Spirituality of the Readings
Good Shepherds and Bad
A Jesuit friend of mine was an actual shepherd in his youth. He had spent plenty of time out in the fields, so I asked him what taking care of sheep was like. My motive was about our readings today, all of which have references to shepherds.
He surprised me. He said he hated being a shepherd and would never want to go near it again. Never. Why? Because today there are huge numbers of sheep in a herd and you could never know which was which, much less have names for them. Sheep-dogs, not the shepherd, could keep them more or less together. It was a cold job, uncomfortable and unrewarding, an industry now, with nothing personal about it.
What a surprise.
This seemed like the exact opposite of what we hear in the Bible.
In Jesus’ day, however, the herds were much smaller. A shepherd could name each sheep and they knew their master’s voice by heart, the way the way the family dog knows your voice. Good shepherds would search and search for one lost sheep. Or if one was turned absurdly on its back, unable to roll over because of its full fleece, the shepherd would take his “crook,” and using the big curve on one end, easily maneuver that sheep back to its feet.
And if there was real danger, as for instance if wolves were ready to pounce, the shepherd would take out his “staff,” which served as a weapon, and deal with the predators.
Bad shepherds, on the other hand, would actually scatter the sheep. God said this in the First Reading. Sheep feared and trembled and many went missing. Sometimes the uncaring shepherds would lessen their burden by driving the sheep off. People were hired who were not shepherds at all, who simply ran away when a wolf approached (Jn 10:12). God’s anger flames up against them in the First Reading.
Sheep and shepherds in the bible are symbols. Jesus is the Good Shepherd in our famous Responsorial Psalm, putting himself out for us who are his sheep.
Now look at the Gospel. There, Jesus was becoming very popular. Many people were coming and going, so that he and his apostles “had no opportunity even to eat.” He wisely invited them to come away with him to a quiet place for rest. They went off in a boat to a “deserted place.”
But the needy throng traced where they figured the boat was going. They formed a “vast crowd” and ran to the spot! What should Jesus do, start ministering to them again instead of resting? The Gospel says “his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And, “he began to teach them many things.”
God’s words in the First Reading had come true: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock … and bring them back to their meadow.”
The question for you and me is not whether we should go without food and drink or be workaholics for the sake of others. It is whether our own hearts are ever moved even once with pity for the scattered and fear-filled sheep-folk of our own time. Can we love them and each other, with Jesus’ love?
Can we be good shepherds?
John Foley, SJ
**From Saint Louis University