Spirituality of the Readings
The Gospel this Sunday is about shepherds and their charges. What are some facts about these woolly creatures we call sheep?
Start with a comparison. Remember your childhood when you turned various insects on their back? Childishly, you might have watched them struggle and never achieve their proper leg-side down position unless we had mercy on them. An unshorn sheep is the same way, shepherds tell us: completely stranded if it gets turned on its back. In order to turn it right-side up when it needs it, the shepherd carries a crook. He hooks the sheep and turns it right. He is kind and careful with his flock. They are not smart. But they follow him.
History tells us that the many shepherds brought their small herds to Jerusalem, and that these various flocks were kept together in one big sheepfold. There were no brands, no markings of any kind, just a fuzzy mob. How, you might ask, does each shepherd retrieve the sheep that belong to him (or to his boss)?
The first way is by calling each of his sheep by name. He has been with them on the hillsides to the point that they are no longer strangers to him. The one with the nick in its ear, the one with the pretty face, the one that limps. He has a name for each because they each have a personality that is special, just like you and I do. When they hear their names they come and follow.
Second, the sheep recognizes not only its name but the actual voice of the shepherd. This is a much loved sound to it. It belongs to the one who flipped them back on their feet, the one who shielded them from wolves, the one who led them to fresh pastures instead of ones they had eaten down to nubs. A stranger’s voice did not have the gentle consonance of their master and friend. His sheep flocked to him.
Why does Jesus use such imagery on the Fourth Sunday of Easter? I suppose you know the answer already, but, if you will pardon the comparison, you and I are very similar to sheep. The shepherd calls them by name and the magnificent God of the universe calls each of us by name. Through Jesus, God knows each and every one of us better than we know ourselves. The name he confirms for each of us finds its way down to the deepest interior of our souls. Through it he calls us to be most truly who we are, in our own self and in God.
We may misunderstand the voice of God the shepherd, ignore it, resist it, button our ears tight against it, but in our moments of sane and solitary wholeness—or maybe in our times of trouble—our spirits pulse to the rhythm of that voice. It resounds within us.
Like the shepherd with his sheep, this call is safe, in spite of wolves and wildness all around. Christ's call lets our fear drop away, turns us right side up, lets us follow our master and friend around rocks and even through dark valleys.
Sometimes the phrase, “people are sheep,” is deemed an insult. This Sunday it is the greatest compliment we could get.
John Foley, SJ
Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
**From Saint Louis University