FOLLOWING THE SHEPHERD
On this Good Shepherd Sunday and World Day of Prayer for Vocations, the Church reminds us of our call to become good shepherds of God’s flock and good sheep of His parishes and invites us to pray for vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate and the consecrated life. Both the Old and New Testaments use the image of a Shepherd and His flock to describe the unique relationship of God with Israel and of the Christ with Christians.
The first reading (Acts 2:14a, 36-41) is taken from St. Peter’s first sermon, given on Pentecost. Here, he exhorts his listeners to know beyond any doubt that the One they have allowed to be crucified is the true Shepherd, the Lord and Messiah. This text gives us a summary of the whole Gospel message: Who Jesus is, how he saves us, and how we should respond. Peter tells the people: “You crucified your God and Messiah, but he has risen from death and offers you forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
It is instructive to note that after Peter delivered his sermon, the people were cut to the heart, and inquired what they needed to do (Acts 2: 37) and Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. (Acts 2:38)
Beloved, how often do we hear the word of God and remain unperturbed? The word of God should prompt us to repentance and conversion. Like the multitude, we must not allow the word of God to fall on deaf ears. Many a times, we attend Mass only to be entertained by the homilies and reflections we hear. We never allow them to take a deep root in us. Right after the Mass we immediately return to the same old things we were used to; our desire for conversion is never skin deep. As scripture records, “save yourselves from this crooked generation”. (Acts 2: 40b) We cannot keep living the useless way of life, which promises what it does not fulfill. By virtue of our baptism, we have become new creatures and the practical consequence of baptism is conversion. This journey of conversion can only be possible with Jesus, who is our true shepherd.
The second reading (1 Peter 2:20b-25) continues the "shepherd” imagery. The "shepherd" reference in the last verse of this reading from Peter’s epistle links it to the day's Gospel. “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds, you have been healed. For you had gone astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd, the guardian of your souls” (1Peter 2: 24-25).
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. That is exactly the background of today’s gospel narrative. Jesus was not talking to his followers instead He was addressing the Pharisees. In John 9: 1-41, Jesus had performed a very spectacular but controversial feat, by healing the man who was born blind on the Sabbath. In His response, Jesus contrast between the good shepherd and the hireling. He says he is the Good Shepherd. He is not like the hired hands that collect their pay for watching the sheep but abandon the sheep in their time of need because they never really cared about the sheep. So, the Pharisees knew exactly what Jesus meant — He was claiming to be God. They also knew he was contrasting himself to them — the hired hands entrusted to care for God’s people, but caring only for themselves.
The title “shepherd” in the Hebrew Bible refers primarily to God who shepherds His people. This is brought out in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd” (responsorial psalm). Here God is portrayed as a faithful and good shepherd who leads the flock into well-being and abundance (“green pastures”) and keeps them safe from every danger (“valley of darkness”) such that they want for nothing and fear no evil even as they are surrounded by their foes (wolves and lions). Kings, as God’s anointed deputies, were also referred to as shepherds. But some of them only got the title and not the qualities of a shepherd. Instead of feeding the sheep entrusted to their care they fed on them. God raised up prophets like Ezekiel to denounce such shepherds: “Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.” (Ezekiel 34:2-6)
On account of the infidelity of the shepherds to their divine calling, God made this promise to his people that He Himself was going to be their shepherd, their good shepherd, “I myself will tend My sheep …I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (Ezekiel 34:15-16). This promise was fulfilled in Jesus who declared himself to be the Good Shepherd who has come “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his own life to protect his flock. In those days, shepherds guarding their flock by night would gather their flocks into an enclosure and sleep literally by lying across the entrance so that before a wild beast would attack the sheep it would have to attack them first.
In Palestine, the word "shepherd" was a synonym for selfless love, sincerity, commitment and sacrificial service. Hence, Jesus selects it as the most fitting term to denote his life and mission. The prophets pointed out the main duties of the Good Shepherd: 1) The Good Shepherd leads the sheep to the pasture, provides them with food and water and protects them. In Palestine, the shepherd went in front and the sheep followed behind. 2) He guarded them, not allowing them to get lost in the desert or become victims of robbers and wild animals - preventive vigilance. 3) He went in search of the lost ones and healed their wounds - protective vigilance. 4) He was ready to surrender his life for his sheep - redemptive vigilance.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes or, better, defines himself a number of times, in a variety of ways: “I am the bread of life... I am the light of the world... I am the resurrection and the life... I am the way, and the truth, and the life... I am the true vine.” Today we encountered another such saying. Without looking at it again, do you remember what it is? The correct response is, “I am the gate,” and Jesus says it twice.
The title of Jesus as the gate represents His leadership. Jesus is the Gate, the only Way. He is the One Mediator between God and mankind. All must go through Him, through His Church, in order to arrive in Heaven. By identifying Himself with the sheep-gate, Jesus gives the assurance that whoever enters the pen through Him will be safe and well cared-for. Jesus is the living Door to His Father’s house and Father’s family, the Door into the Father’s safety and into the fullness of life. It is through Jesus, the Door that we come into the sheepfold where we are protected from the wolves of life. Gates—and doors, I guess—serve a double purpose. First, they keep us inside and others outside. They create a barrier that gives us a certain sense of safety, even of control. Secondly, they open to let us come and go as we please, so we can go about the business of our life.
Before Jesus left the world, he commissioned Peter to feed his lambs and tend his sheep (John 21:15-16). The work of shepherding God’s flocks is an ongoing task that is entrusted to the whole church with Peter as head. 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 who 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? 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?
Everyone who is entrusted with the care of others is a shepherd. Hence, pastors, parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, government officials, and caregivers, among others, are all shepherds. We become good shepherds by loving those entrusted to us, praying for them, spending our time, talents and blessings for their welfare, and guarding them from physical and spiritual dangers. Parents must be especially careful of their duties toward their children, giving them good example and sound religious instruction. Above all, parents should pray for their children and infuse into them sound Christian moral principles.
We should ask ourselves: “Whose voice am I following?” Some of us listen to only our own inner voice. Nobody, we tell ourselves, can tell me what to do or what to believe. Others of us listen to the seductive whispers of the world. Still others pay little attention to any call other than their urges, drives, or desires. We all know that many voices call us and we need to be aware of them, where they are coming from, and where they will lead us.
As the good sheep of the parish, parishioners are expected to; Hear and follow the voice of our shepherds through their homilies, Bible classes, counseling and advice. Also, receive the spiritual food given by our pastors by regular participation in the Holy Mass, by frequenting the Sacraments and by participating in prayer services, renewal programs and missions as far as we are able to do so. By cooperating with our pastors by giving them positive suggestions for the welfare of the parish, by encouraging them in their duties, by lovingly correcting them with constructive criticism when they are found misbehaving or failing in their duties and, always, by praying for them. We can and should actively participate in the work of various councils, ministries and parish associations.
Finally, all Christians share in the responsibility of fostering vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. The faith community must continuously pray for vocations both in the Church and in their families. We must also note that vocations are not limited to only the priesthood and the religious life, but it extends to what we are called to do as Christians. Each of us must ask ourselves if our own work, our careers, our everyday activities give glory and witness to God!
Prayer - Lord Jesus, you always lead me in the way of true peace and safety. May I never doubt your care nor stray from your ways. Keep me safe in the shelter of your presence. Amen!!!