This blog was adapted from a speech given to our high school students in chapel in the fall of 2022.
Twenty-four years ago, during my first few months of teaching in classical education, my colleagues were tossing around confusing terms I'd never heard before, like grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The literature teachers were obsessed with The Simpsons; all they did was talk nonstop about Homer, and I couldn't understand their obsession with Bart's father. When I finally got up the nerve to ask the head of the English Department about this, she politely informed me that Homer was a Greek writer who gave us two epic poems: The Iliad and The Odyssey.
The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus' ten-year homecoming following the decade-long Trojan War. In book twelve, the enchantress Circe warns Odysseus and his men about the irresistibly, beguiling voices of The Sirens. If Odysseus and his men listen to them, they'll be lured to their deaths. Odysseus' response was to cram beeswax in his men's ears. Odysseus desperately wanted to listen to The Sirens' song, so he instructed his men to tie him to the mast of his ship with ropes. When Odysseus heard The Sirens' voices, he was mesmerized and wanted to plunge into the waters. He was so sure The Sirens were beautiful that he strained against the ropes until they cut into his flesh. His men -who couldn't hear The Sirens' voices- saw them for the hideous monsters they really were.
About seven hundred years after Homer gave us The Odyssey, Jesus would speak the following words in His story of the Good Shepherd in John 10.
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.
In these scriptures, it isn't difficult to identify the Good Shepherd because Jesus says- not once, but twice- "I am the good shepherd." In Greek, the sentence actually reads, "I am the shepherd, the good one," so Jesus is saying there are other shepherds, but He is the good one. In the allegory, you and I are his sheep. And, to be clear, being referred to as sheep is not a compliment because sheep are routinely described as dumb and defenseless.
The stories of Odysseus' encounter with the Sirens and the Good Shepherd both involve a voice or voices calling out. However, there are critical differences in the voices. In The Odyssey, seductive and potentially lethal voices call out indiscriminately to anyone willing to listen, their objective is to lure listeners to their doom. Meanwhile, the story of the Good Shepherd features a single voice that calls his sheep by name and, in vivid contrast to The Sirens' voices, the Good Shepherd says he cares so much for his sheep that he will lay down his life for them.
It's been nearly two thousand years since Jesus told the story of the Good Shepherd and around two thousand seven hundred years since Homer wrote about Odysseus and The Sirens. They're both really old, and because they are, we're tempted to dismiss them as antiquated and irrelevant. Although they may be antiquated, I suggest they're still relevant for one simple reason; there are still two voices calling us today.
Which voice are we listening to?
To answer this question, we must be able to tell the difference between the voices and understand what it means to genuinely listen.
The Good Shepherd begins by saying he calls his sheep by name. To us, a name is just something written on a birth certificate. You don't have to genuinely know someone to call them by name. However, to anyone listening to the story of the Good Shepherd in the first century, to know someone by name was to know them intimately. When the Good Shepherd says he calls his sheep by name, he knows everything about them. He knows their hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows. He knows the shameful things they hide in the dark corners of their hearts. When the sheep hear the Good Shepherd call their name, they follow him. Unlike some shepherds who drive their sheep by prodding them from behind or using a sheepdog, the Good Shepherd leads his sheep.
Despite all this, the sheep are still reluctant to follow him because he also says some things they don't like. For example, in the brief portion of the story I read, he repeatedly identifies the sheep as "his own." In fact, he says it four different times because he doesn't want the sheep to miss his point. He's not a hired hand brought in to tend someone else's sheep; he owns them. He paid an incredible price for his sheep. The sheep don't like hearing this because they have been taught from their youth that self is supreme, personal freedom is sacred, and to forfeit supremacy or freedom is to risk being oppressed. The sheep also don't like that the Good Shepherd insists that he, alone, among all shepherds, is the good one, and, as such, he places limits on them because he wants them to flourish. The sheep, however, want a life without limits, so they chase other shepherds.
In contrast to the voice of the Good Shepherd, the siren voice of the world will, at times, whisper to us seductively and, on other occasions, ferociously scream at us. Although the message's packaging constantly mutates, the voice always tells us the same thing; we belong to ourselves. And, because we belong to ourselves, no one else has the right to define us, no one else can direct our life's journey, no one else can set limits on who we are or what we can do, and we alone have the right to determine the meaning of our lives. This voice tells us that truth isn't an objective, external reality but a subjective, internal experience based on our feelings. We have to live our truth, and we get to decide why our life matters. Best of all, because we belong to ourselves, we get to determine right and wrong.
The siren voice doesn't know us intimately or love us unconditionally. Therefore, it cannot give us the acknowledgment and affirmation we need. As a result, we set out on a never-ending quest hoping that, one day, it will give us its approval. Unfortunately, in our desperate search for that approval, our lives become nothing more than one self-improvement project after another. Since most people around us are caught up in the same never-ending quest, the world becomes hyper-competitive. The siren voice can't give us the affirmation we need, so it offers us likes, followers and retweets. In this hyper-competitive world, everyone's a threat, and other people become things we use to get what we want. In this world, compassion for our fellow man vanishes.
These are two very different voices that never stop calling. Right now, each of us is listening to one of them; we've made a choice, either knowingly or unknowingly. Identifying the voice we're listening to requires understanding what it really means to listen. For most of us, listening is a passive, mental activity; we detect sounds, assign meaning to them, and no further action is required. This is a modern, Western definition of listening. However, for other people in other places, listening means something very different. In Hebrew, a single word, shema, is used interchangeably for hearing, listening, and obeying. Listening isn't just a passive mental process; by this definition, listening to a voice requires a proper response. We can say we're listening to a particular voice, but if we're not responding properly, we're not really listening.
The only proper response for God’s people is to love God with all our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). If we don't respond in the prescribed manner, we aren't really listening. We may say we are, but not according to the Hebrew understanding of what it means to listen.
My hope and prayer is that we will be courageous enough to ask which voice we are listening to and whether we are properly responding to the voice we say we are listening to