I’ve been to the Holy Land just once in my life; that was about 15 years ago. One of my fondest memories of that short stay is seeing shepherds direct the movement of their flocks of sheep. There was communication between them by which the animals were expressing their total trust in these men who loved them and took care of them. There was nothing forceful or brutal about the shepherds that I witnessed; they seemed to give their charges considerable liberty in responding to the commands that they were calling out or signaling. These were very peaceful scenes that I was privileged to enjoy, as pastoral as one could ever imagine.
Portions of what I had learned in seminary about the life and occupation of the shepherd came back to me. I recalled learning that in Jesus’ day, and perhaps in our own time as well, the shepherd would take his flock many miles in search of green grass, having to camp down for a night or two. He would secure the sheep by tightening up a circular enclosure that I assume would have been built with rocks over a long period of time, possibly generations. It had an opening just big enough to allow the sheep to pass in & out. Then the shepherd would sleep across that opening, acting as a gate to keep marauding wolves out and to prevent the sheep from wandering off into the dangerous night.
That appears to be what Jesus was referring to when, in a gospel passage related to today’s, he spoke of himself as the “sheep gate.” Not difficult to grasp what he meant by that: he is present in our lives to guard and protect us not only from what is hurtful outside ourselves, but also from our own foolishness and ignorance.
The God that Jesus knew, the God he referred to as Father, does not watch or manage from afar, keeping records and meting out both punishment and reward, partly in this world and completely in the next.
No. Jesus told us – and so many still have not imbibed the message – that God lives within us, experiencing life with us always, without interruption or judgment, but only with love and compassion.
It is only when we misunderstand who & what God is that we can believe that we could go to eternal punishment for missing a Sunday Mass or for eating meat on a day of abstinence, etc. — as if the infinite God and the compassionate Christ, who called himself the Good Shepherd, could be reduced to such absurd, man-made legality. Embarrassing and regrettable, to say the least.
If we could only back up a little and view the Church and ourselves from a much broader point of view – a birds’ eye view, so to speak – I am sure that we would see much of what we’ve been missing as we concentrate only on isolated particulars. Too close up, too immersed in something, we develop a distorted perspective; we see details, but not the totality. We see the trees immediately in front of us – and miss the forest of which they are a tiny part.
That’s the way it is with the Gospels and with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and how we fit into it all.
For one thing, we would be pleasantly surprised to find that the essence of Jesus’ teaching was that God is in and among us – and is not, as author Michael Morwood puts it, an “elsewhere God.” We’d recognize that our relationship with God is one and the same as our relationship with all of creation, in particular with our fellow human beings. That’s an important mouthful! It means that the way I treat any person in my life is precisely the way I am treating God.
That is why the Good Shepherd said that what we do for each other we are doing for him.