from the Spring/Summer 2015 edition of Reflections magazine. For more from that issue, go here.
by the Rt. Rev. David Reed
Our dog doesn’t have fleas, but he does have itching ears. Oh, the relief when Critter can rub his head on a carpet. Or, doing what many of us would love to be able to do, he reaches up with his hind leg and scratches vigorously. Itchy ears are annoying.
Far more seriously, people suffering with schizophrenia often “hear voices”– divine or demonic or both – that are as real as you talking to me. (Studies indicate that these voices affect the ears and hearing just like normal sound.) These itchy ears are debilitating and destructive.
St. Paul warns his young disciple Timothy that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths”
(2 Timothy 4:3-5). This will be hard for us to understand, but there was a time when Christians, like people in general, were attracted to, and distracted by, fads and trends and those who promised an easier way to follow Jesus.
Jesus himself anticipates this. He warns people to count the cost of following him, describes what can happen to those who are identified with him, cautions against victory that doesn’t include the cross. He might have done better if he’d hired a PR firm or a spin doctor to massage and lighten up his message. Hard words like his make my ears itch.
In the great and beautiful chapter on the Good Shepherd (John 10), Jesus contrasts himself with “hired hands” who don’t really care about the sheep and scram at the first sign of danger. He is the good (the true) shepherd who will lay down his life to save the sheep. Before this, Jesus likens himself to “the gatekeeper” who lets the sheep in and out of their pen, the shepherd whom the sheep trust because “they know his voice,” and, finally, “the door of the sheep” who protects the gathered sheep. Those of us non-agrarian types who are slightly confused by these slightly mixed metaphors can take comfort in St. John’s report that, “This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
So Jesus (who is also the Good Teacher) tries again. He says that phony messiahs have come like “thieves and robbers” to lead the sheep astray. These pretenders come to “steal and kill and destroy.” That is, they come to take away life. They subtract from and try to negate the life God intends. These predators speak softly to wooly-headed, itchy-eared sheep of greener pastures and cool, still water; but what they’ve got in mind is their own power and the death of the sheep.
In contrast, Jesus the Good Shepherd comes “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” And this overflowing, extravagant life becomes available because “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep . . . I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
These words themselves illustrate and enact what the L+iving Word does: extravagantly, exuberantly, abundantly giving life and overcoming death with life. In the midst of this passage warning of the dangers sheep face, Jesus plants this wondrous news. He has come to give us real life in abundance.
Now, I like this idea of abundance because I’ve got plenty of stuff and there’s always newer and better stuff to get . . . in abundance. But Jesus doesn’t promise material abundance, and he spends quite a bit of time talking counter to that. (Think about how he said that a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle has an easier time of it than a rich man trying to drag his abundance into heaven. Or think of his beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”) To buy into the relentless voices telling us that life consists of getting more and more is to have the wool pulled over our eyes by “thieves and robbers.”
But I’m not sure that going the other way, becoming “anti-abundant,” is any guarantee of the abundant life Jesus offers. You can be materially, even voluntarily, poor and be as smug, angry, resentful and mean as someone with lots of stuff.
I wonder if the abundant life Jesus offers has to do, simply, with knowing him. Earlier in John’s Gospel (6:66-68), a number of disciples fall away because of Jesus’ hard teachings. He asks the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter says, “Lord, you have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” And later, in his soaring prayer at the Last Supper, Jesus prays, “. . . this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (17:3). Notice the close linking of believing, knowing and living. To know Jesus is to truly come alive. We can’t know him unless we follow, and we can’t follow unless we trust him like sheep trust their shepherd. Abundant life consists in following Jesus, day by day, coming to know him, and coming to accept more fully his complete knowing and loving us. We will come to trust his voice above all others.
For those of us with itchy ears, prone to finding teachers who say what we want to hear and wandering like lost sheep into myths, here is the Good Shepherd who truly loves us calling us to listen, to turn and follow. For those of us who have a hard time distinguishing between the voice that calls us to life and the voices that promise life but deal in death, here is Jesus recalling and reminding and calling us each by name, saying, “This is the way . . . I am the way to abundant life.”
Questions for Study and Reflection
1. Why do you think John placed the sentence “I have come to bring abundant life . . . ” in the midst of the Good Shepherd story?
2. What or who are the thieves and robbers in your life that call you to follow them and thereby threaten to take away real life? If you have encountered this in the past, how did you find your way back to the Good Shepherd?
3. How do you tell the difference between the shepherd’s voice and the false voices of life?