This statement by John makes sense in our time because of the need to understand our relationship with the Good Shepherd and to play our roles as shepherds. Think about these words, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” It is emphatic, reassuring, and assertive. John always speaks with emotion pointing believers to the magnanimity of God’s love. So, the evangelist writes, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we are called God’s children.” As believers, we are called to recognize that those around us are created in the same image and likeness of God as we are. John emphasizes that our dignity depends not on people’s opinions about us, but on the strength of our baptismal vows and identity. The “not yet,” is what is to be revealed, the hope that we shall see God and that we will be like him. But the joy of the “already,” namely, being God’s children should inspire our actions here and now. We are God’s children when we love, care, support; in fact, when we act convincingly as our brother’s/sister’s keeper.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. We always want to remember that while the message of the scriptures are for the benefit of all times and peoples, they are written during a specific time in history. Jesus uses examples and imagery that first century people would easily grasp and the image of shepherding would have been crystal clear. During the first century, sheep were a very precious commodity. Their wool was used for clothing, their meat fed the people, their skin was used for making tents and other goods. Lambs were used for sacrifice. So, sheep were important. In fact, they were so important that shepherds would fight off wolves to protect them and when necessary, lay down their life to save them. David was chosen among all his brothers to be king of Israel because he had the qualities of a good shepherd. Sheep are dirty and smelly because their wool traps debris. They are also very panicky so if something spooks them, they’ll run off which is why their life depends on the shepherd. If a sheep becomes separated from the flock, it becomes terrified and just freezes as if it were paralyzed. A wolf doesn’t even have to try to catch a separated sheep because it has no means of defending itself. The sheep totally depend on their shepherd and know when his voice calls.
This brings into sharper focus the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Phrases in the scriptures such as “I am the good shepherd … I know mine and mine know me … I will lay down my life for the sheep.” Of course, Jesus then brings in the eternal message of having power to lay his life down and power to take it up again. John the Baptist predicts the perfect sacrifice as he points to Christ at the River Jordan and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He is the sacrificial Lamb of the Father who will save us all. It also tells us something about our relationship with God. The tendency is unfortunately to run away from the path of salvation, becoming easy prey of the evil one. No wonder Jesus lamented at the crowd in Matthew’s gospel, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). We should be carefully listening for the voice of our Shepherd.
The voice of the Good Shepherd is very consistent. He never makes us feel miserable, even when He corrects. We see this in the scriptures. He never desires the death of the sinner, says, “Go and sin no more.” He treats the woman caught in adultery with compassion and love. He searches out for Zacchaeus from the top of the sycamore tree. He goes to eat with Matthew and tax collectors. His encounter with the woman at the Jacob’s well is eye-opening. He knows she’s been shacking up with her boyfriend with a dirty past, yet that woman leaves overjoyed and filled with peace having encountered the Good Shepherd. She exclaims, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” The voice of the shepherd wants our salvation.
Some people leave the confessional thinking God is angry with them. Or they come back to the church after a long absence and think God is holding a grudge from when they are away. This isn’t His voice. He wants you back, that’s his joy. Learn to recognize the Shepherd’s voice. He always leaves a sense of peace even in the midst of trial. When he corrects a bad action or sin, you should never feel depressed or desolate.
The shepherd does brings back the stray, go after the missing. That is what distinguishes the shepherd from the hireling. The hireling operates by convenience while the shepherd sacrifices and goes after the sheep. Since the past year, it is possible that many sheep feel abandoned by the shepherds of the church. Possibly, many sheep feel left out, vulnerable, and even wounded. Today’s gospel reminds the shepherds of the church to wear the garb of shepherding and go after God’s sheep. Perhaps, some members of the flock are scared to come back. Either they feel they have stayed away too long and are afraid to return or they feel shy and not sure they will be welcomed.
We have numerous needs for different categories of persons in the Church entrusted to Christ’s shepherds -bishops, priests, and pastors of souls. Saint Augustine describes the scary job of the shepherding this way:
“The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the Gospel's opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be encouraged, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved. The Gospel terrifies me.”
Such is the astonishing reality of the shepherd’s role. Today’s pastors of souls need to rise to their roles as the shepherd, guiding, leading, educating, directing, and comforting the sheep. The shepherds of God’s flock must live up to the expectations of the Good Shepherd. We live in a time where wolves are constantly attacking the sheep -marriages, families, education, morals, faith, all are under the wolves’ attacks. Shepherds who lack commitment and zeal cannot defend the sheep against the wolves.
Think about how you feel at the encouraging words of the priest after confession. Think about how it feels to have your missed calls returned when you need pastoral guidance or counseling. Think about how you feel when you have a priest quickly respond to you to anoint a loved one before she/he dies. Doesn’t it feel good to feel that you will get answers to your confusion from the priest? Don’t you feel secure coming to mass and knowing there will be a priest to celebrate the Mass for you?
Christ is inviting shepherds in the church to a life of commitment. He wants us to remind you, His flock that you are God’s children now. That you should be proud of your Christian identity. You are God’s children even when you sin. Just come back to the care of the shepherd and seek forgiveness. You are God’s children even when you struggle in your marriage. Just recognize the presence and support of the shepherd and be hopeful. The shepherd always takes care of you. You are God’s children even when faced with doubts and crisis. Reach out to the priest and share your concerns. The Lord will guide you back in comfort and joy. Are you experiencing loss of any type? Remember that you are God’s children and he cares for you.
Dear shepherds, let us demonstrate the love of God and the goodness of Christ for our flock. Let us rise to protect the sheep against the wolves. Let our voices be familiar through commitments to the teachings of the Church and through holiness of life. Let us show commitment in governance and feed our flock with messages of hope, trust, peace, and love. Again, Saint Augustine says, “For you, I am a bishop [Pastor], but with you, I am a Christian. The first is an office accepted; the second is a gift received. One is danger; the other is safety. If I am happier to be redeemed with you than to be placed over you, then I shall, as the Lord commanded, be more fully your servant.” The Shepherd is a servant.
So, let us pray for the shepherds of God’s flock today.
Let us pray that they be present, committed, and ready to shepherd according to the will of Christ the Good Shepherd.