Reflection on 4th Sunday Gospel of Gospel C
Jesus said:The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.I give them eternal life; they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from me.The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone, and no one can steal from the Father.The Father and I are one.'ReflectionA brief Gospel that is full of relevance for our spiritual livesThis brief and simple Gospel reading is packed with meaning. It consists of four principal assertions:
1. My sheep listen to my voice.2. I know them.3. They follow me.4. I give them eternal life.
This passage recalls many elements from the Old Testament. It resonates especially with Psalm 95 which is read every morning at the beginning of the liturgy of the hours to remind the faithful of the true nature of their relationship with God. Let us consider each of the four assertions separately.
“My sheep listen to my voice”
The analogy of the sheep and the shepherd is particularly apt for the relationship between God and us. Sheep are animals that need a shepherd to lead them to water and pasture. They recognize the voice of their shepherd and this fact enables them to live well. In our case, we do not see God, but we are able to listen to his voice. In order to follow the Lord we must exercise the sense of listening, the sensory capacity that is most fundamental for living the faith. Of all the five senses, listening is the one that is most important (for the majority of people) for communication and inter-relationship. If we see a person speaking but are unable to hear his words, then we will have more difficulty in understanding what he wishes to communicate than if we are unable to see him but yet can hear him. Seeing, in fact, carries inherent dangers. In life we are constantly tempted by idolatry. The word “idol” comes from the verb “to see”. We want to see, whereas we are called to listen. The relationship we have with the Lord is mediated to us by the reception of his word. The things we see often remain external to us, but the things we hear can enter into us and touch our hearts. The Scriptures present a beautiful image of Our Lady as the one who listens attentively, welcomes the word, and conserves it in her heart. In Hebrew the verb “to obey” does not exist. Instead the verb “to listen” is used to signify obedience. To listen to someone’s voice means to obey that voice, because true listening involves complete openness to that which the other person is saying.
“I know them”
Listening to the shepherd’s voice is not enough by itself to establish the relationship that Jesus is alluding to. The verb “to know” in Hebrew has a very profound meaning. To know someone in Hebrew does not mean simply that we recognize them by name, know where they come from and what they do for a living. Neither does it mean to know something in an intellectual way. “To know” in the Hebrew sense means to be on intimate terms with someone. To be known by Jesus means to be in an intimate union with him. It is this which leads us to follow him. Our relationship with Jesus begins when he makes himself intimate with us. He takes the initiative and comes to us to establish this relationship. How wonderful it is to be known by someone! How great it is when someone understands us, when they are patient with us because they know we didn’t mean things to turn out that way, when they refuse to lose their temper with us because they know we didn’t really intend what we said. Love involves understanding and knowledge of this sort. Love is not all about doing things for others, but involves relationship, and this requires going beyond oneself and arriving at the innermost sanctuary of the other, not just at the level of their skin. Knowing someone involves a relationship that is not skin-deep but operates at the level of the heart. Only those who have an intimate relationship with Jesus can appreciate the full significance of Jesus’ statement, “I know them and they follow me”. Jesus knows us even though we do not fully know ourselves. It is Jesus, ultimately, who reveals our true identity to us.
“They follow me”
It is because of this intimate relationship with their shepherd that the sheep wish to follow him and be with him. Christian discipleship is founded on intimacy with the Lord, not on moral prescriptions or obligations. We are not Christians because we agree with what Jesus says. We are Christians because we are known by him, in this intimate sense of “knowing”. Jesus’ word enters into the most personal part of each of us in a way that our relationship with other creatures of flesh and blood does not. The following of Jesus is something that flows naturally from listening to his word and entering into profound relationship with him.
I give them eternal life
Once the relationship with Christ is established in an authentic way, then it is something indelible. It cannot be displaced by anything else. It sometimes happens that we see a change in a person that is of a profound and permanent nature. The change touches the depths of the being of the person. Once the relationship of intimacy with Christ has been established, then we are marked in a permanent and beautiful way. It is important that we ponder on the memory of occasions when we have felt known and visited by the Lord. If we can keep the memory of such moments alive in our hearts, as the Virgin Mary did, then no-one will ever be able to shake us. No other experience will be able to distract us from the beauty and tenderness of the good shepherd, our true Spouse. The Gospel tells us that the sheep “will never be lost”, because the eternal has entered into us through the word of God that we have listened to, and is lived and celebrated in the sacraments. No matter how poor and miserable I am, Jesus has loved me truly. No one can remove this fact that is written on my heart. It is essential that I reflect and learn to rejoice in the reality of being known by the Lord.
“The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone”
To know Jesus is to know the Father, to know that which is greater than everything. Jesus reminds us of this fact because we are constantly fretting about the vulnerability and precariousness of our existence. There is always a certain anxiety lurking in our hearts. To know Jesus, however, is to know the Father, and relative to the greatness of the Father everything else is put into perspective. “No-one can steal from the Father”, Jesus tells us. St Paul writes, “Who can separate us from the love of God?” No power in heaven on earth, death itself, cannot separate us from the one who loves us. The problem is that we make a concerted effort to separate ourselves from the Lord. We become burdened with the brokenness of life, we torture ourselves with needless anxieties, because we do not live our lives with Jesus in the presence of the Father. We are like sheep that stray away from the shepherd, trying to be autonomous, and we end up separating ourselves from the source of life itself. Life is to be in front of the Father, gazing upon his glory, standing in the presence of the One (“The Father and I are one”). The oneness of Jesus and the Father means that there is no confusion in God. It is not that different “words” are issuing from God. It is not that God tells us one thing, and then later says something completely different. When God makes a decision, he does not revoke it. Our God is not a God of chaos, as St Paul tells us. There is complete order in God. He loves us, full stop. This is the nature of the Father as revealed to us in Jesus.