No wonder this is called Good Shepherd Sunday and the church’s day of prayer for vocations. Jesus’ identification as the good shepherd is read in all three cycles of Sunday Gospels. Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me!” 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. His actions enflesh his message of equality and God’s sacred gift of dignity. The message of the COVID pandemic is similar: we’re all in this together. No one is exempt or privileged. We are as strong as our weakest link; only as safe as the person who is the least restrictive in contacts. Pope Francis shows us how to “walk the talk.” For him and all “good” shepherds, it is never simply part of their job. Love-in-action is integral to their self-identity.
And I wonder aloud: why did Jesus choose SHEEP for his parable? There are other animals native to the land where he spent his childhood: sand cats, camels, “man’s best friend,” or perhaps a goat or, heaven forbid, a pole cat. Actually there are 116 mammal species native to the Middle East. What we do know is that he probably saw sheep most days of his life. And, He was teaching a lesson that would live LONG after He walked the face of this earth. I can’t pretend or presume to read the mind of God. But, Jesus, being God, knew that sheep would still be around today so that we 21st century people, living on the other side of the world, could identify with his example.
What is it about sheep that gives us some insight into our relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd? I’ll describe a few. Shepherds must anticipate the needs of their sheep for food, water, sleep, leadership and protection. Sheep are commonly described as lacking initiative, dependent, copycats but simple and playful. They have insatiable appetites. They seek sustenance, suckling from the moment they can stand upright. Sheep are skittish especially of loud noises and unpredictable in their reactions. Maybe it’s their strong flocking instinct that most aptly applies to us who seek relationships in religious life? Sheep are very social and need to see one another when grazing. (Is that why we sit across from each other in chapel and at table?)
Sheep are agitated if separated from the flock. (Like humans who are forced to practice “social distancing.”) Sheep have excellent eyesight with their large, somewhat rectangular eyes, giving them a wide field of vision. (Like high Sensates who take in every visual detail.) This feature, and a good sense of smell, alerts them to predators. (Like dogs trained to smell out drugs and now COVID 19.) Sheep are stubborn and unpredictable. (Sound like anyone you know?) Head butting is both a natural and a learned behavior in sheep. (And, face it, some people are skilled in this behavior – butting heads over trivial details.)
You see, we all act like sheep on occasion. We often ramble off from the flock to nibble at little bits of foreign pasture. However, we have a Shepherd who understands us; one whose patience and love are infinite. He is always ready to go after us when we stray afar. His voice is constantly reaching out to us in Lectio, retreats, sicknesses, crosses, this pandemic and other various ways. How many times have we already felt his loving grace calling and helping us back to the safety of his fold? Some of us may have even felt His shepherd’s crook around our neck, gently coaxing us back into the flock!
This Good Shepherd sermon preached by our Savior over two thousand years ago is still echoing and re-echoing around the world, calling on us, his faithful flock, to do all in our power to spread his Kingdom. Do not shut your ears to this call of Christ today. Give him a helping hand by sharing the light of your faith, praying for and nurturing vocations. And, ponder which sheep-like traits is Jesus coaxing to life in you? Which could do with a little taming down.