19 June 2016
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
“The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want. In green pastures he gives me repose. Beside restful waters he leads me.” It’s one of the more popular images of Jesus: Jesus as the Good Shepherd. With Jesus by our side, everything will be okay. And that’s true. And it’s certainly a reason to celebrate our God and the fact that he is our Shepherd. How lucky are we to have such a kind and gracious God.
In fact, if Jesus were to ask us, “Who do people say that I am?” we could easily say: “Many people see you, Jesus, as the Good Shepherd—as a kind, merciful, loving God who walks with us and keeps us safe. You are a reason for people to celebrate, Jesus; you’re the Bringer of hope and wisdom, peace and truth.” And that’s all true.
Saint Peter himself could have said the same thing, and he did; except he said it very simply: “You are the Christ of God,” Jesus; the Anointed One of God. And that’s what we generally expect Jesus to be: the Good Shepherd who leads us to peace; the Christ of God who is sent “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” It’s who we expect Jesus to be, because he tells us that’s who he is.
And yet, he “scolded” Peter for speaking the truth about him. And Jesus does the same to us whenever we call him “the Good Shepherd,” or the “Christ,” or the “Savior.” Now, the word “scold” in our translation is a maybe a little harsh, because we think of “scolding” as “criticizing somebody with anger.” But the original Greek word (epitimēsas) means “to sternly warn someone, so as to teach them something.” It’s “a warning to prevent something from going wrong.”
If you’re a parent, you know what it’s like to say to your kids: “Don’t run out into the road! You might get hit by a car.” It’s the same thing here when Jesus “sternly warns” us.
But what could go wrong with Peter calling Jesus “the Christ of God?” It’s who he is. And what could go wrong by us calling him “the Good Shepherd” and celebrating that Good News? What could go wrong? Well, it seems that the potential problem is in our expectations.
Now, we’ve all seen Christian denominations that celebrate God’s goodness to the hilt. And it’s becoming more common among Catholics. We hear that: God is good—all the time. God is loving—all the time. And, of course, God is good and loving all the time. But our expectation of what that means can get in the way. What happens when God appears to be less-than-loving, or absent? When our expectations of God aren’t met, the gospel message leaves kind of a sour taste—because so often we expect Christ’s words to be . . . sweet and uplifting.
Jesus “scolds” Peter and us—not for speaking the truth about him, but to warn us about putting more faith in our expectations of him, than in who he really is. Like a parent, Jesus says: “Don’t run out into the road! You might get hit by a car! Don’t be carried away by your expectations of me! You might get hit by a truth you won’t like!”
And there’s certainly some wisdom in what he’s saying. You know, we love Jesus when he brings us comfort and peace. But we get a little leery of Jesus when he starts talking about the cross and suffering. But, you know, all of it—the joy, the peace, the suffering, the trials—all of it is part of the gospel message. And so, while we can expect the Good Shepherd to lead us to green pastures and peaceful waters, we can also expect him to lead us to some hard truths and experiences in life that are probably going to make us uncomfortable.
And this is why Jesus is so stern in his warning. If we expect Jesus to be an eternally gentle God, a God who does “whatever we ask in his name,” we will be disappointed. We’ll be “confounded” in our expectations. And our faith will be put into doubt. The whole gospel message will appear to be a sham.
Maybe this is why Saint Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified.” Not just Christ, but Christ crucified. Suffering is part and parcel of our life as followers of Christ. When we say “yes” to Jesus, we say “yes” to all of Jesus and what he’s about. He is about love, mercy, peace and forgiveness. And he is about struggle, suffering, Blood and tears. This is what our faith in Christ means: It means accepting both the good and the bad, the happiness and the pain.
One line in the Book of Job that’s always hard to read says: “We accept good from God; should we not also accept evil?” It’s not that God would do anything evil. But our expectations of God’s goodness are what make us judge events in life as either “good” or “evil.” When “bad things happen to good people,” what we suffer is not only the real pain of sorrow and distress. We also suffer the very hard demands of faith, hope, and love.
When something bad happens, we might wonder: “Where was God? God let us down.” The other question, however, is: “Where are we? Will we let God down? Is our faith in our expectations of God, or in God as he is?” Jesus said: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place. They will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name. And then many will be led into sin; they will betray and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and deceive many; and because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold.”
And, of course, we have the suffering and death of the Son of God himself. Jesus hits us with some hard truths about how the world goes. But he doesn’t do that to scare us; he does it to prepare us. It’s a warning to us so that we can prevent something from going wrong. And the “something” that could wrong, is that we’d lose our faith simply because trial and suffering come our way.
In literature and movies, and even in real history, there’s often a character called “the wise old man,” or the “wise old woman.” They’re “wisdom figures” who tell stories and have lots of wisdom to share. They encourage people to reach their full potential. They’re warm and inviting people, and yet they also speak sternly and truthfully; and so, their message is sometimes welcomed, and sometimes not. And this is a role Jesus plays for us; he is the definitive “wise old man” for us.
And he’s giving us all a “stern warning.” He looks us square in the eye and says: “If you want to love me, then love me as I am—not as you want me to be. If you want to be my disciple, then stop trying to be the teacher, and be the student.” In other words, Jesus is the Christ of God; he is the eternally Good Shepherd. And we have every reason to celebrate that our God is among us.
But exactly how he is our Shepherd and our God, that’s for him to tell us. And, with that, we can have real faith in him. No matter what happens in life, our hope can be in him. Our love can be for him—as he is. May the psalm from today be our prayer always: “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.” My soul is thirsting for . . . you.