In today’s culture the figure of the shepherd is almost unknown and to call somebody "a sheep" is an offence. On the contrary, in the Bible, sheep farming is well known and has a positive and deep meaning. God is presented as the shepherd of his people.
"The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack."(Ps 23:1) "For he is our God we are the people he shepherds the sheep in his hands" (Ps 95:7).
The future Messiah too is described with the image of a shepherd "Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with care" (Is 40:11).
This ideal image of a shepherd finds its full realization in Christ. He is the good shepherd who searches for the lost sheep. He takes pity on his people because he sees them "like sheep without a shepherd" (Mt 9:36) He calls his disciples "little flock" (Lk 12:32). Peter calls Jesus "shepherd and guardian of your souls" (1 Pt 2:25) and in Hebrews 13:20 He is called "the great shepherd of the sheep."
Jesus is the true Shepherd because He is the one who guides his flock with love, makes sure that it stays united and defends his sheep from danger. The good shepherd knows his sheep one by one and takes care of all of them, counts them when they return to the fold, and when one is missing, leaves all the others to go in search of it.
In calling "sheep" his friends and followers, Christ underlines the essential relation that links them to Him. This relation of salvation is defined by verbs "they hear and they follow" referred to the believers and "I know" referred to Jesus.
1)The Good Shepherd, passionate and provident
Jesus knows and loves every one of his followers. It should not sounds odd if He calls us sheep because he allowed for himself to be called "lamb" so that his duty to "take away the sins of the world" would become our mission, to take his forgiveness to all people.
In today’s gospel He speaks about us as his flock and about him as the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep… He never relinquishes his sheep and loves them to the point of giving his life for them. Moved by his passion for us, He didn’t hesitate to face the passion of the Cross. He is the good shepherd in love with life so that we can have eternal life. It is natural to wonder why we, the lucky flock, would abandon this Way and depart on roads leading to ravines… He, the infinitely good, divine, merciful and loyal shepherd, searches us out, calls us by name and when He finds us, puts us on his shoulders and leads us to the eternal pasture of heaven.( 1 Pt 2:25)
We are in the hands of the Good Shepherd, who leads us one by one and introduces us into real life, in the life of friends, as the Gospel of today’s Ambrosian liturgy reminds us. However it is not enough that we declare ourselves ‘friends’ of Christ. We must express our true friendship with Jesus in the way we follow him, with goodness of heart, humility, clemency and mercy.
To follow Jesus is to pledge our willingness and walk behind the One of whom we have heard and loved, the Word of Life. Behind Him our steps don’t waver. He will carry us to the green pasture. Even if we walk through a valley of shadows we do not fear because He is with us. (Ps 23)
To follow it is necessary to listen engaging the mind and heart. The real listening is obedience (the etymology of to obey is ob-audire = to be listening) in the same way the Apostles did and became fishers of men and shepherds of souls. True obedience is to listen and put in practice Christ’s word of love. Obedience must be lived not only by doing things, but also with the desire to learn from Him the pattern of our own life, following the truth of love and letting us be guided by the love of a good Shepherd, a true Friend.
2)Vocation: "space" of freedom.
If the verbs "to hear" and " to follow" used in today’s Roman gospel are verbs that indicate a deep dialogue and a communion of life not only of thoughts, the verb "to know" lays the foundations of the vocation of the Apostles and of our vocation as well. This vocation is called to a relationship of communion between Jesus and his disciples and involves the entire person, his thoughts, love and behavior. This vocation is a call to receive life ("I’m giving them eternal life") and to share it with all humanity.
If as Jesus says, two are the main facts that characterize his sheep, that is, to hear and to follow (to hear his voice and to follow his way), to be aware that Christ knows and loves us means that we must not keep this gift for ourselves. With this knowledge of Christ we are called to be the salt and light for the world. It is true that our world continuously changes, but it is not necessary to race looking for ideas and new projects. God’s voice has already echoed and the direction of his path has been drawn. Loyalty of memory has been demanded and the brilliance of the invention of new pastoral programs.
He is a friend who knows us and makes us understand that the heart is committed. We know in truth only what we love. It is a love which goes behind evidence. It is a knowledge that comes from the inside, from deep down. It is to know Life and the Truth following the Way. It is the knowledge of Love that makes us free.
Jesus has many times affirmed that his freedom is not to take distance from the Father, but to do His will. Freedom and obedience to the Father (which is always obedience to the donation of one self) coincide. The true space of freedom is the love to which Christ calls us. Vocation is a gift to be welcomed with amazement. The wonder we experience at the gift God has made to us in Christ gives new impulse to our lives and commits us to becoming witnesses of his love. We become witnesses when, through our actions, words and way of being, Another makes himself present. Witness could be described as the means by which the truth of God's love comes to men and women in history, inviting them to accept freely this radical newness. Through witness, God lays himself open, one might say, to the risk of human freedom (Benedict XVI Sacramentum caritatis, 85).
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday dedicated to the vocation to priesthood; however let’s not forgive the religious vocations. The ones who commit themselves to follow Christ in poverty, obedience and chastity remind the People of God that "Poverty, chastity and obedience don’t have any value if they are not the expression of love, if love doesn’t undress us in poverty, if love doesn’t purify us in chastity, if love doesn’t sacrifices us in obedience" (Divo Barsotti) The consecrated Virgins live this condition in complying every day with the prayer that the Bishop pronounced on the day of their consecration: "Set them on the way of eternal salvation; may they see only what is pleasing to you, and fulfill it with watchful care. We ask this through Christ our Lord." (RCV, 21)
In our journey toward heaven Christ, true and passionate Shepherd, guides us with loving providence. Let’s pray with Blessed J.H. Newman:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,--
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene,--one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on:
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish days, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on;
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Acts 13: 14, 43-52; Ps 100; Rev 7:9, 14B- 17; Jn10:27-30
The Good Shepherd
Acts 21:8B-14; Ps 15; Phil 1:8-14; Jn 15:9-17
Monsignor Fr ancesco Follo is permanent observer of the Holy See to UNESCO, Paris.