The pastor of a rich suburban parish was speaking to the Sunday school kids. He told them that as the pastor he was like a shepherd and the members of his congregation were the sheep. He then put this question to them: “What does the shepherd do for the sheep?” A little fellow in the front row raised his hands and answered, “He fleeces them.” True enough, shepherds go into the business for the purpose of fleecing, milking and feeding on the sheep. But when the Bible speaks of the leaders of God’s people as shepherds, it envisions leaders who feed, protect and feel with the people as a good shepherd does for his flock.
In the New Testament, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, fulfilling God’s oath to his people. His mission is to the lost sheep of Israel. He will leave the ninety-nine in the flock in search of the one lost stray. He will lay down his life for his sheep. He will be the shepherd at the last judgment who will separate the sheep from the goats.
We saw last week how Jesus commissioned Peter to be his successor as Shepherd of the flock. (John 21:15) Today the symbol of the shepherd, the shepherd’s crook, the crosier, is used by Pope and Bishops, successors of Peter and the Apostles, at Liturgical functions. The symbol of the shepherd is also present on the Parish level in the Pastor, which in Latin means shepherd.
The people of Israel and the early Christian community cherished this image of the Good Shepherd. In Biblical times sheep were very important. They provided both food and clothing. The pastures available were such that they imposed on the shepherd the nomadic life. He had to travel with his sheep from one region to another as the seasons changed. This created a close rapport between the shepherd and his sheep. The Shepherd cares for his sheep, calls them by name, leads them to pasture and water, finds shelter for them in inclement weather, defends them against bandits and wolves, and willing lays down his life for them. The sheep have great confidence in the shepherd. They recognize his voice, obey his commands, and they follow wherever he leads them. The people of Israel and the early Christian community understood the rapport between the shepherd and his sheep. This image of the Good Shepherd does not move us as it did the people of Israel, and the early Christians. But if we really want to understand the Scriptures and to know our true relationship with God we must understand the image of the Shepherd and his sheep.
In biblical times there were two kinds of shepherds. There was the hired one for which keeping the sheep was just another job available. He could move from one flock to the other depending on the conditions of service, but he would not risk his life for them. Seeing the wolves or thieves coming he would flee for his life and leave the flock at the mercy of the invaders. Jesus said that he is not that kind of shepherd.
Then there is the shepherd-owner of the flock who grows up with the flock and stays with the same flock all his life.(we are talking about a personal God, not impersonal, a close one, not distant) He knows each and every sheep in the flock individually. He calls each one by name and could tell a personal story of each of the sheep, “when and where they were born, there problems they have in life (worries, difficulties), there personal characteristics (personalities: skills, weaknesses), etc.
He gives personal attention to each and every one of the sheep. He knows which one is likely to lag behind after a long walk and he would go and carry that one on his shoulders (specially the little ones: it will be good for you and me to be always “little ones”). He knows which one was likely to stray from the flock and He would keep an eye on that one when they get to dangerous places. He knows which ones are pregnant and need a special kind of food, He knew which one were sick and provided medicine and care….
When attacked by wolves or thieves he would fight to the death to defend even one of his sheep. He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
(By the way, the expression "laying down one's life" comes from the fact that the sheep were kept in an enclosed space with only an opening for the sheep to go in and out. At night the shepherd usually lay inconveniences like this for the good of his sheep. If any got lost he would climb mountains and hills looking for it and calling out its name. And whether the lost sheep had fallen into a pit or was trapped in a bush of thorns, as soon as it heard the voice of its master it would bleat and the shepherd would go and rescue it.)
Unfortunately, shepherds and sheep are not very common or relevant in our high tech, computerized world. And we do not like to think of ourselves as dumb, submissive animals. We are sophisticated human beings. We have an intellect and a free will, we go where we will and do what we want. And we don’t like sheep dogs yapping and snapping at our feet. But perhaps we are more like sheep than we care to admit. Just like sheep we seem to be oblivious of everything except the plot of grass that surrounds us here and now. We spend all of our time feathering this little nest here as if it will go on forever. Just like sheep we are not conscious of the ravenous wolves that surround us in the counter-culture in which we live. To say nothing of the wolves that comes to us in sheep’s clothing. And just like sheep we always think that the grass is greener on the other side, so we stray from the flock. Whether we appreciate it or not, the image of the Good Shepherd and his sheep is enshrined forever in the Bible and in Christianity. And in reality and truth it fits every generation, even our own.
“My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” (John 10: 27) We should have a quiet time each day. Turn off the radio, TV, internet, cell phone, put everything that distract you of the voice of God our Shepherd and learn to recognize His voice in prayer (come to spend one hour or some minutes in Adoration, open the Bible in the Gospels and get to know the person of Jesus-we can not love what we don’t know). What a great blessing it is to be able to recognize the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and to follow him with great joy and confidence wherever he may lead us.
As today we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, we need to ask ourselves two important questions. (1) Am I a faithful member of God’s flock? Only those sheep that follow the guidance of the shepherd could ever hope to arrive at the green pastures or be safe from the ravenous wolves. (2) How could I participate more closely in the work of shepherding God’s flock? Bishops and pastors, as well as Sunday school teachers and ushers – all participate in various forms of shepherding God’s flock. How can I be a better shepherd in my own state, reaching out with understanding and compassion to the weak and misguided dropouts of church and society, so that through me they may hear the loving voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd?
Lord, you are my Shepherd. With you, there is nothing I shall want. I will always keep my eyes fixed on your rod and staff. My courage will never falter if you are at my side.