By Malcolm Muggeridge
From the 'Christmas Special' supplement to
the Catholic Herald dated December 1, 1972
An advantage of being, as I am, only a belated reader of the New
Testament, is that one often finds a freshness of enchantment in
sentences and phrases which, I imagine, come to seem commonplace to more
erudite and systematic readers. This is what happened with the three
words, "Feed my sheep."
I found myself saying them over and over
with a sense of great joyfulness, as though they were the key to some
special revelation. One of those crystalisations of meaning which
mystics and poets fashion for us.
They occur, of course, in a
rather curious thrice-repeated exchange between Peter and the Risen
Christ, in which, having asked Peter three times if he loved him, and
being assured each time that he did, Jesus added, first, "Feed my
lambs," and then, the other two times, "Feed my sheep."
irresistibly recalls that threefold denial of his Master of which poor
Peter had been guilty shortly before - something I can never recall
without an agonizing pang at having likewise offended, not just once on
a dramatic occasion, but again and again.
A shepherd and his
flock provided Jesus with one of his favourite images. Even today in the
Holy Land one can easily see why. The shepherd tending his sheep,
finding them shade and water, seeing that none stray too far away,
picking up in his arms one who may be lame, or too small to keep up with
the others, is still a familiar sight. It perfectly demonstrates in
simple earthly terms Jesus's purpose in coming among us; he was the Good
Shepherd, and so he has been known through the centuries.
it rather sad to reflect that this imagery is soon to become obsolete
and incomprehensible in our technological world, if it hasn't become so
already. One can scarcely look for the Good Shepherd in factory farms,
where animals are accorded just enough statutory room to stand up in;
where they never see the light of the sun, or the green of the grass, or
the blue of the sky. Still less in the manufacture of our food
requirements from petroleum products and other such unappetising
Who, I wonder, will be able to detect the image of a
Saviour in the man with the hormone-injector, whose ministrations are
liable to transform our domestic animals into weird, unseemly, top-heavy
creatures, mercifully hidden from our view?
Surely, the first
necessity we are under is to respect life; every aspect of it. Not just
those of our fellow-men who are dear and familiar to us; our families
and friends. Nor even just our fellow-humans who share the same
essential experience of living.
All and every manifestation of
life; the croak of a frog, the contour of a hill, even the very
particles of desert dust and the obscure flowering of hidden verges. All
that lives and is on our small earth and in the illimitable universe.
So "Feed my sheep" applies to the whole flock, black, white and
piebald. There are no exceptions. And if we fail in according this
respect to life as such, if in our insensate greed we wreck and
impoverish and poison our human habitation, then we may be sure that in
the long run we shall wreck and impoverish and poison ourselves.
For never let it be forgotten that we, too, can be plausibly regarded as
being more productive, more hygienic, more controllable, in conditioned
captivity than free-ranging. Shades of the broiler-house closing around
us; with the prospect of being perfectly born under genetic control, and
of perfectly dying when, in the estimation of doctor-priests, our
carcasses no longer rate sustaining.
Broiler houses in chromium
and glass climbing into the sky, for men not fowl; computers working out
our mortal destiny as beautifully as they do the census or the trade
returns, and all impediments in our pursuit of happiness counteracted by
instant contraception, abortion and divorce - those three pillars of
Maybe even death itself abolished; our
bodies maintained like vintage cars, kept on the road indefinitely by
replacing their parts as they wear out. Instead of carburetors and
plugs, livers and kidneys and hearts; perhaps in time genitals and
brains as well.
We live in a society which can produce in more
or less unlimited quantities everything, and more than everything, we
can possibly want to feed and clothe and divert ourselves. From turbines
to potato crisps, from giant airliners to birth pills - everything.
The problem with us is not food supplies, but appetite. How to induce us
to eat when we're not hungry, to discard what is not worn out, to
indulge every whim and fancy that vanity and the senses can be lured
So appeals to cupidity, appeals to
sensuality, appeals to morbidity, all on behalf of the great Moloch -
consumption. The same message spelt out in neon lights, printed in
words, embellished in colour, yelled in discotheques, whispered by
crooners, related to the built-in urges of our way of life - money, sex
An enormous flourishing industry, designed to
ensure that greed never flags, sensuality never abates; that our heart's
desire is caught forever in traps that are fastened to the earth and
baited with flesh.
Then the other side of the picture. Calcutta
in the early morning; the streets strewn with the sleeping destitute and
homeless, the garbage piled high and a few early risers poking about in
it for something edible. A macabre fantasy; a tiny corner of a vast and
mounting tragedy involving the greater part of the human race.
Confronted with this crazy contradiction between, on the one hand, so
many hungry sheep, and, on the other, so many over-indulged ones under
constant pressure and persuasion to indulge themselves further, what is
to be done? There are those who very properly attempt to rectify the
balance by charitable endeavour or political agitation.
particularly among the young, consider that the only valid answer is yet
another revolution whereby, as is promised in the "Magnificat", the
hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. A
more self-righteous approach to the problem lies in attributing the
trouble to there being too many people in the world.
When I was
young the same sort of attitude was taken by the middle and upper
classes towards the poor. They had selfishly become too numerous, they
were told. So today, when the so-called developing nations ask for
bread, we give them birth pills.
Has there ever, I wonder, been
a stranger evangel than this - missionaries of sterility, colporteurs of
contraceptives; bearers, as though it were our civilisation's proudest
product, of ingeniously devised means to make procreation
un-procreative? "Feed my sheep", yes, but not, surely, with birth pills!
Jesus himself well understood what poverty is from first-hand
experience. He lived for the most part among the poor, and as the
Gospels tell us, unlike foxes which have holes and the birds of the air
which have nests, often had nowhere to lay his head. Through the
centuries that followed some of the most attractive and effective of his
followers, from St. Francis to Mother Teresa, have sought and loved
poverty for his sake.
Jesus also knew what riches were and what
they do to people. In the Roman cities of Tiberius and Capernaum, whose
ruins one may see today by the lake of Galilee, he could observe a way
of life uncommonly like ours; an affluent, permissive society dedicated
to growing ever more affluent and permissive, with the games providing,
like our media, the vicarious and morally debilitating excitement of
violence and eroticism.
When Jesus said "Feed my sheep" he was
not, then, launching a charitable appeal, or proclaiming a revolution,
or even preparing the way for a family-planning service.
was to come of his words was the New Testament, not the New Statesman.
He himself, he said, was the bread of life, and no one partaking of it
would ever again hunger or thirst. In twentieth century terms this seems
like expressing indifference to actual physical hunger and deprivation,
but quite the opposite was the case.
Through the life and
teaching of Jesus we may know how the suffering of every living
creature, even of a sparrow falling to the ground, is part of the
suffering of God, and that His purpose for us comprises seeking in all
circumstances to relieve suffering and to help and support the weak and
How to put into words this innermost mystery of
the Christian Faith? That it is only in being indifferent to our bodily
needs that we can truly care about them in others. That it is only in
seeing beyond this world that we can truly see into its troubles and its
beauties, and only in being a stranger here on earth and among our
fellow-men that the earth can be so dear a home and mankind so dear a
That to live we must die.
It was accompanying
Mother Teresa to the scene of the various activities of her Missionaries
of Charity, to the house of the dying where derelicts from the streets
are brought in so that at least in their last moments they may see a
loving face and hear a word of love, to the homes for unwanted children
sometimes pulled out of dustbins, and to the leper settlements, that I
came nearest to understanding for a moment what Jesus meant by feeding
For I had reached beyond horror and beyond
compassion, into an awareness never before experienced that somehow
these dying and derelict human beings, these abandoned children and
lepers with stumps instead of arms, were not repulsive or pitiable, but
brothers and sisters upon whom, through the agency of Mother Teresa's
perfect dedication, the bright radiance of God's universal love shone,
as it did on all creation.
Reproduced with thanks.
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