While the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd was once very popular, many of us today might not appreciate being compared to sheep. From ancient Hebrew Scriptures Ezekiel reminds us: “I myself will look after and tend my sheep. …I will rescue them, give them rest…the lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal.” (34:12, 15-16) Our urban existence provides little information about the life-style of shepherds and their commitment to protecting the sheep under their care. Today, shepherding is a rural activity carried out by ranchers who manage their flocks with the help of dogs, horses, pick-up trucks and advanced technology. Shepherds and sheep are not images with which most of us can relate.
In today’s Gospel, the image of shepherd and his unique connection to his flock reminds us that Jesus is not only our Good Shepherd, but also the gate through which we can follow him in safety, in intimacy and in confidence. Shepherds always lead their flock, feeding and guiding them, defending them and seeing to their needs. Each evening the shepherd stood at the entrance of the sheepfold and called the sheep by name and then laid in front of the opening as protector of the flock. In the past, people protected by good shepherds joyfully celebrated their blessings and gave God the title, “Lord the Shepherd of the flock of Israel.”
This connection between divine power and shepherding was natural to ancient Israel because of their way of life, their rural existence, and their understanding of and respect for the role of shepherd. A good shepherd was a totally committed person who lived for the flock each and every day. Today we would call it a 24/7 job. Shepherding really isn’t a job at all; it’s a way of life. Being a shepherd isn’t just a way to earn a living, but a job you love. It’s a total commitment that demands a lifetime of dedication.
Shepherds are deeply caring people who are satisfied when their flock is safe, well and happy. It is the shepherd who will leave the flock unprotected to seek out the one sheep that is lost and joyfully carry it back to safety. Shepherds also possess outstanding courage necessary to protect their flock. They know their courage is strengthened by absolute faith in God who will protect them from danger whenever they risk their lives to protect their flock. From David, the shepherd and future great king of Israel we hear, “…whenever a lion or bear came to carry off a sheep from the flock, I would go after it and attack it and rescue the prey from its mouth.” (Samuel 17:33-35)
The mission and manner of shepherds depicted in the writings of the prophets and in the psalms, illustrate a poignant and powerful description of Jesus. Pope Francis, quoting his predecessor Pope Benedict, reminded us: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is calling us to be shepherd leaders to others. Ed Hays, priest and poet, poetically presented us with the 21st century “Good Shepherd” challenge:
“O Jesus, the risen One, my Good Shepherd, I seek the warm embrace of your love. For chilly as winter is the flock’s legal love, as they bleat out in refrain, ‘Sorry, but the law says…’ They’re no pilgrim flock, but a marching army, following a drummer whose beat I cannot hear. Yet I wonder, is it I who am lost---and seek to be found by you, or is it you, the Good Shepherd, who must be found?”
~ Deacon Wilson Shierk