The parable of the Good Shepherd . . . This is a familiar one, especially for those of us who spend time in a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd “atrium,” that specially-prepared space where we gather with even the youngest children to “listen to God,” reflecting on Scripture together and “working with” materials that aid in that reflection. One of the most treasured materials in that atrium space is the sheepfold, wherein we slowly proclaim this parable of the Good Shepherd to the three- and four-year-olds as they move figures of a shepherd and his sheep through the space. We spend time with different dimensions of the story year after year, rejoicing when one or the other of the littles realizes that yes, it is we who are the sheep, we who are so loved by the Good Shepherd!
And no doubt, that is profoundly true: we are the sheep. Though as I read this Scripture again, away from the atrium, I can’t help but notice a different dimension. Remembering our Baptism, we recall that we too are anointed ones. By virtue of our Baptism, we too are called to be “little christs” in the world, acting as “priest, prophet and king.”
In our Scripture, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as my Father knows me, and I know the Father.” One unbroken line. Jesus not only says he knows his own in the world, but also that we know him; we recognize him when we hear him. And not only that, but Jesus draws an equivalency between his own relationship with the Father, in the Godhead, and our relationship with him, in the Godhead. This reciprocal relationship implies both tenderness, as children of God, and empowered call, as those sent by the Father, just as Christ is sent.
That’s a little heavy. So if we are not only led, but also called to lead, what does that look like?
This moves us toward paradox, because leading as Christ led implies both recognition of our royal anointing as children of God, heirs to the Kingdom (the “kingly” dimension of that baptismal anointing), and a clear recollection that Christ’s kingliness is never about hoarding power, but about pouring it out in service to others. This Good Shepherd “lays down his life for his sheep,” and we are called to do the same.
At the same time, it is instructive to pay close attention to how Christ wields power. We recall the lines of Philippians 2:5-7: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself.” In the kingly paradigm of Christ, power is never meant to be “grasped,” and is never meant for ourselves alone.
But neither can that power rightfully be taken. Within this Christian paradigm, we are called to make a gift of ourselves. That is, we are called to know our own worth, to stand in our own power as children of God, and from that vantage point of dignity, then we are called to pour ourselves out, to lay down our lives for the sheep.
The order of this matters, and we often get it wrong, especially if we live as women within Christian culture. We live in a society (even within our churches) where we receive messaging that tells us we have two options: snatch power violently from others, or have your power snatched. And if you’re a woman in this culture, there’s a good chance you’ve internalized the sense that allowing your power to be taken is the “self-giving martyrdom” required by Christ. We tend to miss the fact that we must have a functioning self to give in order to make a gift of it.
Let’s look closely at the final lines of this weekend’s Gospel. Jesus tells us, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”
These lines are important: they indicate that no external force compels Jesus to sacrifice himself. No one takes Jesus’s life, in this sense. He sacrifices himself out of pure and total love, and from a consciousness of his own power.
This is the model we are called to follow, that of acknowledging, owning, standing proudly in our own dignity and power, and then, with discernment, trusting in the Father, we choose to make of our lives a gift.
Yet it bears repeating that this is not the messaging many women receive in the Church. How many of us, when serving in a leadership position at work, find ourselves asking forgiveness or permission for having a seat at the table, as though our presence were a privilege, rather than a long-overdue manifestation of justice? How many of us have remained in abusive relationships because we have internalized the idea that serving in love means taking whatever comes our way? How many of us have feared even looking someone straight in the eye because directness even in the realm of body language might make someone “uncomfortable” or make us appear “challenging?”
This picture of passive submission is not of Christ. Yes, we are sheep following the Good Shepherd (and we know his voice when we hear it, because he leads us out to fullness of life!), but/and we are also called to lead as the Shepherd leads.
In the atrium, we reflect on the prophets of the Old Testament. When we introduce the idea of prophet, we often tell the children that a prophet is someone who “listens to God with their whole being.” We know too that the word “obey” comes from the Latin “obedire,” meaning “to listen.” Obedience, then, is about hearing God’s special call to and for us, then acting on it.
In this weekend’s Gospel, Jesus says he has the “power to lay it down, and the power to take it up again.” Christ’s gift is given in freedom, and with full knowledge that he lays his life down in order to bring abundant life, both for himself and those he loves. No external pressure compels him; no one steals from him or diminishes him. Rather, he listens to his inner call.
“This command I have received from my Father,” Jesus says. We know from Jesus that he and the Father are one. When Jesus listens to his Father, he is obeying out of deference to the deepest Source of himself. We too are invited to obey the call that arises from our deepest Source. Whether following as sheep or leading as shepherd, “we know his voice, and we would not follow a stranger.”
Holly Mohr works in formation in Pittsburgh, PA. She shares a beautiful and slightly eccentric life with her husband and three children.