Feb. 12, 1987
Reflection III:


Set free to struggle for freedom

"Costly way to freedom"

Rev. Dr. A George Ninan


Texts: John 10, Hebrews 5:1-10


When I was child, I was very fond of stories. And I paid a lot of attention to story-tellers. One of their stories was "the Parable of the Good Shepherd." In my childhood, I saw the story in the context of Sunday school teaching. To me the sheep was the Protestant church — the Church Missionary Society of the Anglican Church. That was my understanding and that was what was conveyed to me as the sheep.

And in reference to other sheep, I understood those "others" as the Mar Thoma Church, the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. When it came to robbers and thieves, of course, it was the Pentecostals, coming out to steal sheep. And who were the wolves? They were none other than the Hindus and Muslims ready to attack us. So this is the framework I was made to understand this story. And I always entertained the hope that one day the sheep from other folds (The Roman Catholics, etc.) would all become CMS Anglicans under the leadership of some white chief bishop in England.

There are three main characters in this story. First we find the sheep; then we find the enemies of the sheep - the robbers, thieves, hirelings and wolves; then we have the Good Shepherd, the voice, the one who lays down his life for the sheep.

Let us briefly look at the actors’ of this drama for our reflection this morning.

The sheep

Jesus said: "I lay down my life for the sheep." He also said, "1 have other sheep" referring to men, hirelings, thieves. I wonder whether the problem of this passage is, it does not tell us if the other sheep may also be saved?

In this passage, Jesus very clearly has a bias for the sheep. That is his priority. I am sure he was not referring to Christians as the sheep, because there were no Christians yet at that time. It seems to me he was referring to a section of society which reflected the characteristics of the sheep. What were these characteristics?

1) They were vulnerable and defenseless. In my country, sheep are always symbols of non-violence, suffering, meekness and mildness. Sheep are always open to attack, always defenseless. They were prey to thieves, wolves and victims of opportunists, people who offer to help when the problems are small but who run away at the slightest suggestion that their involvement will complicate their lives.

They were also divided. Jesus said, "I have several sheepholds."

Who are these people in Asia today who represent the sheep in this story? I don’t think I have to say very much about that. We know who the defenseless ones are, the victims of opportunists, the victims of attack in Asian society are.

2) Another characteristic is that the sheep are the producers of the wealth and resources of society. Sheep produce wool which kept people warm and clothed them; they produced milk and meat to provide food and nourishment. So the sheep represent the producers of the basic needs of humanity. Yet while they were the producers, they themselves were unprotected from the cold, from droughts, floods and other difficult weather conditions. Sheep are those who live for the benefit of others.

Who are the people in Asia today, who represent the sheep in this story? Of course we are talking about Asian workers, peasants - they are the producers of wealth and they are the ones most deprived of what they produce, deprived even of their basic needs. But in Asia, we must also mention, Asian women as the most deprived. The Asian woman waits till the husband and the children eat, before she eats, if there is any food left. Otherwise, she goes to bed hungry, if there is a bed, if their roof is not leaking, etc.

3) The third characteristic is that sheep have a simple faith-trust relationship with the shepherd. The relationship is simple but unexplainable. They hear the shepherd’s voice and they respond. When he moves ahead, they simply follow. They may not be able to explain all the relationship, and its implications, complications and they hardly analyze. There is a trust relationship. At times of danger, they gather around the shepherd’s shadow.

So who are these people in Asia? They are the ordinary, trusting people.

In Bombay where I was working years ago, I found the poorest of the poor, those most deprived, as the ones who gravitated towards the churches, the mosques or temples.

When I was younger, I was amazed at the way the Pentecostals could draw in working people to their all - night rallies. Working people, whom you would think were so tired from work, would be singing "Hallelujah!" all night. These are people who have a very simple faith-trust relationship. Of course, we politically - sophisticated social actioners have the tendency to look down upon them. But we must remember, Jesus said, "I will lay down my life for the sheep!" I don’t think he meant the CMS church people nor Christians. He meant to lay down his life for the most vulnerable, most defenseless, the most exploited, deprived and oppressed people who had a simple faith.

The enemies

There are three types of enemies mentioned in this passage. Let me draw your attention to the first one — thieves and robbers. As I mentioned earlier, this offers a number of problems. The text interchanges sheep and thieves, men hirelings, so whether animals or men, we are not sure what is being referred to. This is an area for theologians and biblical scholars to work out.

But here we find definitely mentioned as enemy, the thieves and robbers. When we look a little closer, we find thieves and robbers as people who exploit others and who amass wealth. Wealth is their concern. Power is their concern. They want to exploit the producers, their meat, their milk. They do not care about the health of the producer. This group of people may refer to petty thieves, pickpockets, middlemen, cheaters, etc.

But more and more, we find big gangs of robbers and thieves. They would be called in Asia today, the national monopolists, who buy the products of the producers cheaply and sell at a huge profit. They control market mechanisms. They create artificial scarcity in order to increase prices. They are vultures.

There are TNCs who are very organized in their exploitation of third world resources and peoples. Their appetite for profit is enormous and they have invaded Asian rural areas and are known to have grabbed people’s lands.

The second type of enemy is the wolves.

Wolves are aggressive and very violence prone. They attack viciously in packs and exist to create havoc.

In Asia there are groups of people who get a kind of pleasure in destruction and not only for profit. We have warmongers, the military complex which exist to destroy and have an independent reason for their existence - power, per se.

The military complex has developed more destructive weapons and efficient technologies to wipe out people. With a button, they can in fact destroy whole countries. Regionally, we have in Asia the problem of military dictatorships which launch vicious campaigns against rebels and civilians alike.

Sometimes we read stories of our own people coming out of the sheephold and becoming police and military. How ruthlessly they can behave with another human being. It is strange. An ordinary police officer in my country will not benefit from hitting, killing or torturing another human being. Maybe he can get a promotion indirectly. But you will find that there is a tremendous amount of pleasure in destroying life, in torturing somebody, in seeing blood flow, in seeing flesh being torn apart and a life totally destroyed, among these kind of people. This is the nature of wolves.

In Asia we see wars, nuclearisation trends, we see the dumping of nuclear waste. We see the heedless violence being done to people as well as to nature. In all these we see the vulnerable and defenseless people bearing the brunt of all this violence. It is not the rich people who die. It is not rich communities which are burned down. It is not the richman’s daughter or son who is slaughtered in massacres. It is the defenseless people, the sheep which are the real victims of the wolves.

The third type of enemy is the hireling. There are two references to this type of enemy. Jesus said: "The sheep paid no heed to any who came before me, for these were all thieves and robbers." Then there is reference to the hireling, those who were hired to look after the sheep but who leave when the wolves come. We can put the two together — the political messiah who came and promised all kinds of solutions for problems and the people who took on the job of caring for the sheep.

First of all, these people sell their services. There is no commitment in them. There is a job available and they pick up the job. While the going is good, they stick to their job. When there is danger and threats and problems, they leave and go their own way.

They are the opportunists, mercenaries. I sometimes wonder, where we stand in these terms. In relation to the church, the first day Lau Chin Shek said, when we were discussing about staying behind the scene, like salt and leaven dissolving ourselves, he raised a radical question, "Is there a consistency in our involvement?" Aren’t we sometimes opportunists?

A few months ago, I was in Korea talking with a fairly senior URMer. And he was telling me that he feels URM-related people are spending more time talking — about strategies, theories, ideologies (which are important, I think) and only a few are now sticking it out with laborers, workers and peasants. They all have moved on to national strategies, national programs, national priorities. What this raises basically is ‘how committed are we to people?’

The other hireling is the political messiah, who promise solutions to all problems. They could be Marxists or rightist politicians promising freedom, liberation and salvation to the people. There are the gurus, on the other hand. My country produces many of them, who are able to give you all kinds of promises in terms of new experiences and transcendence.

The Good Shepherd

We go on to the third actor — the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. I suggest looking more closely at Hebrews 5. As you can see, there is an invitation for us to be his agents. Three things briefly, I want to point out.

1) Jesus is the Truth, the door, the point of entry to the life of the sheep. We have talked about this a lot in the last couple of days. We cannot make idols of the people. There is a danger when we say that everything the people say, everything that comes out of the feelings of people, is true. If that were the case, then there would be no need for conscious intervention, and the world should by now be a just world. But that is not the case. The fact is we need to make a conscious intervention in the lives of people. That is our calling, to be the agents of Jesus Christ.

Having said that we have to continuously remind ourselves that "Jesus is the way, the truth and the life." In other words, we start with truth, we witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, the content of our Gospel is truth, and the results of our work is Truth. How shall we know we are "wrapped up" (for the lack of a better word) in truth? We have to remember, that we ourselves must pass the door, the test, whether we are action groups, churches, or donor agencies.

Many a time, involvement with people has become big business. Think of the number of people who are involved in the business of serving the people. Think of the number of staff in the donor agencies. Think of the number of people collecting for the donor agency. How many people are involved in disbursing the funds of these agencies? The recipients also have to have a big infrastructure needed to receive and allocate funds.

And when we look at this enormous operation, I wonder where the truth is? Many a time, I look for it and find it en-wrapped in a lot of falsehood — personal, structural, institutional falsehood. You cannot attack the donor agencies, a lot of people’s lives depend on them. There is institutional vested interest which often parades as people’s interest.

The ecumenical movement is at a crucial point. It is attacked by the left and by the right, by the so-called "fundamentalists" and the so-called "radicals." And the ecumenical movement is giving a lot of lip service to people’s struggle. Isn’t there a lot of falsehood in all these things, interspersed with maybe a little truth?

What I want to emphasize is, it is dangerous business to get involved with people, because you might be eaten along with the sheep by the wolves. But many of us have gone in and have tried our best to have clear priorities.

The second point is found in last stanza in Hebrews 5: "Son though he was, he learned obedience in the school of suffering, and once perfected became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" Here it talks about the discipline of the good shepherd.

We talk of Jesus Christ as the good shepherd, and he himself passed through the school of suffering to discipline himself. In most Asian religions, suffering and sacrifice, even inflicting pain upon one’s self, is a symbol of a devotee’s religiosity. Today Taiphusam is being celebrated here. In Singapore, at this time devotees pierce their nose, ears and body with pins, just to show their devotion. Religions will not be religious or complete unless there is suffering and personal injury to its members. Of course, many of these are the influence of Hinduism. I don’t want to get into that at the moment.

But the element of sacrifice is very much in Asian religions. The Buddhists say "the less desires a person has, the more free he is." So the object of happiness is to deny the human desires. I don’t want to propagate that kind of thinking but at the same time, it is important for Asians to take values from our cultures and religions. And one of the values is that, there is a school of discipline we have to go through, in fact a discipline.

The question is, what do we as action group people, what discipline do we go through. What school of suffering to do we go through? Sitting here, I can think of a number of people who have not only gone through the school of suffering, but who have really given their life away for others — Fr. Murmu, from India, the others from Korea, the Philippines.

But by and large, I am afraid, that our milieu — dealing with the demands of Western bureaucracies and ideologies, e.g. efficiency, does not put so much emphasis on suffering or going through a discipline. Pretty soon, we will be having professional project proposal writers, who will be writing for the poor, without having passed through any significant contact with the grassroots.

This is a problem, we must constantly pose to URM workers.

And finally in Hebrews 5, we talk about the source of eternal salvation. The source of freedom, liberation, redemption is the truth, and the truth is in Jesus Christ. But here I want to remind us of our Asian backgrounds. When we talk about Jesus Christ as the truth, I am not excluding anybody. I am taking here the expression "the sheep of other sheep holds" seriously. There are many who might not know Jesus Christ personally, but there is no one who is non-Christian. How can there be a non-Christian, when Christ died for all humanity and there is no one outside Christ.

So what do we mean when we say we are preaching truth in Jesus Christ? To me it means that we proclaim Jesus as Son of God and liberator. It means that we should witness to this truth that he came that all might have life and life in abundance. As we witness to this truth, we must be conscious that we are called upon to preach the good news to the people that they might fully become responsible for all creation. We are not merely doing social work. We are engaged in restoring the image of God in each person’s life, in the truth that total salvation means enabling them to become truly human, as God intended when he created human beings.

I think this is a good point for me to stop. I hope that we have been a community this last few days, and I hope we have arrived at some common reflections of our faith and our actions. I would like to thank you and say that this has been more helpful to me than it has probably been to you.

[This Bible Study is one of three that was presented at the URM Committee Consultation held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 9-12 February 1987]