I was recently preaching a retreat on Psalm 23 when I stressed the point that if God is truly our shepherd as we say He is in this psalm, then we should really see ourselves as helpless and weak sheep, completely dependent on Him for everything. This is in contrast with seeing ourselves as independent and powerful lions who have no need of a shepherd and who can actually eat the shepherd. I then asked the participants which of these images spoke to them most about themselves: a weak, dependent sheep or a strong self-sufficient lion. One of them replied honestly, “I see myself as a sheep but with the power, teeth, and claws of a lion!”
We are so reluctant to face and accept weakness in our lives. We want to be strong, flawless, and independent. We claim that God is our shepherd but we are reluctant to take the place of the weak and vulnerable sheep before Him. How can He, the Good Shepherd, lead us when we pretend to be lions, invulnerable beasts dreaded by any shepherd?
We fail to realize that God uses our human weakness to create space for Himself and His gifts in our hearts. God is looking for a specific type of heart in us — a heart with space for Him and His gifts, a heart open to Him and willing to reflect to others God’s presence and gifts present within. God cannot give Himself or His gifts to us when we are self-sufficient and self-satisfied.
God rejected Jesse’s son, Eliab, when Samuel wanted to anoint him because he lacked the type of heart that God desired, “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty statue, because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” David is chosen and anointed instead because, despite his lowly status and profession, his heart has space for God and His gifts, “Samuel anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and from that day on, the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.”
To bring us to have this disposition of heart with space necessary to receive Him and His gifts, God permits us to experience human weaknesses i.e. good things that we want to do, have, or become, that we just cannot do, have, or become. Or the evil things we want to overcome but cannot overcome or avoid.
The blind man in Jn 9:1-41 longed in vain for a single chance to see this beautiful world. He seemed so cursed and abandoned by God that the disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Unknown to them, his blindness had also created a space in him to receive and to respond to Christ and His healing touch. Rather than debate whose sin was responsible for this lifelong blindness, Jesus affirms this necessary disposition in this particular man’s heart and exclaimed, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God may be might be made visible through him.”
The man received all that Jesus offered him: healing touch of clay made with saliva and plastered on his eyes and Jesus’ specific words of command, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.” He did not just receive healing but he also responds with courageous, consistent, and faithful witness to Jesus before all the Jews, his terrified family, and the wrathful Pharisees. He reiterated, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes…so I went there (Siloam) and washed and was able to see.” He willingly suffered rejection because of his politically incorrect witness to Jesus, “Then they threw him out.” He became a bold and faithful witness of Christ, a light of hope reflecting to others the gift of new life and vision that He had received.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if Jesus is indeed our Good Shepherd who “lays down His life for His sheep,”(Jn 10:11) then we must willingly be His weak and vulnerable sheep. There are two extreme and unhealthy ways in which we can respond to our weaknesses. We can choose to canonize them and make them gods in our lives, things that define us completely. An example of this approach is when our identity is so consumed by our weakness that we call ourselves things like alcoholic or LGBT or whatever. The other unhealthy extreme is to completely deny, reject, or neglect our weaknesses and pretend that we do not have them or that they are no big deal.
The right approach is to humbly accept our weakness and listen to how God is using it to make space and room for Himself in our hearts. How is this weakness making us more God-centered and not self-focused and self-dependent? We invite Him into this weakness and beg Him to touch us with His healing love where we are experiencing this weakness most. We resolve to live for Him alone and to give witness to Him despite any lingering weakness. His grace will surely flood our souls as we do this, just as it did for St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”(2Cor 12:9)
The global onslaught of the Corona virus has brought us to face our own weakness individually, communally, and ecclesiastically. This deadly sickness seems to defy the most technologically advanced medical facilities around the world. Our churches and schools are closed. We are all huddled in our homes while we hear of the spread of this disease and its growing death toll. There is tangible fear in our world today because of the spread of this virus.
But, have we really been living like sheep that belongs to and depends on the shepherd? Haven’t we been living more like lions who do not need a shepherd? Are we not the self-sufficient lions who see worshipping, obeying, and serving God constantly as unnecessary and useless? Are we not like crafty lions who choose to be politically correct instead of giving faithful witness to Christ? Aren’t we acting like lions when we consume our own children in abortion? When we choose to change traditional moral laws, aren’t we acting like lions who do not need the light of the shepherd to illumine our ways in this life?
Living like lions with our exaggerated sense of self-fulfillment and self-sufficiency, our hearts have no space for God but have become closed to God and His amazing graces of healing and strength in our fearful times. We are like the Pharisees who claim, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Like them, we too condemn ourselves to hopeless fear and darkness because we have no room for divine light and strength and thus rightly merit the rebuke of Jesus, “But now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”
This virus and the death it brings beckons on us to individually face and accept our utter weakness so that God can find space in our hearts. We can no longer hide in the crowd at our churches and pretend that Jesus is our shepherd when He is not. There is no longer that daily noise, activities, and businesses that hide our weakness and conceals our need for a shepherd. We can no longer have all those things that distract us from our weakness and make us feel like we are lions. This is a time to welcome the Good Shepherd as He comes to us in our weakness.
There is only one Eternal Lion in this world, Jesus, the “Lion of Judah.”(Rev 5:5) But this lion has freely chosen the way of weakness and become a lamb like us just to save us, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”(Jn 1:29) Because He lives with us always, and shares in all our experiences, we can say like the psalmist, “Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil, for you are at my side.”
This Coronavirus has indeed made our world a “dark valley” today. The Shepherd is always on our side to lead us through it all. But He definitely will not try to shepherd lions! He is looking at each one of us, looking for lamb-like hearts with space for Him and His gifts, hearts ready to receive and reflect His goodness in these dark times despite our weaknesses.
What type of heart does He find in me now? My answer will determine if He is truly my shepherd or not and if I will share in His own light and strength in these frightening times.
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!