The hired man doesn’t care about the sheep, because he works for pay.
But when it comes to God…
God is not for hire.
His love is not earned. It’s not grasped at, hoarded, or stored up… It’s not contingent upon us at all. It’s not to be bartered for or bargained for…
God’s love is a total gift.
“The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
But we have a lot of trouble with this. It’s not what we’re used to. It might even make us a little bit uncomfortable.
The popular spiritual writer, Fr Jacques Philippe, puts the problem this way: “How difficult it is to receive, and to go on receiving, a love that does not depend on our own attraction…We are happy to receive something seen as in some way a reward for our merits, something due to us,” — But receiving freely is actually very hard! “It requires a LOT of humility.”
We don’t have any problem claiming things as a right, or demanding things… “but seldom can we receive and accept freely.”
Fr. Jacques is hitting at something really important here:
We don’t like to merely receive love. We want to be able to demand it, earn it and claim it as a right!
It’s like that one character we meet in CS Lewis’ book The Great Divorce — The Big Man as he’s called. The Big Man says, full of pride and self-congratulation: “I always done my best and I never done nothing wrong… I only want my rights! I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’”
What he means is, he doesn’t want anybody’s hand-out. He doesn’t want a gift. He wants payment, he wants his RIGHTS… He’s not asking for anyone’s freely given, freely offered charity.
The Big Man’s friend, a saint in heaven trying to get him to stay there forever, responds: “Then do. At once! Ask for the Bleeding Charity! Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’”
Ask for the Bleeding Charity of the Good Shepherd who freely lays down his life for the sheep.
Because God is not for hire.
So why do we do this sort of thing? Why do we try turning God’s freely offered love into a hireling’s love?
Perhaps because somewhere… deep down… we’re afraid that if we didn’t, God wouldn’t bother loving us? Maybe we really do believe it’s up to us to prove to him: “I’m a sheep worth saving!”
This is subtle, but it’s so so important. I bet there’s someone here today at mass who is worn down and exhausted from always feeling like they have to work for God’s love and attention.
Maybe you’ve been working overtime to try earning the Good Shepherd’s love because you’re worried about that hidden fault, that private sin, that personal shortcoming which you assume will disqualify you?
So you keep on trying to grasp, and scrape, and claw after His love. You try proving to Him: “Look Jesus — here’s my payment of good works, holy thoughts, my endless rosaries and novenas, all my religious stuff I hang on my walls. I want to hire you to love me, God. Just take my payment, my spiritual bribe, and then you’ll HAVE to lay down your life for me! You’ll HAVE to love me.”
If that describes you in some way — then I invite you to hear once more:
God is not for hire!
This is so central. It’s the cornerstone of our faith, and we can’t afford to reject it! It’s actually meant for your FREEDOM and PEACE of mind and heart.
If we don’t get this core Christian belief right, if we spend all our time trying to hire God to be our Savior…to buy His grace… then everything else will be thrown out of whack. Everything will be out of balance, and our faith will be incoherent, exhausting, and lifeless.
And all the while, as we are trying to pay for God’s love — something else will happen: We ourselves will become hirelings when it comes to prayer, the Church, and the Sacraments! We will become religious consumers… rather than what we really are: Beloved sheep! Beloved children of God…
If we try to buy ourselves a Savior, then we will show up to Church as long as we are “getting something out of it.” As long as it happens to be personally fulfilling, as long as it’s making ME feel good, as long as MY life is going pretty well, as long as MY kids want to be here and are decently entertained, as long as the priest’s homilies are good enough, short enough, whatever-enough…
When we try to hire the Good Shepherd to love us, then we will only bother with Him as long as HE seems to be holding up HIS end of the bargain.
To that, I respond with the beautiful words of St. John from our second reading today:
“Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.”
See what love the Father has bestowed on us! Another translation I’v read says: “See what love the Father has LAVISHED upon us!” It’s an extravagant love. It’s an over-the-top love. It’s the kind of love that’s infinitely beyond anything we could ever pay for, anything we could ever buy for ourselves or earn.
Yet so we are loved… This Love IS yours now. Receive it. Open up and say YES to it.
St. John continues in that same reading, admitting how outrageous, even unbelievable this love seems: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
The world did not know how good the Good Shepherd really was! — They saw his sacrifice on Calvary and they questioned in their hearts:
“What’s the catch? There’s no way this kind of love is so free, so available, so readily offered… What does God want from me? What do I have to pay?”
The true Christian will answer: “All Jesus wants is your heart.”
And the world just doesn’t understand that. “Hearts” are not currency according to the world. You can’t buy the latest iPhone with a heart! — The world doesn’t understand, because it doesn’t understand Christ.
The world understands grabbing and pursuing. The world buys into the tireless drive for personal fulfillment and individual satisfaction. But it does not understand why anyone in their right mind would give without expecting to receive. It doesn’t understand absolute self-surrender. That just does not compute…
And yet there’s Jesus — Laying down his life for the sheep with nothing to gain!
I think it’s time for us to join him.
Because look around! The world is in dire need of our sacrifice. The word is in need of Christians after the heart of the One Good Shepherd. We have more than enough consumers. We have enough hirelings who are looking to come away with some religious souvenir or trinket to call their own.
We need selfless hearts — Hearts that are willing to offer everything, whether or not they get ANYTHING in return. Often enough, we won’t. We won’t be thanked. We won’t be praised. We won’t be honored.
If things continue the way they seem to be headed in the wider culture, we will need many many more souls after the heart of the Good Shepherd, willing to die rather than flee from the wolves.
We will need more young priests willing to joyfully preach the truths of God in the face of opaque apathy and fierce opposition, priests who embrace celibacy as a gift — not a burden! — priests who generously and tirelessly offer the Sacraments to a world starved for meaning.
We will need more religious brothers and sisters who, out of love for the world… leave the world — who go and hold the Church up by their silent, hidden lives of prayer and sacrifice.
We will need more young couples who wait until marriage to live together, who put their love for God and the Church before anything else as models for their children, who are radically open to life and become beacons of evangelization to their circle of friends.
We will need more single people to generously serve their coworkers and communities out of love for Jesus, who open up their homes, who serve the poor, and somehow reach the unreachable. To be signs of contradiction as only a Christian filled with the Holy Spirit can.
All this will mean losing credibility and reputation in the eyes of the world. It will most likely mean being passed over, ignored, and laughed at. It will mean making inconvenient choices about the schools we send our kids to, about the career choices we make, about where we live, and how we make friends.
But all the while, Jesus is encouraging us: “I know you. I love you. Don’t ever leave Me. Don’t run away. I will strengthen you and help you to lay down your life with Me. I’m the Good Shepherd. Are you worried I’ll lose? I already did! Look at the Cross! Nobody took my Life from Me there… I gave it freely. I laid it down of my own accord. That was MY CHOICE. And guess what? You’re my Choice, as well. You are my SHEEP. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Every last one of you is accounted for, known intimately, loved completely. I know you. So please don’t run away. Have faith. Learn to love Me.”
“My love can’t be bought.”
“I’m not for hire.”