4th Sunday in Easter (C)
Good Shepherd Sunday
Choosing A Life-Stylist
Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalms 100:1-2, 3, 5; Revelations 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30
Dear sisters and brothers, the story is told of a tourist passing through a small town, who decided that he needed a haircut. After walking around a bit, he discovered that the town had only two barbers, each of whom operated his own shop. The two barbershops were located directly across the street from each other. As he walked by them, the tourist saw that the shop on the left was very messy – there was hair all over the floor. And not only did the barber who worked there look harassed, he also had a very bad haircut. The shop on the right, however, was just the opposite. Not only was the place tidy and the floor spotless, the barber inside the shop looked cheerful and relaxed. He also sported a very stylish looking hairdo. After making these observations, the tourist quickly made up his mind. He entered the shop on the left – the messy one – and asked for a haircut. Sisters and brothers, do you know why he did that? Would you have done the same?
To be honest, I probably would have gone into the other shop instead. And the reason is that, in making my decision, I would have been listening to a voice in my head telling me that a good barber should have a good haircut and a clean shop. But our tourist was listening to another voice, one that was telling him something different. First, if the barber on the left looked harassed and his shop was dirty, it might well be because he had many customers – a sign that he did good work. Also, assuming that barbers don’t cut their own hair, and bearing in mind that there were only two barbers in the town, it was very likely that these men cut each other’s hair. Which meant that their hairstyles were an indication not of their own skill, but that of their competitor’s. All of which goes to show that when you are choosing a barber, it’s very important to carefully distinguish the voice or voices you are listening to.
And if this is true of choosing someone to style your hair, isn’t it even more true if you are choosing someone to shape your life? Today, perhaps more than ever before, many of us enjoy a wide range of lifestyle choices. But how do we make these choices? What voice or voices do we listen to? Which life-stylist do we end up choosing?
These are among the questions that our readings invite us to ask ourselves on this Good Shepherd Sunday. For what is Jesus doing in the gospel today, if not presenting himself to us as the best life-stylist we can ever hope to have? Even more than a good lifestyle, to all who choose to follow him, to all who allow him to shepherd them, Jesus promises eternal life. They shall not perish. Of course, this sounds very attractive. But there is also something about this that is very surprising, even deeply shocking.
What image comes to your mind when you think of a good shepherd, someone whom you are likely to choose to help you shape your life? The people of Jesus’ time had a very particular image in mind. Shepherd was a word that they used to refer to their king. And the greatest of all their kings was, of course, David, who though he was small of stature, was mighty enough to slay the fearsome Philistine, Goliath. And yet, consider the image of the shepherd in the second reading from the book of Revelations. It is true that here we find ourselves in the throne room of a great king, someone who, we are told, will lead the people to springs of life-giving water, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. But notice also how this shepherd king is described. Even more surprising, even more shocking, than the messy barber with the bad haircut, here we find a shepherd who has become a sheep. Not just any sheep, but a lamb – the weakest and smallest of sheep. And not just any lamb, but a lamb that has been slain, one whose blood has been shed for the life of the sheep. If this image doesn’t unsettle us, it’s probably because we have grown too familiar with it. We’ve forgotten what it means to follow this shepherd who is also a slaughtered lamb.
Which is why the experiences of Paul and Barnabas in the first reading are so helpful. They show us what this lifestyle looks like. They remind us that to follow this shepherd, who is also a lamb, we the sheep must be willing to become shepherds ourselves. For it is as shepherds that Paul and Barnabas travel from place to place, proclaiming the Good News to all. The first reading also reminds us that although God promises to wipe away the tears from the eyes of the sheep, to adopt the shepherd’s lifestyle also means we have to accept the trials – and yes, even the persecutions – that can come to us as a result. In the first reading, the effectiveness of their preaching lead to Paul and Barnabas being expelled from the city of Antioch in Pisidia.
But if this lifestyle is so shockingly unattractive, how do we come to choose it? Like that tourist looking for a haircut, the choice we end up making depends upon the voice or voices that we pay attention to. In our world, there are many voices that make a choice for the Good Shepherd look very foolish. Consider, for example, the voice that influences so many of us so strongly today – the voice of consumerism. Listening to this voice leads us to assume, among other things, that a happy life means doing all we can only to avoid trouble and to increase our material possessions. If you have an apartment, work for a house. If you have a Toyota, work for a Lexus. If you have cable, work for HD TV. If you have a Timex, work for a Rolex. In contrast, in the gospel, Jesus tells us that my sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. And this voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks to us not of consumption but of compassion and care, the same compassion that turned Jesus into a slain lamb, the same care that turned Paul and Barnabas into courageous shepherds.
Sisters and brothers, as you know, in addition to being Good Shepherd Sunday, today is also Vocations Sunday. It is the day when we pray for more good vocations to the priesthood, the religious life, and to lay ministries. And that is, of course, a very good thing to do. But isn’t it true that as much as we may pray for others to find their vocations, we ourselves tend to forget that each of us also has a vocation of our own? As we know, the word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, which means to call. And it is not just priests and religious, not just deacons and lay ministers who are called. Rather, whether we are married or single, young or old, male or female, by the very fact of our baptism, are we not all called to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, the same voice that continually speaks to us of the need for compassion and care, challenging us to reach out and to shepherd others?
Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whose voice are we heeding, which life-stylist are we choosing today?