Free Will: The Good Shepherd

When we were baptized we became members of the mystical body of Christ. In essence, we are to become miniature Christs in the world. That is an important reality to remember when we hear this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel, lest we imagine that we are only sheep. 

Of course, we are the sheep who the Good Shepherd lays down his life for. But we are called to be even more. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, whenever we point to what is True, Good and Beautiful, in this world, we are giving voice to the Good Shepherd, and we are becoming more and more like the Good Shepherd. 

How does Jesus describe the Good Shepherd? Unlike a hired man who sees the wolf coming and runs away, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Then, very importantly, he says, that no one takes the life of the Good Shepherd, he lays it down on his own. His life is given freely. In other words, the Good Shepherd’s sacrifice is not an instinctual reflex but an act of free will. Today I want to focus on what it means to be able to freely lay one’s life down. 

Jesus foreshadows what will happen in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is gathered with the apostles. Suddenly, the wolves come, Judas and the soldiers. And what do the apostles do? Most of them run away. Peter draws his sword and fights.  

I use to think that, in spite of his faults, at least Peter remained with Jesus. At least, he seemed willing to die for him. But the question is, was this an act of free will?  

We know that when confronted with danger, even animals will react in one of two ways, they will either run away, or they will turn and fight. Neither is an act of free will; rather, they are instinctual acts necessary for survival. 

It reminds me of working with cattle, particularly, first-calf heifers. They were usually afraid and would run away from you. But because they often had problems calving the first time, we would put them in the corral. And after they had their calf they would turn around and look completely shocked to see this steaming, wet ball of fur on the ground behind them. And they would very cautiously go up and smell it like they were scared to death of it. But God help you if you stepped between her and that ball of fur. She wasn’t even sure what it was yet, but instinct told her to protect it, even if it meant running you over. Even if it meant charging something she was normally terrified of.  

I think Peter’s act in the garden was not a freely chosen act of love, but an instinctual act of survival. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that Jesus rebukes Peter for drawing his sword, and by the fact that in the very next verses of the Gospel, Peter denies even knowing Jesus. 

This is not the behavior of someone with self-control. Its seems erratic. Without self-control, we end up doing things we don’t want to do. Peter later wept because he did the very thing he said he would never do, he abandoned Jesus.   

Now, we know, St. Peter eventually gets there. His immense love for Jesus drives him. He develops self-control and the freedom to lay down his own life. He even asks his executioners to crucify him upside down, because he thought he was not worthy of dying like Jesus did.  

Most Christians aren’t called to red martyrdom. But every one of us is called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Every one of us is called to lay our lives down in one way or another. Because we all have a part to play in salvation history. 

The question is, “Are we free to play it?” Have we developed the self-control to make our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no?” 

I think the moral law and the commandments get a bad rap. Today they are rarely even considered because the world has convinced us that true freedom means license to do whatever we want to do. 

The world says the moral law is an obstacle holding people back from being human. If you are tired, you should sleep. If you are hungry, you should eat. Whatever desire you have, freedom, according to the world, demands that you satisfy it.”  

But this is not a formula for becoming more human. Any dog can seek to satisfy his own desires. Being human means that sometimes we do things we don’t feel like doing, because we have the capacity to think about what we ought to do instead. Read the newspaper this week and ask yourself if the world’s view leads to an increase or a decrease of individual freedom. It is making us more or less human?    

Jesus shows us that being human means being free, even from our passions and our instincts. Sometimes, you hear people rationalizing their own passions when they point to how Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple. As if this is an excuse for being a slave to anger.  

Was Jesus angry? Of course. Did he lose control? Scripture says that before Jesus drove them out of the temple, he fashioned a whip out of cords. This is a tediously, deliberate act, not a spontaneous explosive one. Jesus controlled his anger, it didn’t control him. He used it deliberately. 

As for our instincts, it’s not that they are bad. God gave them to us for survival. But what separates us from the beasts is not our instinct, but precisely the ability to deny instinct when love requires it. 

Please understand, this is not me preaching to you. I need to be reminded of this as much as anyone else. I fail every single day. So, I take some solace in St. Paul’s own frustration when he says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” So, we are in good company when we fail, but by God’s grace, we need to get back up again, and again, and again. 

Finally, here is an imperfect image for your consideration. But only if it helps. If we think about the design and parts of a rifle cartridge. Obviously, the tip is the actual bullet. There is the primer, which, when struck by a firing pin ignites the gun powder. The powder burns and creates rapidly expanding gas within the confines of the case. And the case provides a boundary so that the energy can only escape in one direction, towards the bullet. 

This entire reaction is meant to happen within the chamber of a rifle so that all of that energy will push that bullet in the one intended direction, down the barrel. If that reaction were to take place outside of those intended confines, like in a fire, for instance, the release of the energy would push the bullet in one direction and the case in the other. It would be very unpredictable and dangerous. 

Indeed, a life without the moral law is unpredictable and dangerous.    

Now consider that the human soul was designed to end up in heaven. While we understand that the moral law is not sufficient in and of itself to bring the soul to heaven, it does keep the soul oriented toward heaven. Without God’s grace and the Holy Spirit, which act like the primer, providing the driving energy propelling the soul forward, the moral law can do nothing for us. But in accordance with God’s grace, it provides appropriate boundaries, guiding the soul and keeping it free, so that one day it will make it home, where all of its desires will be fulfilled. 

Until then, we are called to be like the Good Shepherd, who lays his life down. Freely.