First Reading Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12 Second Reading 1 John 3:1-2
Gospel John 10:11-18 Intention: 2015 Graduates
Says Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me!” Jesus’ identification as the good shepherd is read on this Sunday in all three of the cycle of readings. No wonder this is called Good Shepherd Sunday. It is also designated World Day of Prayer for Vocations. There are frequent references in Scripture to sheep. Just the other morning we heard “Like a sheep he was led to slaughter and as a lamb before the shearers is silent. In Handel’s “Messiah” we sing “Like sheep we have gone astray.” Depictions of the Good Shepherd are among the earliest in church art. One of the earliest paintings of Christ in the Roman catacombs represents him as carrying an injured sheep on his shoulders. It was, and remains, an endearing and intimate image of a loving relationship – nurturing, life-giving, transforming, empowering.
The image of the Good Shepherd seems to be a favorite of Pope Francis. One that he not only speaks about but a likeness he models for clergy and laity alike. He embraces people with God’s love and challenges cardinals, bishops, priests and deacons to imitate the Good Shepherd in their ministry. At the washing of feet on Holy Thursday his action overwhelmed Catholics, Christians and non-Christians – men and women – even though technically church law says he should not be washing women’s feet. His words and actions reinforce the message: There’s equality. We’re all one. In Jesus, there’s no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, rich or poor — we’re all one. Francis demonstrates simplicity by his manner of life. He shows us what’s important. He shares his goods. He lives in a simple apartment. He takes the bus like he did when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires. He cooks his own meals.
He shows us how to “walk the talk” of Gospel simplicity. In the words of Bishop Gumbleton, “Francis is raising the hopes of people everywhere, and that will gradually transform our world. When all of us catch that spirit and act according to the spirit of Jesus, act like the Good Shepherd — reaching out, drawing everybody in, sharing what we have — the reign of God begins to come more into its fullness in our world.”
Many people agree that Francis is a contemporary example of simplicity and stewardship – but you know others who similarity influence you, and in some cases, the world. Starting with St. Benedict, down through the ages of Benedictinism, men and women monastics, continue to demonstrate a good shepherd’s concern for the sheep given into their care. They foster a relationship that is at the heart of the difference between the good shepherd and the hireling. The good shepherd knows the sheep and acts out of love. For good shepherds this is never simply part of a job; this love-in-action is integral to their identity.
Some understanding of sheep and the art and skill of shepherding gives us insight into the relationship that Jesus and Pope Francis are referring to. Shepherds must anticipate the needs of their sheep for food, water, sleep, leadership and protection. Sheep are commonly described as stupid, lacking initiative, overly dependent copy cats, simple and playful. They have insatiable appetites, suckling from the moment they can stand upright. Sheep are skittish and unpredictable in their reactions especially to loud noises. Sheep are best known for their strong flocking or herding instinct and submissive to their elders. They are very social and need to see one another when grazing. They get agitated if separated from the flock. They have excellent sight with their large, somewhat rectangular eyes, giving them a wide field of vision. This feature, and a good sense of smell, alerts them to predators. Head butting is both a natural and a learned behavior in sheep but aggression is not a problem except among rams seeking dominance over other males, including masculine shepherds.
The typical characteristics of sheep seem often to be infused with a touch of insult. So, then why would Jesus use this image? In meditating on today’s Gospel should we be examining ourselves as “shepherd” or “sheep?” It seems to me that may depend on your role in a given situation. For our purposes let’s examine sheep-like behavior as it applies us as individuals. What is commonly held up as negative characteristics, are they not perhaps the very attitudes that endear the sheep to the Shepherd? Aren’t they the traits we strive to nurture as monastics in relationship to each other, to our leaders and to Christ?
Benedict reminds the monastic leader s/he will be held accountable for foreseeing the needs of the sheep – anticipating arrangements for a balanced daily diet of work and prayer, leisure and comfort for reading, study and lectio; for food, water, wine, safe sleep, and protection from predators. The very characteristics that people may mock in sheep are some that St. Benedict describes and encourages in the Steps of Humility: submission to God’s will, to superiors and peers, and the movement of the Spirit in the group. Our vow of stability – isn’t that the flocking instinct the sheep possess? We may become agitated when separated from each other for too long – happy to come home recognizing that the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. It may seem a trite example, but could we say that statio “herds” us through the “sheep gate” to reside with each other in the presence of our divine Shepherd? Our comfort with an atmosphere of contemplative silence may be likened to the a flock of grazing sheep … all quietly going about the fulfilling of individual need, in the company of flock-mates, alert to any change in the movement of the flock or the voice of the Shepherd.
Let us pray the words of a familiar shepherd hymn: “Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless, your chosen pilgrim flock … be known to us in breaking bread, sup with us in love divine; be our immortal food.”