Sunday, April 14, 2013

Are you a Shepherd or a Mercenary?

In the Extraordinary Form, today we celebrate what is known as "Good Shepherd Sunday", based on the fact that the Gospel reading is Christ's discourse in John 10 about being "The Good Shepherd."  As St. Augustine tells us (Tractate 46), Christ emphasizes the word "Good" Shepherd to contrast from the "bad Shepherd", the hireling.  In the English language, we think of "hired help", which is true enough, but doesn't really capture how the term is understood during the time of Christ.  The Latin Vulgate translates hireling as "mercennarius", which I think does a far better job of understanding the concept.

From mercennarius we get the English word mercenary.  When we think of mercenaries, we think of ruthless killing machines, going to war solely for profit.  In a far simpler form, a mercenary is one who simply is out for himself in the work he does.  Both are given a task from their master.  The Father gives the flock to Christ, just as owner of the flock appoints a mercenary to watch over his flock.

What makes the two different?  Christ as the Shepherd is there primarily for the benefit of the flock and love for His Father.  The mercenary is simply there for his own benefit.  He uses his gifts for his own reputation, ego, wallet, etc.  When looked at in this light, not only is this passage an affirmation of Christ's identity, but it provides a stark choice for every single one of us, whether priest or laymen.

Like both the shepherd and the hireling, we are appointed a task by God.  How do we approach that purpose?  As a blogger, am I using my work to promote my own name, is it solely to increase the amount of traffic on my site, am I looking for this or that audience, money etc?  Do I instead simply look to present the truth and look to help others along their journey to discover the truth?  To make things clear, this is not to say that we cannot receive rewards for the work that we do.  The question has more to do with the interior character.  Likewise for the leaders of the Church, are they serving their own interests or those of Christ?


This is not just an academic question.  When a mercenary is outmatched, he will likely leave to collect another paycheck or another accolade.  The religious mercenary will shy away from stepping up for the truth when it isn't convenient for them.  They will become reluctant to condemn injustices if they stand to profit from the existence of said injustices.  I think when Pope Francis condemned the "spiritual worldliness" of Catholics today, this is what he had in mind.  Since we are so focused on the ways of the world (even within our Church walls), we become reluctant to make the hard sacrifices necessary of standing up for Christ in season when it benefits you, and out of season when it does not.    This affliction the Church suffers from will be the primary impediment to true reform.  While some might limit this to just the various institutions of the Church in need of reform, I would wager this holds just as true for individual Catholics.  Considered from this perspective, there arises a burning question.  How are we to distinguish from the two?  How can we tell the difference between the voice of the Mercenary and the voice of the Good Shepherd?  Are we to look at the gifts they have, their followings, their titles or their wealth?  Augustine directs us to St. Paul's declaration that the false Apostles seek their own honor instead of Christ's.  Seeking our own honor leads to all of these things.    St. John Chrysostom provides what I believe to be the most persuasive answer.  In his commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, He asks us if the voice (and personal conduct) of the individual points us to the Beatitudes.  Does their work and conduct emphasize humility and self-denial?  Such is the voice of a shepherd, and he is worthy of being followed.  Is the voice instead promoting arrogance and self-affirmation?  Such is the work of a mercenary, and they are to be avoided.   I submit in the end that this is the defining mark of a Christian.  Let us pray and examine our consciences so that we may be like the shepherd and not the mercenary.

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