by Father Mike Stubbs
In reading about the Camino Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route to the shrine of St. James at Campostela in Spain, I have learned about a recommendation frequently made to pilgrims who ordinarily travel it by foot.
They are encouraged to carry a walking stick. This will not only provide them with support on the tortuous mountain paths, but also protection from dogs.
Why would pilgrims expect to encounter hostile dogs? That problem usually arises when the pilgrim runs into a flock of sheep. Several dogs invariably accompany the shepherd guarding the sheep. In the eyes of those dogs, the pilgrim looks like a dangerous threat.
The dogs are fiercely protective of the sheep. That is their job, as they assist the shepherd leading the sheep.
In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 10:27-30, Jesus speaks as the shepherd. He is similarly protective: “My sheep hear my voice: I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”
The identity of the shepherd is very clear: It is Jesus. But what about the sheep?
Who are they? We might assume that we are included in that category. But perhaps we should look more closely at the requirements for membership.
Note that the verse immediately preceding our Gospel passage reads: “But you do not believe because you are not my sheep.” At this moment in the Gospel, Jesus is addressing a hostile crowd, unreceptive to his teachings. From his words, we might imagine a bucolic scene, with little lambs frolicking around in a green pasture, in pleasant spring weather. But in actuality, Jesus is speaking during the winter, in an urban setting: “It was winter, and the time came for the feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem. Jesus was walking in the temple area, in Solomon’s Portico” (Jn 10:22, 23). Jesus has most likely taken shelter there, to obtain some protection from the cold wind.
The weather reflects the chilly reception that Jesus has received from the crowds. Even though they have heard his words, they have not listened to his voice, as sheep would with a shepherd. They have not established a relationship with Jesus. They do not believe in him.
It is easy to focus upon the comforting words of Jesus, which assure protection for the sheep. It is more difficult to pay attention to the more challenging words of Jesus, which make demands upon us — which require us to know him and to follow him.
But that is part of the package. A cursory knowledge of Jesus, a superficial relationship with him, a halfhearted following after him which falters along the way — these will not qualify us as sheep. We should not look upon Sunday’s Gospel reading as simply a feel-good Gospel.
On the contrary, it challenges us as much as any word of Scripture.