In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus mentioned “thieves and robbers” who come to “slaughter and destroy” God’s holy flock. (John 10:8,10) When Jesus said this he was referring to some of the religious leadership in Jerusalem who had a well-deserved reputation for preaching a very demanding religious practice, but not practicing what they preached. On another occasion, he said they created heavy burdens for others to carry, but would not lift a finger to help those who were burdened. (Luke 11:46)
The duplicity of those religious leaders is an example of one of the dangers inherent in religion. Matters of the soul can be elusive. It’s easy to be misled, or to be misleading. We should trust our desire for God, but we should also acknowledge that we need divine help to fulfill that desire.
False teachers and misleading preachers didn’t cease to exist after Jesus’ lifetime. There have been some memorable instances of false teachers in the history of the Church. At the time that John’s Gospel was being written, for example, there was an element within John’s church community which was strongly opposed to evangelizing the Samaritans. This exclusivity was judged by the local church community to be antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.
Much later in the Church’s history there was a group called the Jansenists who also thought that salvation was a commodity available only to a select few. The Jansenists were very imaginative when it came to professing and teaching their errors. They thought that only a few of the baptized would be saved, and most of humanity would be condemned as unrighteous. They symbolized their exclusivity by using crucifixes that depicted Jesus, not with his arms outstretched, but with his arms held very close together – to represent that only a few would be gathered into the Savior’s embrace.
There is no lack of religious falsehood today but, interestingly, much of misguided religion today errs in the opposite direction of past heresies. Most of the religious falsehood that is available today makes salvation and righteousness so egalitarian and easy to attain that church membership and regular religious practice are seen as unnecessary, and even, excessive.
A common value in our culture says that as long as we can consider ourselves not to have harmed others, we are sufficiently virtuous to deserve entrance into heaven. There are several flaws in this logic. Every person considers themselves to be good; even criminals judge their criminal behavior to be justified. Every one of us can say with full conviction that we don’t intentionally harm others; our saying so, however, doesn’t make it true. We are not capable of making fully objective judgments about ourselves or our behavior.
The criterion of harmlessness is, itself, a meaningless one. The squirrels in my yard are harmless, but I have to believe that God has higher expectations of me than God has of the squirrels. There is one further, and very crucial, reason not to trust that cultural value that tells us salvation is easily attainable by all. The Scriptures don’t say that listening to our own voice provides direction to gain communion with God.
In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus says, “The gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3) It is the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, which provides truth and trustworthy guidance for our lives.
The methods of the “thieves and robbers” (John 10:8), have changed somewhat, but the danger of being misled is as real as ever. At times, we can even mislead ourselves by failing to recognize that we are merely human. As the author of the second reading wrote, we all know we have “gone astray like sheep.” (1 Peter 2:25) If we can be honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that this is true. The letter says further that Jesus is “the shepherd and guardian” of our souls. (1 Peter 2:25)
I’m not suggesting that we distrust ourselves completely. That is not reasonable. But if we’re honest, we have to admit that we can be led astray by others. At times, we can be blind even to the motivations behind our own choices and actions. We shouldn’t necessarily distrust our human nature, but we should be realistic about our limitations. It is not within our capacity to attain perfect understanding or perfect judgment or perfect decision making. There is always reason to be humble with regard to our own virtue.
The truth about salvation is not found in elitism; nor is it found in egalitarianism. The path to God is not a happy median between exclusivity and laxity. Rather, saving truth is found in following the Good Shepherd, in knowing Him and listening to his voice.
The Scriptures provide us with both the instruction to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and with the actual voice of the shepherd of our souls. It is necessary for us to listen to the voice within us that calls out for God, but we should not forget whose voice this is; it is our own. The voice that leads us to God is the voice of the Lord and Christ, Jesus who was crucified. (Acts 2:36)