The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Eastertime is John’s story of the Good Shepherd.
It isn’t often I find myself thankfully praising God for sheep as I swarm down Manhattan sidewalks with the rest of the hive. Rarer still, for one who prides herself on a certain capacity for insightful logical thinking, the source of my praise was their utter simplicity of thought, their instant refusal to acknowledge or place credibility in the voice of a stranger.
Looking around me while waiting for the train and seeing no faces I recognized, I allowed my mulling to progress into a consideration of what qualified as the voice of a stranger for an adult. Suppose I was lost. Wouldn’t I need to rely on a stranger’s voice to help me get on track? Suppose I was hurt or got sick, wouldn’t it be strangers who called for assistance or asked me necessary questions? Suppose I up and hollered unnecessarily at someone for something. Wouldn’t it be a stranger who chastised me?
But then, I began to think that the word “stranger” has far less to do with whether or not two people have an established relationship than it has to do with the concepts conveyed, the language used, and the detectable disposition of the one speaking.
The voice of a stranger is not a voice of love. The voice of a friend is. The voice of a stranger is not one of concern or care or compassionate, necessary challenge. The voice of a friend is.
Sheep do not listen to one they do not recognize as friend. Smart sheep…seeking out the voices bearing evidence of the foundational elements of Jesus’ teaching and refusing to acknowledge any other.
Another way to look at this, I realized, is in terms of baptismal promises. For some of us, we made the promises ourselves. For many, if not most, the promises were made on our behalf. The one question that sticks with me in my wooly afternoon mind is “Do you refuse to be mastered by sin?” The question could perhaps be reworded in two distinct but complementary ways—Do you refuse to recognize the voice of the stranger? and Do you refuse to speak in the voice of a stranger, one whom the sheep of the fold do not recognize?
Our answers indicate our willingness to learn the language–both how to speak it and how to recognize it: the common tongue of right relationship. Love. Care. Concern.