Acts 4:8-12; Ps 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29; 1 Jn 3:1-2; Jn 10:11-18
We’ve perhaps become so familiar with the tender image of the Good Shepherd carrying a lost lamb on his shoulders, that we might easily overlook the urgency of its message. The Shepherd and the sheep, if you recall, are not the only actors in the fable. Christ also mentions the presence of the wolf. And though he doesn’t describe the wolf in any detail, its background presence points to an unsettling truth: humanity has an enemy whom he cannot match in strength and cunning; we stand before the power of evil as a sheep stands before a wolf. Apart from the Shepherd and His flock, our prospects are not good.
As Christ presents it, in other words, the world is not a safe place. It is the theater of a “high-stakes” drama. If we take Christ at his word, then He and His Church are not simply optional extras for those who need the “crutch” of religion. They are our hope of salvation. Peter makes this teaching the center of his preaching, insisting, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” He also describes Christ as a “cornerstone,” implying the existence of a building—i.e., the “Church”—in which Christians seek refuge from the wolf.
Important questions arise. How exactly does the wolf go about seeking to destroy us? And how exactly does the Shepherd go about defending us? St. Ignatius of Loyola of Loyola gives us a clue in his Meditation on Two Standards. There he asks retreatants to contemplate a “high stakes” drama–not unlike that of the Good Shepherd. He makes two changes, though. First, instead of shepherds, wolves and sheep, Ignatius uses the images of opposing armies—the one led by Satan and the other by Christ. Second, Ignatius zeroes in on the psychology of the wolf (whose existence he seems to take for granted).
In the Meditation on Two Standards, Ignatius imagines Satan scattering his innumerable demons, “some to one city and some to another, throughout the world, so that no province, no place, no state of life, no individual is overlooked.” He gives his minions this recruitment strategy; “First they are to tempt [persons] to covet riches that they may more easily attain the empty honors of the world, and then come to overweening pride.” From these three steps—riches, honor, pride—“the evil one leads to all other vices.” Notice that St. Ignatius does not describe Satan acting openly. He describes him operating “behind the scenes,” using the world and the flesh as his masks and instruments.
Naturally, Ignatius imagines Christ recruiting men and women to His cause in nearly the opposite way. Christ sends representatives to attract men and women not to riches, honor and pride; but to poverty, contempt, and humility. “From these three steps,” Ignatius imagines Christ saying, “let them lead men to all other virtues.” I say “nearly the opposite way,” however, because Ignatius does not scatter angels throughout the world (which would be the exact opposite of demons). He instead imagines Christ sending “many persons, apostles, disciples, etc.” to “spread His sacred doctrine among all men, no matter what their state or condition.” Ignatius imagines Christ fighting the Evil One through his Church, his “one flock,” and through the example of holiness that the Church makes possible.
I think we all know that this “high-stakes” view of Christ and the Church runs contrary to more easy-going religious attitudes prevalent in our country. But, in a certain sense, we shouldn’t be surprised. If the “wolf” is accustomed to separate the sheep from Christ’s flock by riches, honor, and pride, then we should expect to find the most independent attitudes towards the Church in wealthy and powerful nations. Citizens of such countries tend to feel “self-reliant,” confident in their ability to “make their dreams a reality.” This is usually a virtue in the working world. But Christ and St. Ignatius warn us that this same self-reliance—when extended to the Church’s faith—turns deadly.
To the degree that we forget this “high-stakes” understanding of life in Christ and his Church, many of the Church’s teachings and disciplines will appear exaggerated or outdated. The idea that it could be a grave sin to just to skip Mass on a Sunday (without a serious reason), seems a bit much. But if we imagine the Church and her sacraments as Christ presents them–as the sheepfold protecting us from the wolf—it’s a different story. The same goes for the obligation to abide by all the Church’s teachings, even unpopular ones on marriage and money. If we understand the wolf’s strategy as Ignatius presents it—isolating his prey through riches, honors, and self-reliance—it makes more sense. We more easily understand how picking and choosing among doctrines invites disaster, how it easily becomes a sort of “selective listening” to the Shepherd, on whose voice we rely for guidance and protection from the wolf.
Happily, Christ never challenges without consoling us as well. In the same passage where he warns about the wolf, he also declares his own resolve to protect his sheep—if only they will let Him. “I will lay down my life for the sheep,” says the Lord. In fact, he already has. And he continues to do so in His Church. He promises that if we remain close to the Shepherd, the cunning of the wolf will prove no match.