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Friday, 20 April 2018 19:55

Gospel calls us to be open to the 'sheep not of this fold'

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Br Julian McDonald cfcFourth Sunday of Easter

In this Sunday's gospel reading of Jesus the Good Shepherd, Jesus is at pains to alert us to the existence of “other sheep that are not of this fold” and whom he has a responsibility to lead (John 10, 16), writes Christian Brother Julian McDonald. To be in tune with these people, we have to learn to walk sensitively in their cultures, not to be afraid of difference, and to be open to seeing and hearing Christ as they do. 

“I am the good shepherd:  the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.”   John 10, 11-18

The English have always been good at coining new words and have a well-developed ability to laugh at themselves.  In recent years, the word “jobsworth” has crept into the language.  It’s the word for a person in a minor position of authority who invokes the letter of the law so as to avoid taking initiative or doing something outside his or her job description.  Jobsworths refuse to exert themselves, and do nothing to raise morale in the workplace.  They can’t hear the message of today’s gospel reading or understand what John sets down in his first letter: “This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love:  Christ sacrificed his life for us.  That’s why we need to be concerned for others, and not just out for ourselves” (1 John 3, 16, - a continuation of today’s second reading).

Whatever our opinion of people who fit into the category of “jobsworth”, the word itself raises some fundamental questions:  What is a job really worth? What makes any undertaking worth the effort?  On what or for whom is it worth spending a lifetime?  Are there even times when the demands on our personal integrity are such that we have to say: “That’s more than this particular task is worth”?

There is a “jobsworth” in today’s gospel reading.  He’s referred to as a “hired hand”, who’s prepared only to do the minimum.  When a situation arises that calls him to do something extra, he runs away.

After describing himself as “the good shepherd”, Jesus goes on to dismiss the equivalent of the concept of “jobsworth”.  He expresses no reservations about the role of shepherd, and even spells out the risks of caring for and defending the flock against predators.  Moreover, he leaves no room for his role as shepherd and saviour to be interpreted as some pre-arranged, divine assignment.  He identifies himself with God’s mission of boundless, shepherding love and outreach to humanity.

It’s little wonder, then, that many of us, in times of stress and struggle, find hope and consolation in a prayer that Jesus himself would have known and prayed  -  the prayer of King David that we know as the “Good Shepherd Psalm” (Psalm 23).  Its consolation is that we have, in the person of Jesus the good shepherd one who can point us to ways through whatever valleys of darkness we have to traverse, because he has been that way himself and walked a path for us to follow.  That is what lifts the hearts and spirits of people in hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric wards and hospices for the dying.

It is the example of Jesus, the good shepherd that encourages us to commit ourselves to working in the flawed institutions and systems in which we find ourselves.  The very fact that Jesus has invested himself fully in our living and working liberates us from being trapped into being mere “jobsworths”.  It is that which gives us the freedom to commit ourselves to treating everyone we encounter with care, respect and dignity.  It is that which enables us to be responsible stewards of creation, to challenge injustice in the workplace and in elected government, and to protest against whatever undermines the well-being of our brothers and sisters and the world in which we dwell.

What confronts us in our own work-a-day jobs and ministries is not so much the notion that our work is not worth the effort, but that, as far as Jesus is concerned, those jobs and ministries are worth much more that we can even imagine.  Everything in which we engage and every relationship into which we enter provide us with opportunity to appreciate and celebrate creation, and to encourage ourselves and others to grow into our/their best selves.  We also know that they can provide us with opportunity to destroy creation and to undermine the goodness, joy, faith and hope of those among and beside whom we work and minister.

But note that Jesus challenges us not to slip into the false and cosy belief that all this is for all who know and follow him.  He is at pains to alert us to the existence of “other sheep that are not of this fold” and whom he has a responsibility to lead (John 10, 16).  He is referring to his mission to the Gentile world.  It is a reminder to us to avoid becoming insular in our thinking and acting.  Those who have not yet heard of him or his Gospel are still able to hear fully his message: “They, too, will recognise my voice, and then there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10, 16).  To be in tune with these people, we have to learn to walk sensitively in their cultures, not to be afraid of difference, and to be open to seeing and hearing Christ as they do.

The members of the Maryknoll Catholic Mission Movement have paved the way in showing us how to do this.  Their publishing arm, Orbis Books, has printed all manner of books on being Gospel witnesses in other cultures and listening to God’s Spirit alive in those cultures.  They have published much of the writing done by Andrew Walls, a British scholar and historian, who has written extensively about the spread of Christianity.  In his book, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2002), Walls makes the point that Christians have consistently reached out to people on the periphery.  This has happened within and beyond the countries we call home.  Local Church communities maintain their credibility and authenticity by engaging with and listening to people who are challengingly different.  Isn’t it true that it is very often the case that people who don’t belong to “our fold” are the ones who are best able to hear the voice of Jesus in new and different ways, and then help us to understand it afresh?  Through them, God’s Spirit continues to explode the notion of “jobsworth”.  They lead us to modify and expand our role as Christians, and to discover that the new approaches we take are nearly always worth the effort.  And, in that process, we, too, change and grow into better messengers of the Gospel.  

The historian of Christian missions Andrew Walls discerns a peculiar pattern in church history. Christian believers seem compelled to move toward the periphery of their worlds. The geographical centre of faith has moved from Jerusalem to Syria to southern Europe to northern Europe to the North Atlantic to the Southern Hemisphere. To keep up with the new people Jesus aims to bring in, believers have to learn to inhabit different cultures and look at Christ in new ways. Christianity, Walls suggests, has a bias for the periphery.

A correlative seems to operate at the local level. When congregations look to places of vitality in their own life, they are likely to think first about their ministries at the margins of the church or where members are encountering people who are challengingly different. Often the people who don’t belong to our own fold and hear Jesus’ voice in unfamiliar ways are the ones best able to help us hear it and understand it afresh. Jesus Christ continues to explode the jobsworth syndrome, leading us to expand our own job descriptions and find new dimensions of Jesus’ work—and to find that our labours in that direction are always worth it.