Sheep are often ridiculed for their lack of intelligence. This common perception was behind the cartoon I saw on a t-shirt recently, where two sheep are chatting, and one says to the other: 'Sure, I follow the herd---not out of brainless obedience, mind you, but out of a deep and abiding respect for the concept of community.'
When Jesus tells us about the sheep that listen to his voice, we like to think of ourselves as being the sort of sheep he is talking about. We like to think of ourselves as being like the clever sheep of the cartoon. We follow out of conviction and principles. But is this really true? Perhaps the joke is on us. In spite of our 'individualistic society', most of us, if we are honest, have at least some 'sheep mentality'.
Most of us follow what others do, conforming to our society of many voices, a society that tells us we are all liberated, that we all have free choice. Yet society holds great sway. What we see and hear in the media shapes our attitudes and influences how we think. Those whom we meet in our daily lives through their values and their behaviour affect our own standards and expectations.
We certainly live in an age where Christian or religious values in general cannot be assumed. In the space of fifty years a sea change in attitudes has occurred. Instead of there being pressure to conform to religious practice and values, the pressure now operates in a very different direction. This has an impact on young people in particular. Young men and women who wish to live out Christian values face immense challenges. Gone are many of the support structures to guide them that their parents' generation would have taken for granted.
Just consider the challenges these young adults face. The majority of their peers have a very different understanding of how to conduct relationships from that of the Christian vision. This generates considerable pressure on these young people trying to find their way in a world where the joy of finding someone with whom one could imagine sharing one's life is not something that can be taken for granted.
Of course, the pressure to conform to voices contrary to the Gospel is nothing new. Imagine the plight of many Christians and people of good will in Nazi Germany, to give one obvious example. But we do not need to think of such dramatic circumstances. Countless people in all sorts of situations at all points in history have refused to do wrong at great personal cost to themselves. It is difficult to take a stand and refuse to follow what the crowd is doing. It is difficult to take a stand and refuse to endorse the behaviour of those with whom one lives and cares about.
It is into the midst of this perennial problem of many voices that Christ's words come. Indeed, the early Christians, who would have first heard this Sunday's Gospel, were a community that was forced to take a stand against very strong pressure to give up their faith in Christ. These words would have been all too relevant to them.
Yet, if Christ's words about sheep imply that not everyone listens to his voice, it is a message of encouragement to those who do:
I give them eternal life; they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from me.
It has never been easy to follow Christ, which is why so many of us do it badly. Yet Christ is clear that the sometimes difficult road of listening to his voice is the way to true and authentic life in God. Other voices may impress more, flatter us and provide more allure, but what they give will be shallow and not lead to lasting happiness.
As our world is one where we have witnessed a proliferation of voices calling for our attention and allegiance, it takes a well-tuned ear to hear the voice of Christ amidst so much noise. The voice of Christ does not try to dazzle us, to manipulate us or to control us. It is a voice that is not for mindless sheep, but for sheep who decide for themselves and who are prepared sometimes not to 'follow the herd.'