“Behold I am sending you like lambs among wolves.”
Jesus describes the life of His disciple in the world using a very striking phrase in last Sunday’s Gospel, “Behold I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” What does this phrase mean for us Christians in today’s world?
On June 23rd 2013, a Catholic priest, Fr. Francois Murad, was brutally murdered by a Jihadist Syrian group, Jabhat al-Nusra. The horrific account of his murder has it that he was beheaded with what appeared to be a kitchen knife while the crowd of witnesses cheered “Allahu akbar” and recorded the gruesome acts on their cell phones. The group alleged that the Franciscan priest was collaborating with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Soon after Fr. Francois’ death, Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo, the titular of the Syrian Catholic Archeparchy in Hassake-Nisibis, said, “Lately, father Murad sent me some messages that clearly showed how conscious he was of living in a dangerous situation, and offered his life for peace in Syria and around the world.” Fr. Francois knew that he was in constant danger before he was murdered. He chose to face the dangers and take the risk to bring peace to the region.
Being lambs in the midst of wombs means that the disciples of Jesus Christ are living in constant danger and exposed to risks at every moment of their lives. Both their natural lives and their spiritual lives are constantly being threatened. The created world of men hostile to Gospel values, the devil, and the sinful flesh wage a constant war on man. In this world, the life of the disciple entails constant dangers and risks whether we like it or not. A serious disciple of Jesus Christ cannot live without dangers and taking risks for the master.
But this condition of constant dangers and risks has an experiential goal. It is meant to impress on us a valuable truth about discipleship – to make the disciples realize their helplessness and their need for God. In the presence of the wolves, the lambs cannot defend themselves. The lambs realize and experience their helplessness before the wolves without the aid of the shepherd. Their helplessness makes them depend completely on the shepherd for everything and long for his presence with them. Likewise, without facing dangers and taking risks in our life of discipleship, we will never have a sense of our need for God. And if we do not have a sense of our need for God, we will have no desire for God and off course we will also have no desire to be united with God on earth and to be with Him in heaven.
In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus sends the seventy-two out lacking in many necessary things and then tells them that He sends them like lambs in the midst of wolves. He calls them to take the risk of going to foreign lands without any money bag, sack or sandals. They do not have any guarantee of success in their mission. They are to risk rejection by their hosts. They are to risk uncomfortable food and lodging. They are to “eat what is set before them, cure the sick and say to them, “The Kingdom of God is at hand for you.” Without many necessities and conveying a new message to a cynical world, they were obviously setting out in dangerous and risky territories.
But the disciples learn the lesson of taking risks and facing dangers. They returned rejoicing and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” By facing the dangers of the mission, by taking the risks involved in discipleship, they have come to realize the faithfulness of God and the power of Jesus’ name. They realize that their success is due to the name of Jesus they invoked with faith and not of their own power. They have come to grasp their need for the Good Shepherd and no doubt they have come to desire greater union with Him. Having grasped their need for God and having grown in their desire for Him, Jesus now tells them not to rejoice because “the spirits are subject to them” but to rejoice “because their names are written in heaven.” Their names are written in heaven because, by being lambs in the midst of wolves, they have learned their need for God and they have grown in their desire for Him. there is no way we can ever hope for heaven without having a true sense of our need for God and a lasting desire for Him.
After many years of facing dangers and taking risks for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, St. Paul has come to such a sense of His need for God and such an intense desire to be united with Him forever that “the world is crucified to him and he to the world.” Circumcision or uncircumcision has no value for this apostle any more. All things are useless to him except the “new creation,” that transformation into Christ that begins here on earth and is perfected in heaven. Even his body bears the only mark that matters, not the mark of worldly circumcision but the heavenly mark of Christ from baptism and faith.
A few days ago Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone said the United States’ Supreme Court’s recent rulings on “gay marriage” will make it harder for the Church to teach and defend marriage as a sacred institution formed by the union of one man and one woman in holy matrimony. The Supreme Court had declared it unconstitutional to limit marriage to those between a man and a woman. The court also refused to uphold the state of California’s prohibition of “gay marriage.” The archbishop is no doubt referring to the growing rejection of and hostility towards the true nature of marriage being experienced in many parts of the country and endorsed and promoted by the current administration and the judiciary. In the Archbishop’s words, “It’s going to be harder to teach this truth, which is very basic and obvious, that to form a marriage you need a man and a woman…but as pastors of souls, our job remains unchanged.” The court’s decision and the bishop’s words remind me of the often stated threat that the Catholic Church may risk losing its tax-exempt status continues if it continues to be vocal about the hot button issues like abortion, “gay marriage,” contraception, etc in the public debates.
No matter how hostile our culture becomes towards the true meaning of marriage or sexuality or any of the truths of our faith, truly “our job remains the same” as disciples of Jesus Christ. If we have to risk losing our tax-exempt status for the sake of being faithful to Jesus Christ, then so be it. It is surely worth the risk. When Jesus reminded us that He sends us just as the Father sent Him (Jn 20:21), He spoke as one who has been sent as the Lamb of God in the midst of wolves. By becoming man born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ life was one of constant threats and dangers from several “wolves.” King Herod tried to kill Him before He spoke His first words, the Pharisees plotted His death after He spoke and worked outstanding miracles, and Judas, a “wolf” so close to Jesus, decided to betray Him after all the love that Jesus had shown him. Man could lift his hand and strike God, insult Him in His face, scourge Him and crucify Him only because in Jesus, God loved us so much to take the risk of becoming man like us. In all these, Jesus remained the faithful servant who depended completely on His Father and continued to long for Him. If the servant cannot be greater than his master (Jn 13:16), can we as disciples hope to have a life without dangers? Can we ever hope to live without taking a risk for Him?
My brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus; if we do not take risks for the Lord Jesus Christ as His disciples, we will never have a sense of our need for God and we will not desire Him as we ought to. It is by embracing the dangers and risks that come with our vocation as disciples of the Lord Jesus that we see our insufficiency and our absolute need for Him. It is then that we are moved to abandon our false securities and place all our trust in Him. How can we ever have a sense of our need for Him or grow in our desire for Him when we do not speak the difficult truth in love because we are afraid of being called bigots? How can we ever grow in our desire for Him if we do not practice authentic Christian virtues because we do not want to be labeled hypocrites if we fail? How can we ever hope to be accepted by Him in the heavenly Kingdom when we do not risk being rejected by others here on earth? If we do not risk experiencing failure in our following of Christ or risk our good reputation before others, can we ever hope to desire Jesus more? We surely cannot follow Him while remaining in our comfort zones.
Jesus calls us too to go out into the world as lambs among wolves. We encounter this same crucified but living Lamb of God in this Eucharistic celebration and He desires to make us lambs too. He is the one and only Good Shepherd who walks with His flock always. By facing dangers and taking risks out of love for Him, no matter what it costs us, we will grow in the sense of our need for Him, we shall depend on Him with confidence, and we will desire Him so much more than we desire Him now. By so doing, we shall be like Jesus, the Lamb of God, here on earth. It is then and only then that we shall truly rejoice because our names too will be written in the book of life.