Tag Archives: Good Shepherd

4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER 2018

Years ago I had a priest friend with a very laid-back sense of humor — hard to know whether he was serious or joking. One day I was introducing him (who rarely wore clerical garb) to some friends of mine, one of whom asked him what his line of work was. With a straight face he answered, “I’m a shepherd.” “Oh, really?” she replied. “That is so interesting! Where, may I ask?” And without missing a beat, Ray said, “In Jersey City.”

At that point I intervened and informed my friends that Ray was a priest and that his work was in the city.

The incident left me with the unforgettable image of a man leading a hundred sheep across Broad Street amidst horns beeping and drivers cursing! I have seen the real thing in both Israel and Ireland, and to a suburbanite like me it was a treat.

However, Jesus was a carpenter, not a shepherd. St. John, alone among the four Gospel writers, has Jesus claiming to be the Good Shepherd. After his death and resurrection, his followers seem to have paid little attention to his real occupation and styled him instead as the Shepherd, not the Good Carpenter. You have to wonder why they and John made that choice.

The carpenter becomes a creator, fashioning things of lasting strength and beauty. I think of it as one of the noblest and most artistic of crafts.

But the work of the shepherd involves something uniquely different: the shepherd has the care of other living creatures. To the extent that he loves them and labors for them, to the extent that he is willing to inconvenience himself — even making personal sacrifices for their benefit — will those dependent creatures be happy and secure. I believe Jesus admired that about shepherds and that John saw those very qualities in him, and therefore called him the Good Shepherd.

This is interesting because as far as we know Jesus never took care of sheep as an owner or as a hired hand, so his talk about shepherding has directly to do not with sheep but with us. He cares for us, he guards us, protects us, feeds and heals us; he binds our wounds and nurses us to spiritual health; he provides the rehabilitating rest that our tired, battered spirits crave.

An elderly friend of my brother died several years ago. For a long time, he and his wife had not been churchgoers, although their Protestant faith was still deep in their hearts. At the wake service, his daughter told me that a week before his death he said he knew that he was dying but that no one should be upset because “I know Jesus will take care of me.” He apparently understood well the concept of the Good Shepherd.

It could not be clearer that what Jesus wants of us is that we cultivate a “shepherdly” attitude toward each other, discerning always how we can enhance each other’s lives, not merely by giving off the top from our abundance and our surplus, but by sacrificing when necessary, doing what at the moment we may not want to do; monitoring our words, that can so easily hurt; refraining from saying what would make the other sad or disturbed; giving when it appears risky; and so forth.

Certainly it would be absurd for us to expect that the whole world will suddenly turn to such altruistic behavior, but you and I can turn more in that direction today and discover again what peace and happiness await the person who, not just in words but in daily action, imitates Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

 

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Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2017

Today, when a free society like ours puts so much stress on personal independence and resourcefulness, Jesus’ reference to his followers as “sheep” may be very jarring to some of them. I think that fewer and fewer people want to look upon themselves as sheep — at least not if that means being mindless followers.

And yet it’s obvious that he doesn’t regard the title as being at all demeaning to us. So what did he have in mind by choosing such a term?

I’ve always assumed it was the strong bond that exists between the sheep and their shepherd. He knows them individually by name, loves them tenderly, cares for them as he cares for himself. He identifies them also by the unique, sometimes odd or funny, characteristics they display.

In return, the sheep trust and in their own way love the shepherd. They feel secure in his presence and somehow know that their good is his primary concern. There is no question here of manipulation or control, no surrendering of right or freedom. It is, rather, the very person of the shepherd in whom the sheep find their fullest selves. They are happier, healthier and more alive when he is there. Actually, they would be incomplete without the love they exchange with him.

I believe that is what Jesus is stressing above all in this homely analogy he uses: that because there are no limits to the loving concern of the shepherd for the sheep, there are no limits to the depth of life the sheep can achieve.

We should expect, I’d say, that in an age of unprecedented exploration like our own, we would find ourselves going not only outward and upward but inward, too. And that is precisely what’s happening. The same civilization that reaches out into the strange and uncharted realms of space looks into itself as well and into the fascinating mystery of the human person. Prayer movements, that seem to be increasing in number and membership today, center both on the corporate person of the community and the private person of the individual. All kinds of people, from every walk of life imaginable, are reporting finding up-to-now unrealized strength and peace by entering prayerfully into themselves in regular meditation with others.

The Good Shepherd offers us a friendship, a relationship, so deep and personal that in it we can resolve life’s most distressing problems and discover what good can and will come from them. No one is really free who feels trapped by the futility of life’s tragic happenings. But the Good Shepherd, having experienced himself the life-death-life continuum has earned the authority to reassure us that the patience and perseverance with which we carry our crosses lead us, invariably, to a new sharing in the love and life of God.

We profess Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to be the gateway to life. We have only to work at knowing him better by listening to the words he has spoken, by being present to him in silent expectation, and by learning to think about, and to interpret, life as he does. He calls us, not to conformity and slavery, but to freedom and unfettered life!

HOMILY FOR 4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2015

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.