There is an old joke about a man who went to his doctor for an annual physical exam. When the test results were collated, the doctor told the man, “You are morbidly obese, and you need to lose a lot of weight.” The man was very offended by the doctor’s blunt manner and said, “I want a second opinion.” The doctor said, “Okay, you dress like a slob, as well.”
The parable in today’s Gospel reading is much like the doctor’s observation about his patient’s fashion sense. This parable is the second of two that follow immediately after some of the Jerusalem Pharisees objected to Jesus’ judgment about their inability to see God’s power at work in Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus had been teaching in the area surrounding the Temple. As he was walking away, he came across a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked a question based on the common assumption that physical ailments were divine punishment for sin. Jesus responded, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” (Jn. 9:3) Jesus healed the man, but some of the Pharisees objected to the healing because it had been performed on the Sabbath. As faith healing and being healed were considered labor, they constituted a violation of the commandment to make the Sabbath a day of rest from doing labor.
Jesus accused the Pharisees of being spiritually blind because they failed to see that it was God who healed the man. Jesus’ logic was simple: if the healing was performed by God’s power, then no one had violated the Sabbath’s rest. The Pharisees objected by saying, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” (Jn 9:40) Jesus responded, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” (Jn. 9:41)
Then, Jesus added to the insult by telling two parables. In the second parable, he compares the Jerusalem Pharisees to a selfish hired laborer who abandons his employer’s flock of sheep at the first sign of trouble. This passage in John’s Gospel makes the same accusation against the Pharisees that Matthew’s Gospel makes when Jesus said that blind guides inevitably lead their hapless charges to a tragic fall. (Mt. 15:14) In essence, Jesus was saying that the Pharisees were not only blind to God’s power and presence but that they were failed leaders, as well.
Although the parable is about the nature of religious leadership, it speaks also about the nature of membership in God’s People. Speaking about the membership of the Church, Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Jn 10:16) I think it’s worthwhile to listen to these words as if Jesus is challenging us in exactly the same way he challenged the Jerusalem Pharisees. Jesus says to us, “There is one flock and there’s a place for you in God’s flock; there is, however, one shepherd and it’s not you.”
The fatal flaw of the Jerusalem Pharisees was that they could see only their own personal concerns; because of this, they were blind to God’s power at work in the ministry of Jesus. This fatal flaw is not the sole possession of those ancient Pharisees; it is a common defect in our human nature.
It is all too common for church members to judge other church members as not being sufficiently Catholic, whatever that means. It is equally common for church members to worry intensely about other people’s faith and behavior. It’s nearly universal for church members to think that the Church should tailor its practices and policies to satisfy individual tastes and needs.
Excluding individuals or groups from our fellowship because they are not sufficiently Catholic in our esteem makes us just as blind as those religious leaders who could not see God’s power at work in the ministry of Jesus. Worrying about how other people live their lives (or their faith) makes us blind to our personal need for repentance. Expecting the whole community of the Church to cater to one’s personal whims is infantile.
Jesus said, “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Jn. 10:16) I think we should hear this statement as a challenge directed to us, just as Jesus challenged the Jerusalem Pharisees. God is generous enough to allow all people to join the flock and wise enough to prevent anyone from thinking that he or she is the only member of the flock. God is caring enough to give us a Good Shepherd and merciful enough to prevent any one of us from taking that position for ourselves.
It is very counter-cultural to profess belief in only one Good Shepherd who is not oneself, but it should also be very consoling. As members of God’s flock, we are not required to lead the other sheep; nor are we permitted to lead God. Rather, our only responsibility is to follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd who sacrificed everything for all of us.