‘The sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (John 10.4).
There is a strongly-forged link between hearing and obeying at the heart of much of our religious and domestic life. “Hear, O Israel,” begins the Shema (Deuteronomy 6.4f), Judaism’s fundamental call to obedience. The Letter of St James also reminds us to be ‘not just hearers but doers of God’s word’, not passively receptive, but actively obedient (James 1.22). The prophets, too, are constantly enjoining us to ‘hear the word of the Lord’, while Jesus himself completes many of his sayings with the instruction to ‘Hear, you who have ears to hear.’
This is not an exclusively religious turn of phrase. Every parent makes the same point. “Do you hear me?” they ask their children. What they mean is, “Why are you not obeying me?”
This is all clear enough, but as usual the question is, How on earth do we do it? How do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and respond with obedience? Allow me to offer three pieces of advice. As always, my expertise derives almost wholly from my failure over many years to follow them at all adequately. I pray that you will do better.
1. Stay close to the Shepherd. In the rush and legitimate concerns of the day, it’s easy to lose touch with the Lord. As an antidote to this we must consciously search for God not only as we go about our daily lives but particularly in places renowned for revelation: the beauty of art and creation, the pages of Scripture and the worship of the Church; the wise words of friends and the promptings of conscience.
We do not need to embrace a monastic life to do this, though some of us will. Simply to read a verse or two of the gospels every day, perhaps on a Bible app, is a good beginning. And do not think you must scale the heights of the spiritual life to come close to God in prayer. The holy name of Jesus breathed silently and slowly in and out will attune your heart to the divine dimension, bringing you as close to the Lord as you are to yourself. He will live and speak in your very pulse.
2.Stay close to the other sheep. Scripture often refers to us as sheep, and we do well to remember that sheep thrive in flocks and folds, not tethered individually. The portrait of the early Church painted in Acts 2 (albeit idealised) makes clear that the first Christians were a compact unit, praying, eating, living and working together. We will need to learn from that. And listen to the voice of the centuries as well as the energetic promptings of the moment. In flocks of real sheep, ‘the flock takes its cue from the elders.’ The oldest ewes lead the youngest to shelter and safety ‘and will stand stubbornly if the younger ones try to lead them out to danger’ (James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life, 183f). In families, churches and other groups committed to a common purpose, stay as close as you can bear. It will not always be easy. It will often be dull. But be bold and tenacious. Share your own stories of sorrow and success and budget for hardship, enduring even as Christ himself endured (I Peter 2.19ff).
3.Stay close to yourself. Read the daily story of your life as it unfolds. What attracts the sheep to the Shepherd in John 10 is their experience of him as the one who leads them to good pasture, abundant life. This is not the abundance of wealth or material riches. (Beware the perverted promises of those who preach a ‘prosperity’ gospel.) It is rather the abundance that is harvested through lives of humble service, bringing relief of suffering to those who are served, and peace and joy to those who serve them. The givers also receive, and the receivers give. But this needs planning, decision and perseverance. Please do not simply follow your habits, instincts or appetites. These are deeply, perhaps ineradicably engrained, and they leave too much to chance. Be attentive instead to all that leads you to a sense of consolation and fullness of life. Note it, and pray for grace to avoid all that leaves you empty and desolate.
Jesus begins this passage by remarking that when the sheep fall into the hands of false shepherds they suffer loss and death and destruction. Like them, we too are vulnerable: vulnerable to the many voices that beguile us and lead us astray, promising freedom but delivering captivity, assuring us of happiness and success, but abandoning us with a feeling of miserable failure. It is when we stay close to the Shepherd, close to the flock and to our own inner experience that we are less prone to falling into these traps. We grow in readiness to hear and obey the Shepherd’s voice; to be led by him into the truly abundant life for which we long, one that will gladden our hearts and renew our lives immeasurably.