This homily delivered at St. Agnes Church is based on Luke 10:1-12; 17-20.
In today’s Gospel, the Lord sends his disciples out to the world “like sheep among wolves.”
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a sheep among wolves–especially when I go online! Try starting your day by reading your Newsfeed and getting swamped with the flood of bad news from different parts of the world: every sort of violent crimes, natural disasters, the plight of migrants and their children, not to mention unfit government heads with too much power in their hands.
And just when you think you can’t feel any worse, you make the mistake of checking out some of the comments on social media. It’s incredible–and frightening–how vicious some of these posts are. The illusion of online anonymity has emboldened many of us to share our most self-righteous reactions in the nastiest–even the most racist and sexist–way.
In 2015, journalist Jon Ronson wrote a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. He tracked down some rather prominent victims of online bashing to chronicle what has happened to them since their public shaming. Here’s what he found: Not only have they all lost their jobs and reputations, but because of the viral–and virtually permanent–online record of their past, many have also been, for many years, deprived of a second shot in life.
For instance, one woman made the mistake of tweeting a bad joke to her thirty-or-so followers, but one of those followers retweeted it, and before anyone knew it, her tweet had gone viral, starting a feeding frenzy among the online mob. Many demanded for her to be fired and worse–as these bashers often do when it comes to a woman–to be raped! The woman was traumatized: she lost her job, and for years, couldn’t find another one because the first thing that any potential employer found when they googled her wasn’t exactly something you would include in yourresume.
Given such an unforgiving “call-out” social media culture that we live in, sometimes you can’t help but feel that the world is teeming with wolves, just waiting to pounce on you the moment you make one wrong move.
So when our Lord says he is sending us out to the world “like sheep among wolves,” his words ring truer than ever today. But then, in today’s Gospel passage, the Lord also does something completely surprising immediately after saying that. He tells them: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals.”
Now, I would think that the warning about wolves would prompt Jesus to advise the disciples to equip themselves or even arm themselves in preparation for the expected onslaught of wolves. Instead, he disarms them.
What’s going on here? What could be our Lord’s message to us in a world that seems to be crawling with wolves?
I have two guesses–and each comes with a question that we need to ask ourselves.
First, however we choose to deal with the wolves around us, the last thing the Lord wants us to do is to turn into one ourselves. This is the reason Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to prepare themselves for battle. Sure, using the same tactics to beat our enemies at their own game may seem more effective. But if we employ their tactics, if we resort to violence to fight violence, we will find only find ourselves playing the same game and we end up no better than the wolves ourselves.
Our Lord invites us instead to greet everyone we meet–sheep or wolf–with peace, and to let that greeting of peace do its work. If the peace is refused, we simply move on.
One of the most surprising and telling insights in Ronson’s investigation of online bashing is that the perpetrators aren’t just the so-called professional trolls. Aside from these usual suspects, the perpetrators include quite ordinary folks just like you and me. Some of us, it seems, suffer from digital schizophrenia, a digital split personality, if you will, with a hidden alternative Mr. Hyde-like persona that can show up the moment we go online. So it’s quite possible that seemingly gentle and shy people are not so gentle and shy in virtual reality–and that includes us!
So the first question we need to ask ourselves is: Am I potentially–or in actual fact–a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
The second invitation, I think, is to imagine how our Lord, the Good Shepherd, would deal with the prowling wolves who are waiting to attack his unsuspecting flock of sheep. We know that the Good Shepherd is ready to protect his flock at all costs; he is even willing to lay down his life for his sheep. But what about the wolves?
Is it possible that when the Lord looks at a wolf, he sees not just what the rest of us see–a dangerous predator best eliminated at all costs? Would it be too far-fetched to imagine that when he lays his eyes on a wolf, the Lord — he who can read hearts — sees beyond the surface and recognizes a sheep hiding underneath all that wolves’ clothing?
Think of the people we regard as harmful, whether or not they are personal enemies or just a danger to society in general? Are they in fact “sheep in wolves’ clothing?” Were they once upon a time sheep like us, but because of hurtful things that happened to them, have been turned into wolves?
Recognizing the hidden sheep in wolves allows our fears and anger to melt away, and whatever hurt and resentment we nurse in our hearts to begin healing. Perhaps we are expected not so much to fight wolves or even to fend them off. Rather, instead we are being invited to try our best to win them, to coax the inner sheep out from out of their wolves’ disguise. Could it be that the proper response to wolves is not fight, not flight, but faith–faith in their inherent goodness, no matter how tiny or invisible the flicker?
This is probably how the Lord would deal with them, to invite them to be to step out of their wolves’ clothing, in short, by loving them and taming them so that they would be willing to return to being sheep.
This doesn’t mean to allowing yourself to be harmed unnecessarily. We probably need to take all the necessary precautions. Unfortunately, there are people who will act like wolves no matter how hard you try, but the point is, it’s worth a try.
So here’s the second set of questions for us today: Thinking of the wolves in our world, can we bring ourselves to look for the sheep buried under the wolves’ clothing? Can we try to love them and tame them back into sheep?
It’s a tall order. But we must try–at least we should exhaust this possibility. To be able to do it, however, we need loads of compassion and courage. Let us pray for these two graces today.