Homily: 22 April 2018
Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
Of the many years of my life, I’ve lived all but one in cities: New York, Washington, Detroit, London, Paris, Freiburg, and Madison. Consequently, I am the last person imaginable to talk knowingly to you today about shepherds and sheep. All that I know about both, in spite of a few weeks in New Zealand where sheep outnumber people, I leaned from Thomas Hardy’s excellent novel Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). Moreover, I think that novels that feature donkeys prove more interesting than those that herd sheep. I’m prejudice undoubtedly because I once met a donkey. I was driving through the English countryside in the 1960s and encountered a donkey on the road. He was not going up the road or down the road, he was standing across the road and would not move. Perhaps he thought he was a rural tollbooth.
You may remember that in England one drives on the left side of the road. So for me to get past this donkey, I had to get on the shoulder of the road and drive my car two inches away from a stone wall on the left and one inch away from the donkey’s nose on the right. Considering the arrangement of the driving wheel in British automobiles, the donkey and I only just avoided kissing as I inched by. It was nonetheless a memorable date.
Now the novelist Anthony Trollope, as a matter of fact, places a very romantic donkey in his novel entitled Dr. Thorne (1858). Against the will of his money-loving parents, Frank Gresham of Greshamsbury goes to Boxall Hall and proposes marriage to Mary Thorne, a doctor’s daughter, while she is riding on a donkey: with his eyes fixed on the ass’s ears, Frank “walked there by her donkey’s side, talking thus earnestly of his love for her.” And Trollope makes a point of indicating that “the donkey himself was quite at his ease, and looked as though he was approvingly conscious of what was going on behind his ears.” Donkeys seem to have an interesting individuality about them lacking in sheep. Perhaps this is why Jesus sent two disciples to bring him a donkey to ride into Jerusalem before his Passion began (Mt. 21:2).
Nevertheless—not to leave sheep out of this capsule survey of Victorian fiction —George Eliot—the pen-name of Mary Ann Evans–speaks of sheep in her short novel “Janet’s Repentance” (1857), where she cites the gospel events of the Good Shepherd’s leaving the flock to seek the one sheep astray from it as a scandal to her mid-century countrymen. That “the misery of one,” she writes, should cast “so tremendous a shadow as to eclipse the bliss of the ninety-nine” outraged a rapidly industrializing society that supported an ideology of progress based on the conviction that the good of the many is always more important than the joy and sorrow, the weal and woe of the few—to say nothing of the one. The parable of the Good Shepherd outrages all politics and morals founded on simple arithmetic.
Needless to say, the story of the Good Shepherd remains a scandal in our day too. Politically, individuals exist for the state in countries like North Korea. Individuals are poisoned anywhere in the world that Vladimir Putin’s henchmen locate anyone who offends him. Similarly, just note of the fate of a Syrian who opposes the savage rule of Bashar al’Assad. On the religious side of things, we need not think twice of the fate of a Shiite in Saudi Arabia. Or the fate of a Saudi in Shiite Kuwait. Closer to home we have the DACA crisis. And we need not leave the USA for painful examples when Face-book is destroying our individuality to give foreign governments and domestic businesses leverage over our freedom to enhance their riches. Moreover, where the Church is concerned, some American bishops, fastening on footnote 351 in Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) attack his suggestion that the Eucharist not be withheld from divorced and remarried Roman Catholics. Obviously I need not go into the vituperation heaped on James Comey in the vilest language issuing from the White House. In a word, the parable of the Good Shepherd has been practically lost and will be difficult to find in most places, but not, of course, here at Holy Wisdom Monastery, where his message happily lives and moves and breathes.
Here we accept today’s three readings indicating that salvation lies in accepting the Son of Man, the Messiah: in Jesus who is Peter’s stone that the builders rejected; in Jesus who is John’s Human One; and in Jesus who is the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
I suggest that the Jesus who today’s readings ask us to accept is not only rendered as set off from the many—“the stone that was rejected,” the source of “truth and action,” the “crucified [one] raised from the dead”—but especially as our brother who asks us to look to the individual: with a visit; with a cup of cold water, with a place to stay—the one who would have us care for the lonely, the thirsty, the weary, the rejected whom we meet along the way. Today’s readings ask us to emulate the Jesus who took time to sit and chat with Mary (Lk. 10:42); to visit and cure Peter’s sick mother-in-law (Lk. 4:39), to shed tears for the dead Lazarus (Jn. 12:33,43-44); to stop at Jacob’s Well and speak to the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:7-10); to stop a crowd and invite the tax-collector Zacharias to come down from a sycamore tree, saying “Zacharias, hurry and come down: for I must stay at your house today” (Lk. 19:5). In a word, the scriptures overall ask us to care for one another whoever that other might be: man or woman, sick or well, friend or possibly foe.
For me, this Jesus is a Good Shepherd who is as stubborn as a jackass standing across a road, asserting the rights of the individual against the machine. For me, this Jesus emulates Thackeray’s donkey enjoying the antics of a young man and woman and wanting—indeed insisting—on having a part in their love-scene.