Listen to My Voice — John 10:22-30
In John 10 we find the Good Shepherd which is perhaps the most loved image of Jesus and one depicted in art since the earliest times. There are four parts to the story: the sheepfold (Jn 10:1–6); Jesus, the gate (Jn 10:7–10); Jesus, the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11–21); and the division among the Jews (Jn 10:22–42). I turn now to John 10:22–30, when Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27).
Shepherds and Sheep
Sheep were domesticated in Palestine over 8,000 years ago, so the breeding and care of sheep was well known. A shepherd would lead a small flock out to graze, remain with them and return them to a sheepfold or communal enclosure guarded by a gatekeeper. By day and by night, sheep were protected from wolves and wild animals, thieves and other dangers. Shepherds knew their sheep and the sheep knew their shepherds. Each morning, a shepherd stood at the gate calling his flock out of the sheepfold. His sheep would hear and know his voice and follow him.
With sheep and shepherds so much a part of everyday life, it is not surprising that shepherding imagery permeates the biblical traditions. In Psalm 23, God is the shepherd who leads the people to rest “in green pastures . . . beside still waters” and restores one’s whole being (nephesh in Hebrew). We use the image in prayer claiming: “We are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.”
In the parable of the Good Shepherd, God’s voice calls us by name: “the sheep hear [the shepherd’s] voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (Jn 10:3). And there are other voices which are not to be followed: those of thieves and brigands who mean harm to the sheep.
Pope Francis reflected on the two voices. We hear the voice of God who speaks kindly to our conscience. And we hear the tempting voice that will leads us to evil. How can we distinguish the voice of the Good Shepherd from that of the thief? How can we tell the inspiration of God from the suggestions of the evil one?
1. Different Languages
Francis says we can learn to discern these two voices because they knock on the doors of hearts in very different ways. They speak different languages. Just as we learn to recognise one language from another, so we can distinguish the voice of God from the voice of the evil one.
God’s voice respects freedom and never forces. God proposes and does not does not impose Godself. The evil voice seduces, attacks, forces. It arouses illusions, emotions and feelings that are appealing but passing. It begins by flattering us into believing we are all-powerful. Then it leaves us empty inside, telling us: “You are worth nothing.”
The voice of God, however, patiently corrects us in ways that encourage, console and nourish our hope. Francis emphasises: “The voice of God is a voice that has a horizon, whereas the voice of evil leads you to a wall, it backs you into a corner.”
2. Present or Future and Past
Another difference concerns time. The evil voice diverts us from the present and pushes us to focus on fears of the future or sadness about the past. The present is disregarded — instead we have dangled before us bitterness and bad memories of hurt and suffering. The voice of God, though, speaks to the present: “Now you can do good, now you can exercise the creativity of love, now you can renounce the regrets and remorse that hold your heart captive.” The voice of God inspires, empowers, leads us forward, always speaking in the present: the now.
3. Different Questions
The two voices pose different questions. The voice coming from God asks: “What is good for me?” The evil voice asks: “What do I feel like doing?” This “What I feel like” of the evil voice focuses on the ego — our drives and desires for instant gratification. It is rather like the tantrum of child: everything here and now.
The voice of God does not promise joy at a low cost. God’s voice invites us to go beyond our ego to find the true good, true peace. Evil never gives peace. It causes frenzy and later leaves bitterness.
4. Different Environments
The two voices speak in different “environments”. The evil one is surrounded by darkness, falsehood and gossip. God’s voice radiates sunlight, truth and transparency. Evil, if we listen to it, will say: “Close yourself off from others. No one understands or listens to you, so don’t trust anyone!” Goodness, on the contrary, invites us to open up, to be clear and trusting in God and in others.
Francis concludes: “Dear brothers and sisters, in this time so many thoughts and worries lead us to turn inwards into ourselves. Let us pay attention to the voices that reach our hearts. Let us ask ourselves where they come from. Let us ask for the grace to recognise and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, who brings us out of the enclosures of selfishness and leads us to the pastures of true freedom.”
Practice of Discernment
At the core of our ability to tell one voice from another is discernment. That is taking time in prayer to become aware that “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.” Many people find the practice of the Examen of Consciousness, begun by Ignatius of Loyola, a way of discerning the voice of God within them. (It is different from an examination of conscience). This practice requires us to take a short time of prayer each day, about five minutes, to look back over our day to discover how God has been present within the events, circumstances and feelings of that day. We ask ourselves: When have I heard and responded to the voice of God in my relationship with God? With others? And with creation? (www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen)
Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 270 May 2022: 24-25