As stupid, clueless, wayward sheep, always befouling ourselves in the mud pits of life, we ought to take comfort in the fact that we have a Good Shepherd. He doesn’t have a real strict screening process for admitting sheep to his fold; He just asks them to listen and to follow Him. He has ways of taking care of the rest.
Where does our confidence in Him come from? It doesn’t come from our being faithful and righteous sheep; we can’t even walk in a straight line, let alone follow Him flawlessly. We get a good clue in the Gospel. It’s because He knows his own. “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own…” (John 10:14). Now we might think that fact would discredit and disqualify us immediately. When big people say, “Don’t you know who I am?” they are puffing themselves up and making their importance felt. When little people say the same thing, they are saying: you must have made some mistake; don’t you know what I’ve done, how rotten, useless, and unworthy I am? Don’t waste your time, I’m not worth it!
But things seem to work a different way with God. He knows us better than anyone else does, even better than we know ourselves. Nothing is hidden from Him, even if we’d rather He didn’t see our dark or slimy side. Yet, somehow, this full and penetrating knowledge does not make Him flee his foolish flock, as if He were a mere hireling (or a mere sensible person). Somehow it almost endears us to Him. Not that our sin and inveterate weakness is in any way endearing in itself, but when we are in greater need of his mercy and compassion He has a greater desire to grant it to us—and perhaps a good hosing down as well. He came to seek and save the lost, even though it would cost Him much more than a trek through the hills to rescue us: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
We need to hear that word, and to listen for his voice, for our only hope for lasting joy is in staying close to Him. Once He has chosen us, He will stand by us, defend us—correct and chastise us, too—and keep the wolf from tearing us away from the flock. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me; I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:27-28). That last line has always been consoling to me. Many of Jesus’ sheep get into trouble long after they become “his,” and we might wonder if He’s having second thoughts about us, seeing how we turned out, how we fail to be worthy of his gifts and goodness. We might say to Him: You didn’t know what you were in for when you called me! Oh, but He did. He saw all our sins, failures, betrayals, defilements, selfishness—and He called us anyway. He gave us a mission anyway.
See, He knows us: the good, the bad, and the ugly. He doesn’t get rid of us, because He wants to work with us, to heal and forgive and transform us. So He holds us securely in his hand; He guides us, hoping we’ll have sufficient wits to listen to Him and follow. But He won’t give up on us. True, we can freely run away from Him, and keep running—but if we just tend to get stuck in the mud, there’s always plenty of hope for rescue. For we are his own, even if we think we’re not worth the trouble. Let Him be the one to decide that. Just follow. He has laid down his life, remember?
His divine generosity, however, is not to be taken lightly—it is meant to reach deeply enough within us to effect a change of heart. “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). We can’t be straying forever, you know! This Lenten season is a good time to open up to his voice and to renew our efforts to follow, with gratitude and with wonder (that He still puts up with us).
How well did the sheep of the early Church get the message of the Good Shepherd? I know that at least one of his most famous lost-and-found sheep got it quite well: “God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’…” (2Timothy 2:19).