Out West there was a sheep farmer whose farm was right next to a cattle ranch, and the rancher’s dogs kept coming onto his land and killing his sheep, one or two a month. Several times the sheep farmer respectfully asked his neighbor to keep his dogs under control, and the rancher always promised to do so, but the problem persisted. What was the sheep farmer to do? One option was to hire a lawyer, file a lawsuit, and take his neighbor to court; however, that would create bad blood, and might prove to be very expensive. A second option was to build a higher and stronger fence, so that the rancher’s dogs couldn’t get in; however, that would be expensive, and would involve a lot of work. The sheep farmer came up with a third option. He gave two lambs to his neighbor’s children as pets. The children quickly fell in love with them, and naturally influenced their parents. As the lambs grew, they became like part of the rancher’s family, and he and his wife began to look upon sheep not as nameless members of a vast herd, but as individual creatures of God, worthy of respect—and as soon as they reached that understanding, they took the situation more seriously and penned their dogs, and then there were no more problems (Bausch, More Telling Stories, Compelling Stories, p. 155).
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. This not only means that we must live and follow Him as faithful members of His flock; it also means that, by our words and example, we must invite others to do this, too. There’s nothing wrong with standing up for our rights, and sometimes we need to be assertive, and perhaps even a little provocative—especially when it comes to defending the innocent and resisting hatred and injustice. In our personal relationships and daily encounters, however, it’s often more effective in the long run to act firmly yet gently, helping people come to discover the truth for themselves. The Gospel is meant to be Good News for all people—but quite often, others will form their judgments on whether or not this is really true by what they see in us.
Much of what we believe doesn’t make sense to the world, especially in terms of morality and the purpose of life; our Christian values are so contrary to what the world holds dear that we—if we’re taking our faith seriously—appear countercultural in the eyes of many. As St. John says, “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him”—meaning God. We are God’s children, and if we’re “carrying on the family business” by loving, helping, blessing, evangelizing, and forgiving others, we are going to look a bit out of place. This approach to life goes back to Jesus Himself, Who makes it very clear in the Gospel that He is not a hired hand, who runs away in the face of danger. This is what people with a worldly perspective would do; they’d insist, “Hey, no amount of money is worth risking my life; the sheep will have to fend for themselves—I’m out of here.” Jesus proclaims that, as the Good Shepherd, He lays down His life for the sheep—and we know His word can be trusted. Moreover, He expects the same self-giving attitude toward life on the part of His followers, even to the point of dying in His Name, should it become necessary. This is something the world has great difficulty understanding. As the Acts of the Apostles describes, Peter and John were hauled before the authorities after healing a crippled man in the Name of Jesus. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, didn’t taunt, criticize, or condemn the religious leaders for having crucified Jesus, but he did speak boldly, telling them the truth and challenging them to accept it so that they too might be saved.
It’s a natural human reaction to hesitate when it comes to accepting the truth; most people don’t like change, feel uncomfortable with things they don’t understand, and don’t appreciate being told that they’re mistaken or going in the wrong direction. Therefore, we must live our faith in a way that challenges non-Christians, but also invites and encourages them; we must bear witness to the Gospel in a way that confronts non-believers with the truth of their need for a Savior, but without condemning them for their sins; we must proclaim the Gospel in a way that calls sinners to repent, but without denying their dignity and value as persons. After all, Jesus speaks of having other sheep that do not belong to the Church—perhaps including some who haven’t yet heard or responded to His voice. As the Good Shepherd, He cares even for the stubborn and wayward sheep—and so must we. For example, I once read a beautiful story about an angry pro-abortion supporter who always showed up at pro-life rallies and screamed and cursed at the peaceful demonstrators. They never shouted back, but always smiled at him and prayed for him—and when his wife died, the pro-lifers showed up at the funeral home and expressed their sincere condolences and support. This unconditional love broke through the man’s bitterness and anger; during the grieving process, he repented of his earlier attitudes and actions, and later on actually became a pro-life supporter himself.
The world cannot understand how such conversions occur; it mistakenly writes off such things as the result of delusions or emotional stress. We know better; we know that Our Lord and Savior never gives up on anyone, and that He uses our expressions of love and encouragement and concern to touch the hearts of hurting persons, confused people seeking meaning and truth, and sometimes even hardened sinners. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but in effect He “deputizes” us as members of His flock to reach out to others in His Name. Quite often we’ll feel hesitant or confused when it comes to doing this—but if we remain gentle, humble, and trusting, and pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance and help, He’ll provide us with the opportunities and give us the right words to say.
Love is more powerful than most people realize—and the lack of it is responsible for many of the difficulties afflicting our world, especially those involving inter-personal relations. Instead of tackling our problems head on—which is often nothing more than a case of butting heads—we must learn to bring them to the feet of Jesus, asking Him to shine His light on the situation. Everything looks different when seen through the light of His love, and if we truly know Him as our Shepherd, we will find our way safely home, and bring others along with us.