“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
I wonder what you hear in that. What does it mean? Who is it about?
The obvious answers are that it’s about Jesus and his death on the cross. I don’t disagree. I think those answers are correct but I also think they are too small, too literal, too easy.
What if you and I are to be good shepherds too? What if laying down life is really about love and how we are to love? Isn’t that what we heard in today’s epistle (1 John 3:16-24)? “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
I wonder where that kind of love is in your life today, what it asks of you, what it offers you. Is it in your marriage, parenting, friendships? At work? Is it the lens through which you see the world and the daily struggles of people? Is it at the heart of your conversations, actions, decisions? If it is, what does it look like? How are you experiencing it? And if it’s not, why not? What would your need to change to love that way?
A friend of mine often asks, “Why does love have such a hard time in the world today?” Maybe that’s not so much a question to be answered as one to be turned back on ourselves and pondered. Maybe it’s about laying down life. Maybe it’s about the distinction between a hired hand kind of love and a good shepherd kind of love. The hired hand is in it for himself or herself but the good shepherd is in it for the other.
Today’s readings (John 10:11-18 and 1 John 3:16-24) are asking us to rethink what it means to love and how to love. They are moving love way beyond whispered sweet nothings, chocolates and flowers, attraction and compatibility, feelings and desires.
For the good shepherd love is a choice, not a feeling. Love is an action, not a state of being. Love is about the truth we do, not what we say. Love is God’s way of dying and taking up life again.
Authentic love cannot exist apart from the lover laying down her or his life for the beloved. And that’s about more than the lover’s physical death. It’s about the way we give away a part of ourselves knowing we can never get it back again, hoping it will be forever buried in the life and heart of another, and trusting that somehow something new will be brought to life.
Think about the times you were at your best as a spouse, a parent, a friend, a human being. Isn’t that what was going on? You were giving away yourself and that’s all you wanted to do – to just pour yourself into the life of the other for the benefit and well-being of the other.
So let me ask you a few questions. Who is that has loved you so deeply and fully that you knew he or she would die for you? And who is that you have loved so deeply and fully that you would die for her or him? And what was that love like? What did it offer you and what did it ask of you? What did you have to lay down and what did you take up?
Whatever your answers might be you are describing a good shepherd kind of love. I don’t know who those people are for you or what that love looked like, but I’m betting it changed both of your lives. I’m betting your lives and world were enlarged. I’m betting you both felt the Divine touch your lives. I’m betting you felt connected to something bigger than and beyond yourself. I’m betting it was one of those times when you said, “This is how I want life to always be for me and for others.” And I’m betting it was some of the most difficult work you’ve ever done.
That’s how I want to live and love. Don’t you? That’s what I want in my marriage with Cyndy, my parenting, my friendships, my priesthood with you. I want to risk it all for love.
That’s also how I want my life to be for the migrants coming to our southern border, for the George Floyds and Derek Chauvins of our country, for the fifty-three lives lost on the Indonesian submarine. Because if I can’t in some way lay down my life for them, I won’t lay it down for you, my friends, my kids, or my wife. “How,” today’s epistle asks, “does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
This good shepherd kind of love is all or nothing. It’s everyone or it’s no one. It’s a cosmic kind of love that is always bigger than we know and broader than we are often willing to risk.
It is the offertory of our lives. We bring all that we are and all that we have to this moment, this relationship, this person, this need, this injustice, this tragedy, this world, and hold nothing in reserve. Nothing in reserve.