness reveals pettiness, in the way that light makes darkness flee, and in the way that the truth shames lies. God’s voice judges us not by overpowering us but by shining love and light into all those places were we find ourselves huddled in fear, shame, bitterness, hostility, and sin.
We can be sure that a shepherd’s call to his sheep was not a loud, thunderous yell that would startle and spook them. Rather it would be a gentle whistle or call they would recognize and respond to.
Every day of life Christ our Good Shepherd calls us – if today we hear Christ’s voice, harden not our hearts. Christ’s voice can come in the form on a sudden impulse or urge to give someone a phone call or to take the time to visit a friend. Christ’s voice can come with the hint to bite our tongue and not respond in kind, to let a hurt remark pass, to refrain from a caustic remark or criticism. Christ’s voice can give us the insight to follow the advice of St Paul when he tells us to ‘say only those things that people need to hear, things that will really help them’. Christ’s voice can come in the form of a nudge to be still and turn our thoughts to God asking God’s blessings on ourselves, family and friends. Christ’s voice can come in our decision not to give into discouragement but to face and get through a stressful situation.
As we continue to celebrate this Mass on Good Shepherd Sunday we can pray for ourselves and for each other that each day we make our own the words of our opening prayer “attune our minds to the sound of his voice,lead our steps in the path he has shown, that we may know the power of his outstretched arm, and enjoy the light of your presence for ever.”