Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. It has a dual purpose. First, to remind us that the Lord uses the image of a shepherd to demonstrate how much He loves and provides for us as His flock. Second, it is vocation Sunday. We celebrate our common vocation given in baptism to be Christ followers, to minister in love to our neighbour and to share the Good News. In particular, we are asked to thank God for our priests and religious and to ask the Lord of the harvest to continue to send labourers into His harvest. Both the image of the Lord as the Good Shepherd and His call to members of our community to be shepherds of His people, states very clearly that God cares for us. Our readings today tell us that we are called to faith in Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, we are children of God and the Lord is and will always be our Good Shepherd.
Acts of the Apostles: Peter uses the challenge of the authorities to preach the Gospel and he is going full throttle giving fearless witness to Jesus the Risen One. He is on fire with the Holy Spirit and boldly proclaims the need for people to respond to what he says by conversion of life and to see Jesus as Saviour. Peter wants to reach all he can and offer them the opportunity of a lifetime. Everyone must be given the chance to know of the love of Jesus. The more opposition Peter meets, the louder he proclaims Jesus as Lord.
First letter of St. John: John sets out in a couple of sentences the basic effect of the Incarnation: Jesus fully God and fully Man. Already in this life we are children of God the Father. Because we are children of God here below, we shall see God as He is in the future. We are enjoying the status of being Heavenly people while we are here in this life. We live in the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’. We have God’s grace, life and love now, but it looks to its total fulfilment when we are called to the Father’s House in eternity with all our loved ones.
The Gospel from St. John: This is taken from chapter 10 which gives us the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an image of the Lord that pleases us. We think of Jesus with an injured or lost sheep on His shoulders carrying the vulnerable animal to safety. The image of Jesus as Shepherd stresses the intimate connection between Jesus and His Father who has given Jesus the mission of gathering the flock. It also gives us the image of how the Lord is committed in His love to care for those who accept His call. We feel assured that we are in the Lord’s care and we will come to no harm as we journey through life to our true home in Heaven.
In our Gospel, the Lord contrasts the Good Shepherd with the hired hand. The hired hand has no love for the sheep, he is not committed to them. When a wolf appears the hired hand runs away and leaves the sheep to their fate. Jesus states He is the Good Shepherd and will lay down His life to protect us.
To be a shepherd was a difficult task. The shepherd in our Lord’s day was the only hope the sheep had. The best land was scarce and kept for valuable vineyards and crops to feed the people. There was no land for the sheep, so the shepherd was nomadic and had to move the sheep from sparse areas to another place where the was a little more for his animals to eat. Each day was a challenge for the shepherd to find enough pasture to keep his flock alive. In psalm 23, we are told the Lord leads us by still waters. Sheep were afraid of running water and feared drowning. The shepherd would build a little dam of rock in the stream. The creates a place of still water for the thirsty and exhausted animals to be revived by a cool drink. We experience this when we sit quietly with God in prayer. Amidst the hustle, bustle, busyness, and demanding aspects of our day, God creates a moment of renewal and replenishment which gives us strength to resume our demanding life once more refreshed and empowered.
The shepherd’s duty was 24/7. At the end of the day, he would call his sheep who were familiar with his voice. If he found one had strayed, he would corral the sheep he had with sticks and branches, then seek out the stray. When he had the sheep in the fold he would check their health treating any injury and striving to heal the wounded. Once this was done, the shepherd slept across the entrance so that the sheep couldn’t leave and the wolf couldn’t enter without his knowing. Because he was so dedicated to the sheep, the shepherd couldn’t practise his faith and go to worship. As a result of this, he was regarded as an outcast, unable to enter the Temple, or to hold any public office. He was often shunned as he was improperly attired for normal society and he smelled of his sheep. He accepted this rejection as the price of his dedication to his flock, they would always come first in all things. He knew God would understand that his duty allowed him little freedom. He quietly said his prayers and put himself and his flock in God’s hands.
By using the image of the Good Shepherd, Jesus tells us how dedicated He is to our welfare. The Lord is our shepherd we shall not want. We often say: “The Lord will provide”, and He will, every step of the way. The important thing is to feel we belong. We are not alone, but are a family of believers under the constant care of the Lord. The Lord will bind our wounds, provide for our physical, spiritual, emotional and social needs. Once we feel so loved and cared for we then can be shepherds to others. How?
Many of us have some level of influence in the lives of others. I think first of carers. People who need care are often surrounded by a group of people whose task it is to make sure all the needs of the person are addressed. I feel particularly for those who are the sole carer. I hear of teenagers caring for a sick parent. Fitting the care of the one he/she loves around the school day. A relative or good neighbour who dedicate themselves to making sure the person they care for is given total support. To me these are the unsung heroes of society.
I think of parents and teachers who have the minds and hearts of children placed under their influence and care. Theirs is the vital task of nurture. These good shepherds watch over and guide the lives of children making sure they are on the path God wants them to travel. Children should not be left to their own resources to stumble along, prey to every influence. We seek to give children the chance to have a childhood, space to grow and mature at God’s pace. This is becoming more important every day as we see with concern the world trying to encroach with ‘mature themes’ and experiences into developing and vulnerable minds.
Today we are reminded that God cares, passionately, deeply and eternally for each and every one of us. He wants to reach out to others who do not know Him. God wants every life to know of the joy of belonging to His flock. He gives meaning and safety to our journey. Our God is our protector, with us through it all. Jesus will shepherd us safely to the heavenly Jerusalem.
As it is vocations Sunday, I encourage you to pray for people to respond to the Lord’s call to the priesthood and religious life. The Christian home and family remains the seed bed of vocation. In my home, we prayed as a family every evening before we went to bed. There were crucifixes in most rooms. We had the Sacred Heart picture in our living room with a little altar my father had made out of wood for flowers. It had a red neon light with a cross that lit up and was always alight. The Mass was the most important event of our week, and my brothers were altar servers. Priests liked to visit us and mom and dad saw this as a great privilege. My parents never mentioned the vocation of the priesthood, but the seed was sown in my heart in our home in those early formative years of my life.
I found this prayer on another priest’s ordination card: “You have called me Lord, not so much because of me, but for others. Not so much to be somebody, but to be your someone to those You will care for through me. I will not ask what will be asked of me, for I know I will be carried by your grace and I trust in the power of your love.”
There will be people God is calling now as we speak and they are of two minds. Do they cling to the life they have known or do they take a risk and try their vocation which may not work out? Please say a prayer for those trying to discern if God is calling them. Let them give God and our prayers a chance. I saw a vocations poster that said: “Your priest is someone else’s son, could your son be someone else’s priest?”
Fr. Gerard X