Francia J. Horn, O.S.A.
Treasurer and Secretary
Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova
Acts 4: 8-12
Ps 118: 1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29
! Jn 3: 1-2
Jn 10: 11-18
When Jesus spoke to the people of his time, he used images with which they were quite familiar. In his day, anyone walking in the countryside could see shepherds watching over their sheep. Stories about wolves attacking the sheep–and the reactions of those who were tending them, depending on whether they owned the sheep or were merely hired hands–were no doubt commonplace in Jesus’ time. And so the parable of the “Good Shepherd” was readily understandable to his audience.
In our day, I wonder what kind of an image today’s gospel brings up to our minds. For many, I’m sure, a sheep is some soft, wooly, cuddly animal–a fitting pet for someone like Little Bo Peep. Maybe some sheep are like that, but not all of them are. Here’s how I know.
When I graduated from high school, I thought that God might be calling me to be a priest. So I entered the Augustinians, because they were my teachers at my school and they seemed to be a happy group of people.
In those days, the first year of discerning God’s call was known as the novitiate. It was spent on a beautiful property overlooking the Hudson River, about 60 miles north of NYC. There were fields and hills and woods, and lots of grass–99 acres in all. I was there with 44 other young men who also thought that the Lord might be calling them.
The year I was in the novitiate the folks in charge decided to get 3 sheep. They said if we had sheep, the sheep would eat the grass, and we wouldn’t have so much to cut. (I don’t know how much grass they thought 3 sheep could eat, but it certainly was not 99 acres worth!) I really think they were looking for more ways to keep 45 young men busy. Because, you know, sheep take a lot of work.
First, we had to fence in a large area of field so that the sheep could graze and not run away. At night they slept in the barn, so someone had to go up in the morning and take them down to the pen. (The usually took 3 people, because each sheep usually wanted to go in its own direction.) Someone had to keep the barn clean. You might think that sheep only eat grass, but they had to be given special food to keep them from getting sick, and they never seemed to want that food. We also had to make sure they had enough water. They had to be washed every so often or they would begin to smell. We’d have to comb their wool to get out the ticks and bugs. Someone would have to go back at night and bring them back to the barn. It’s a lot of work to raise sheep!
In today’s gospel, Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd, and that he gives his life for his sheep. Jesus isn’t talking about sheep here, he’s talking about people–he’s talking about you and me.
A lot of people don’t like to be compared to sheep. For one thing, sheep are not very smart. Our sheep were always getting tangled up in bushes; once in a while one of them would get its head stuck in the fence as it tried to eat the grass just on the other side of it, even though there was a whole field behind him. Sometimes they could be stubborn. When they got sick, they didn’t want to take their medicine. At other times they were timid and fearful.
The sheep in Jesus’ time were probably much the same. Maybe that’s why he decided to talk about sheep when he was really talking about people.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd. Despite our stupidity at times, our stubbornness and fear, he loves us and cares for us. He offers what is good for us, even when we refuse it or want to do something else. The Good Shepherd, Jesus tells us, has a personal relationship with each of his flock. He stays with us in the midst of danger and hardship. He will not abandon us. He watches over us. He gently calls us when we begin to stray, and seeks us out when we are lost.
Sometimes, if we think about it, we can experience the Lord in these terms. And yet, there may be other times when the Lord seems absent–we look around and we can’t see him. There are all sorts of voices calling us, but we don’t recognize his. We feel lost, and there is no one–including God, it seems–to show us the way. At times like these, I think Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd, with all that that entails, can be reassuring to us that the Lord will never abandon us. He will protect us even though we may not see or hear him.
Today, as we hear the familiar words of Jesus that he is the Good Shepherd, let us put our trust in the one who gives his life for us and leads us to true happiness.