Brief synopsis of the readings: This reading from the Acts of the Apostles comes shortly after Peter healed a man who could not walk. The religious leaders took exception to Peter doing this and Peter responded by telling them that he healed in the name of Jesus. “For of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved.” In John’s Gospel Jesus proclaims himself to be the good shepherd “who lays down his life for his sheep.” He is not one hired to watch over the sheep and doesn’t care about them, running away if a wolf approaches. Jesus lays down his life out of love for the sheep. “I lay [my life] down of my own free will and as it is in my power to lay it down, so it is in my power to take it up again; and this is the command I have been given by my Father.”
The healing of the man who could not walk (the reading uses the word “cripple” but I’m uncomfortable with that word) is a common one in Scripture; here we see that the healing was done not by Jesus but by Peter. But the religious leaders were unhappy, not with the healing, but with their teaching that Jesus rose from the dead. Peter essentially tells them that if this was a miracle and was done by the power of Jesus, they should believe in Jesus.
This is another common theme: if healing a man who was born unable to walk is good, then how can anyone have a problem with it? But I think it’s a little more complicated than this. Promises are made to this all the time; some are true, and some are not. I think we’ve all gotten the now famous email from the African prince who needs help accessing his fortune and will cut you in.
Of course almost all of us now know that this is a scam, but good people fell for it and lost their fortune. I’m certain that many of them weren’t greedy but looked on the additional money as a way to improve their lives and the lives of others. Many years ago I was at a church meeting where the icebreaker began with this question: If you were given a million dollars right now with no condition, what would you do? Nobody in the room thought about a mansion or a fancy car. We all talked about paying off student loans or helping adult children purchase a house.
So how do we decide on someone else’s offer of generosity? We can see through the African prince scam, but our faith tells us that Eucharist grants us eternal life. This is imperfect at best, but perhaps we should look at those offers that appeal to the “better angels of our nature” (to quote Abraham Lincoln). The best gifts offered to us are those gifts that made us better, not those that serve as a means to an end, regardless of how good those ends may be.
Gifts of love are never bargains and they require nothing more than our acceptance and gratitude. They are those events we will look back on in our old age and feel best about. They won’t be the events we’ll look back on and say: “Well I got the better of him in that deal” or even “I’m glad I went after that prize.”
And yet it is those “shiny objects” that lead us astray. Earlier this month we learned of the death of Bernie Madoff, a man who was thought to be a financial genius until we all found out he was a crook and lost millions of dollars as he made himself rich. Those who fell victim to him weren’t bad people, they were just lured away by the promise of something better.
I think about that when I read about sheep in Scripture. It’s often known that sheep are not the smartest of the animals and the role of the shepherd is made more difficult because of this. They, too, (left to their own devices) will wander off in search of shiny objects. With Jesus as their shepherd, why would anyone wander off in search of something better? What could be better than following Jesus and living in his protection?
Sheep wander for a number of reasons, but among them is the unawareness that there is danger out there. They (we) often wander in the belief that this is only a temporary detour and we will catch up with the herd later. The sheep have no awareness of the fact that there are wolves out there hoping for just that detour.
We need to recognize that shiny objects aren’t just wealth. Sometimes they are status or popularity or something else we think we need. Bernie Madoff’s success was due in part in his ability to convince people that by investing with him they belonged to a special club that afforded them a better reputation.
Please understand that I’m not saying we shouldn’t wish to be loved and respected. We need to be aware of financial needs for ourselves and our families. But we need not only to “keep our eyes on the prize” (to quote the civil rights movement) we need to keep our eyes on the path. Even if we know that the path Jesus calls us to ends in the safety of the sheep pen that’s not enough. Shortcuts and detours might not lead us into trouble but we know that following the Good Shepherd will never lead us into trouble.
And finally, let us not fall into the trap of the Sadducees. They insisted they had no problem with Jesus healing the man who couldn’t walk, only that they proclaimed something they “knew” wasn’t true. They “knew” Jesus didn’t rise from the dead because it went against their beliefs that there was nothing after death.
The path to salvation was not chosen by us and may lead us on paths that challenge us. Let us embrace that.