This Sunday is known as “Good Shepherd” Sunday – a well-beloved image of Jesus and we have just heard a passage of John’s Gospel, how about Jesus is the shepherd for the sheep in the pen.
The passage reminded me about a folktale I use to read when I was a little girl. A folk tale from the South of France: “Mr Seguin’s goat”. And it is the story of a man, a farmer, who is very unlucky with his goats. He’s had had seven goats and, although he takes the best care of them in his comfortable little farm, there invariably comes a time when the goat escapes, runs away to the hills, gets lost and ends up in the stomach of a wolf.
The story begins when Mr Seguin is very discouraged after his seven attempts. Yet he decides to give it another shot, purchases a new goat and makes her at home in his farm. The story says that this one goat is really super sweet – her name is “Blanquette” which means both something like “Pretty little white thing”, but it’s also the name of a famous dish (So you get a pretty good sense where the story is headed).
Anyways, at the beginning, everything is fine, Blanquette likes it at the farm, she has a nice little pen, the farmer pets her and brings her good food, often reminding her of her good fortune. Yet at some point, the story tells us, Blanquette gets bored. She keeps looking at the hills and the green pastures over there and can’t help imagine how life would be like over there, and so on one day, in spite of the many warnings given by the farmer about the wolves, Blanquette escapes from the farm.
She has a wonderful day in the hills. It’s the South of France so it’s very pretty: all kind of flowers, vines, olive trees, the scents of rosemary, lavender. The sun, the pastures, the streams, so it’s all very exciting. She even finds herself a little flirt.
The thing is, of course, at some point, the sun sets down on this beautiful day. That’s when Blanquette realizes, a bit late, that she’s lost and on her own. And as if it wasn’t enough, she hears the wolves from afar. She also hears Mr Seguin, starting to worry, calling her from the entrance of his farm but she decides not to go back to a life she cannot bear anymore and resolves to be brave. That’s when the wolf shows up, but after a long night of fighting, Blanquette finally surrenders and gets eaten by the wolf.
And that’s it – end of the story. You would expect that, after seven goats making the same mistake, things would turn out different, but they don’t and there is no magic, no miracle for Blanquette – They don’t open the wolf’s stomach to retrieve her. No redemption for the one who disobeyed and longed for freedom.
And so – it’s a very useful story you want to tell when you want people (children) to behave, right? My mother used to tell me – in case I missed the point: “See, Blanquette is like you when we go to the store” (I used to love getting lost in the supermarket) But that’s the insight of the story, right? Either you stay put and you’re safe, or either you roam and have a little adventure and then something terrible happens to you.
And so today I am glad because the Gospel reminds me of the story, and in the meantime, it does not remind me of the story. The story of the sheep pen, it looks like the story of Mr Seguin’s goat but it tells another story – as often in the Gospel.
So let’s unpack that a little bit.
Jesus talks about the sheep being in a sheep pen, with the shepherd looking after them, and isn’t it the way we so often think about religion? A flock of people, together, under the pastor’s supervision. And you know, hopefully the pastor is very nice and takes good care of you, and also he will tell you what to do, what is good for you and what is bad, or dangerous. And that’s right, that’s the way a lot of our churches are today, but it’s also the way religion has been for a long time – at any rate, that’s how things were at the synagogue. This passage of the Gospel comes right after Jesus is blamed by the religious leaders for healing a blind man on a Sabbath day, because the religious leaders know how to care of the sheep and can tell God’s will and can tell right from wrong.
And so Jesus tells this story to his disciples. A story that is about the sheep pen, but a story that has never been about praising the life inside the sheep pen, a story that isn’t at all about comfort and safety.
Two important things need to be noticed in the passage:
– The danger comes inside. Thief and bandit climb in. From that, we can gather that Jesus wants probably to say to his disciples that life is not about being safe and comfortable, not only because there is more to life than that, but also simply because this is actually not as safe as it seems. There is something about this life that can destroy us.
– Jesus sees himself as a pastor, a shepherd – That’s perfectly right, but another image as important to remember is that Jesus sees himself as a gate / a door. He is not here just to watch over the flock. He leads them out to their longing: green pastures, streams, etc. (Ps 23)
Three commentaries I want to make:
1 – Life in quarantine teaches us one thing: We’re not meant to live like that (even if it is what we need to do right now). We’re not happy / fulfilled in a narrow life, stuck within the walls. It’s not only when we are in a physical sheep pen, it’s the narrowness in our minds and hearts (of our religion) that can kill us.
Jesus asks his disciples to open up and follow him outside. He takes them from a narrow life to a bigger life / narrow understanding of God to a wider one. Being a follower is about being open to change and willing to take risks. Especially when you want to know about God, and you be curious and open, whatever your age or life situation.
2 – Jesus leads the sheep out. He doesn’t expect the disciples to stay put. Quite the opposite, he often opens a breach in our lives. It can be a painful or difficult journey. We have to climb the mountain before we get to the green pastures. Starting our journey may feel like being lost: “Valley of the shadow of death” but Jesus tells us he is our guide…
How does Jesus guide us? They are a lot of lost sheep in the Gospel, and we all feel lost at some point. As a priest, I am very often asked to pray for healing, but right after that the thing people ask me more often is to pray for guidance. We want to know what we are supposed to do…I often pray: Just tell me what to do and I will do it…
– Yet my experience is that if God can do what God wants, God is more interested in what we want to do. In what’s deep inside of us or what we just do naturally / what our love for others bring us to do. My father taught me when I asked him for guidance that maybe the most important thing is just to do something: Make a decision and do something and as you do you learn, even if you make mistakes.
– We experience that God talks to us through our journey. Yes, it’s often hard to hear God’s voice…Maybe a first step is trying not to listen to other voices that don’t come from God. A voice that comes from God we believe is not so much a verse taken from the Bible (often we can twist it in any direction), it’s a word that lift you up, bring joy and freedom. We often assume God wants just obedience by leading a well ordered life, but we realize with the story that obedience is actually hearing the shepherd and following him towards something new.
3 – If you follow Jesus: You will also become a pastor and a gate for others. The story is about going into the world, reaching other horizons, but it’s not like now we dream to leave our houses to go shopping or to the restaurant! And it’s not about getting out to have a little adventure for ourselves. It’s about meeting others, to be there for them and to experience a more meaningful life with them as we experience God in a life of love, compassion and forgiveness.
As a conclusion, I would say that the sad thing about that tale I read in my childhood is not that the goat disobeys, it is that the farmer in the tale never goes to be with her. Jesus leads his sheep out and shows up for them (cf the story of blind man, Jesus sees those who are unseen). Jesus looks for his sheep when they are lost and we know that in the end, Jesus also “opens the wolf’s stomach” by claiming us from our graves.
So don’t be afraid to make a friend, show love, go and meet people were they are, physically and on their journey. I know for now we have to stay home, but there are many ways to be here for one another, to leave no one feeling lost or isolated or left behind. People get lost sometimes just because nobody never shows up for them.