I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.
In the oldest parts of the Bible the word ‘shepherd’ is bound up with the idea of nomadic life. Nomads lived above all as shepherds moving their flocks or herds from one pasturage to another. The prophets of the OT always tended to look back on Israel’s early years when the people were nomads moving from place to place, as the ideal period in her history as God’s Chosen People; because – like nomads – true seekers of God should never be settled, fixed, attached to any particular place or situation, but be always in search of God, ever listening for His voice and prepared to follow wheresoever it might lead them.
Jesus presents Himself in today’s Gospel as the true shepherd sent by His Father to lead His flock of believers on their journey through life to the rich pastures of eternal beatitude before His Father in heaven. Let me now quote a pertinent passage from H. V. Morton’s book, “In the steps of the Master” (p. 154s.):
On the roads of Palestine and on the hills, you see the good shepherd. He comes along at the head of his flock … He never drives them as our own shepherds drive their sheep. He always walks at their head, leading them along the roads and over the hills to new pasture; and as he goes he sometimes talks to them in a loud sing-song voice, using a weird language unlike anything I have ever heard in my life. The first time I heard this sheep and goat language I was on the hills at the back of Jericho. A goatherd had descended into a valley and was mounting the slope of an opposite hill when, turning round, he saw his goats had remained behind. Lifting up his voice he spoke to the goats in a language that was uncanny because there was nothing human about it. The words were animal sounds arranged in a kind of order. No sooner had he spoken than an answering bleat shivered over the herd, and one or two of the animals turned their heads in his direction. But they did not obey him. The goatherd then called out one word and gave a laughing kind of whinny. Immediately a goat with a bell round his neck stopped eating and, leaving the herd, trotted down the hill, across the valley and up the opposite slopes. The man, accompanied by this animal, walked on and disappeared round a ledge of rock. Very soon a panic spread among the herd. They forgot to eat. They looked up for the shepherd: he was not to be seen. They became conscious that the leader with the bell at his neck was no longer with them. From the distance came the strange laughing call of the shepherd, and at the sound of it, the entire herd stampeded into the hollow and leapt up the hill after him….. Everything is done by word of mouth – not by our principle of droving. The sheep dog is used not to drive sheep but to protect them against thieves and wild animals. One reason why the sheep and the shepherd are on such close terms in the Holy Land is that the sheep are kept chiefly for wool and milk, and therefore live longer and exist together as a flock for a considerable time. Also, the shepherd spends his life with them. He is with them from their birth onwards, day and night, for even when they are driven into a cave or sheep-fold for the night he never leaves them.
We can understand from that picture just how absolutely important and quasi-personal is the relationship between the shepherd and his flock: the sheep have to be in the flock and in tune with the shepherd in order to find food and protection, because the shepherd not only leads the flock in search of fresh pastures but he also guards it from animals which would slaughter and men who would steal. With that, therefore, in mind we can recall the following words from the Song of Solomon (1:7):
Tell me, you whom my heart loves, where you pasture your flock, where you give them rest at midday, lest I be found wandering after the flocks of your companions.
Lord Jesus, all Christian people would say that they love you. Therefore, why are so many of them content to be among the flocks of your companions? Surely, if they loved you as much as they say they would pray in those words:
Tell me, O You Whom my soul loves, where do You pasture Your flock?
Jesus is the ultimate, the sublimely unique Good Shepherd, Who, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us (10:12s.):
Offered one sacrifice for sins, and took His seat forever at the right hand of God; now He waits until His enemies are made His footstool.
Knowing that He was indeed soon to leave His disciples and go back to His heavenly Father at Whose right hand He now makes constant intercession for us:
Jesus, when they had finished breakfast, said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs”. He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was distressed that He had said to him a third time, “Do you love Me?” and he said to Him, “Lord, You know everything; You know that I love You.” (Jesus) said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (Jn. 21:15s.)
So, here on earth, there is one flock, one Catholic and universal Church, belonging to the one Good Shepherd, and that flock is under the leadership of a shepherd who is himself a sheep, but one expressly appointed and endowed by the Risen Lord to bear the Keys of the Kingdom, one whose supreme privilege and most solemn duty it is to lead the flock in such a way that it might become God the Father’s chosen instrument to:
Make all His (the Lord Jesus’) enemies a footstool for His feet.
And when that will have been achieved Peter himself, the leader chosen for that work, tells us (1 Peter 5:4):
When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory;
for Peter knows himself to be shepherd of the flock only to glorify the Chief Shepherd and -- in the power of the Spirit -- to prepare a people for His coming.
Why, then, are there so many who – loving Christians at heart – do not cry out in chorus with the lover in the Song of Songs again:
Tell me, You Whom my heart loves, where You pasture Your flock, where You give them rest at midday?
Why are so many Christians apparently content to be where she says could not bear to be found:
Wandering after the flocks of your companions?
The answer, People of God, is: the mystery of sin. For, though we in Mother Church are the instrument which the Father has specially chosen to:
Make all His (Jesus’) enemies a footstool for His feet;
nevertheless, we are still not allowing the truth of Jesus to shine clearly in and through our lives; with the consequence that some of those apparently content to be separated from the flock of Jesus shepherded by Peter, are not, it would seem, as yet able to recognise the fullness of the truth about the Jesus they love, in our proclamation of His Name. For Jesus said quite unequivocably:
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to My voice. (John 18:37)
Let us therefore pray most urgently, People of God, that we may be able so to listen to the voice of Our Lord that it may penetrate into and resonate deeply within us, transforming our personal lives so that, His voice, His truth, may be persuasively perceptible in our humble proclamation of and daily witness to His most Holy Name.
I am not speaking here about any dramatic endeavours, certainly no histrionics; I am not even thinking of deliberate efforts to witness before others, certainly not of publically arguing with any; I am just thinking of heart-felt, personal, love of Jesus; humble obedience to His will; and sincere gratitude to God the Father for His great goodness to us in Mother Church… because that is the ‘ammunition’, so to speak, that the Spirit wants us to provide for Him, with which to target those He seeks to bring into the glorious beauty of Catholic Unity.
To that end, we – His witnessing disciples -- must have greater desire and deeper longing to personally re-discover, hear afresh, and respond more faithfully to, the voice of Jesus sounding clearly in the teaching and Sacraments of Mother Church today:
First of all in our conscience: ‘when he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking’ (Catechism 1777). People of God, seek to consult, learn to listen to, and try to follow, your conscience in simplicity and humility, and gradually you will come to hear and more clearly recognize, appreciate, and more lovingly obey, God thus speaking most intimately with you and to you.
Secondly in our intimacy with the Scriptures of Mother Church; as, with Mary, we ponder them, lovingly and frequently, in our heart:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
Jesus said, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but shall do My will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17; Matthew 4:4; Isaiah 55:11)
And finally, the voice of Christ is to be heard in the public teaching, and our personal experience of divine worship (above all the Most Holy Eucharist), and Christian fellowship in Mother Church:
Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age. (Matt. 28:20)
Whoever listens to you listens to Me. Whoever rejects you rejects Me. And whoever rejects Me rejects the One Who sent Me.” (Luke 10:16)
That great mystery of human sinfulness -- which does not only occasion, more or less unwittingly, the obstruction and/or distortion of the beauty of Jesus’ ‘Good News’, but can even lead to and provoke the deliberate rejection of God’s great goodness and mercy contained therein -- is the reason why our blessed Lord Himself had to die: His supreme sacrifice alone could save us.
And that brings me to a complementary aspect of our Gospel reading today:
This is why the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life in order to take it up again.
Just recall words from our second reading:
See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him. (3:1-2)
It is, therefore, absolutely important for us to fix our hope on Jesus: not just for our own selves, but for the whole world, indeed for Jesus and the Father. For, as you heard, Jesus -- Risen from the Dead -- and speaking most intimately of His heart’s desire and of His own future Kingdom and Glory, said:
I have other sheep, not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.
Therefore, if we are indeed sheep who rightly belong to His fold, then “hearing His voice” we must recognize that His words are our vocation. “I must bring them also”, means therefore for us, “we must bring them also”. How? Through fixing our hopes on Him and thereby seeking most seriously to purify our lives:
(For) we know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
That work will only approach completion to the extent that we Christians and Catholics become pure enough to allow the Spirit of Jesus to shine in and through our lives, thus giving authentic witness to Him before the many who are not in the flocks of those ‘companions’ of Jesus mentioned in the Song of Songs; the many who, indeed, have not yet come to any spiritual awareness of and responsiveness to Jesus as Lord and Saviour, and are to be found consorting -- unwittingly perhaps -- with His enemies or those who thoughtlessly mock Him.
All that demands a deeply serious, loving and committed, spirituality: a continuous walking with Jesus in all the steps we take, the decisions we make, the thoughts we entertain, and the hopes we treasure. We, His disciples, have to learn from Jesus’ Spirit how to sacrifice ourselves with Him in Mother Church: not, generally speaking, in His sacrifice of body and blood, but, most certainly and not less importantly, in His sacrifice of loving obedience and trust in His Father’s loving Providence, His daily praise and thanksgiving, His patience and strength under trials and temptations, together with our very own humble contrition. Note however, all such efforts at personal sincerity and spiritual commitment to Jesus in all the nooks and crannies of our life will gain for us who make them the most wonderful blessing of the Father’s special love even here on earth:
Jesus answered and said, “Whoever loves Me will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our dwelling with him. (John 14:23)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, the Risen Lord said: “I must bring them also”; surely, therefore, our lips will best express our hearts in harmony with the Apostles, with the words, ‘let us join with you Lord’. For, to quote Peter (Acts 4:12):
There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name (than that of ‘Jesus’) under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”