Spirituality of the Readings
Think of the endearing way domestic beasts recognize their owners. Dogs collapse into a frenzy of delight when you come home, even if you have been gone for just ten minutes. The new heaven has arrived in their midst and hysterics are the least they can do.
There are cats like this somewhere, but mostly your house cats have an opposite reaction from the heartsick dogs. “Oh it’s you again,” they seem to say, bored.
I do know one exception. My cousin’s cat always modeled indifference with most people, but when I walked into the house it made a quiet bee-line to where I took a seat, making no secret of how it enjoyed being petted by me. I have never been sure whether to be complimented or not, nor can I explain it. There might be months between visits and still it makes its way to the petting machine, with both dignity and craving.
You “shall never perish,” he adds, as he holds you in his own hands.
Jesus, judging from his stories, also paid a lot of attention to animals. He had watched shepherds and sheep many times in his trips through the lands and he observed their kinship, one for the other. It was not cat-like or dog-like, but nevertheless it was heartfelt. Shepherds made the sheep safe, guarded them, and led them to food and drink. Jesus even compared a milling crowd of people to “sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36).
I have been told that in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day various flocks would arrive along with their respective shepherds, but that there was only one sheepfold (the pen for sheep), so all the shepherds sent all the sheep into it. This made for a rather large herd overall, and there wasn’t a practice of branding or marking in order to tell one from the other. What's more, sheep, unlike dogs, do not rejoice themselves into knots when their shepherd walks in.
Then how could each shepherd reclaim own sheep?
First, the shepherd knew them by heart. Sometimes he had a special name for each character in the flock. And second, the sheep themselves recognized their master’s voice immediately. When he called out, they simply got to their feet and came with him, through the sheep-gate.
Jesus refers to this familiarity in Sunday’s short Gospel reading. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they know me,” he says. Haven’t you ever longed to hear the voice of someone who could make things alright, who could lift the burdens from your shoulders? Someone who knows you by name and loves you?
Jesus says he is that someone.
You “shall never perish,” he adds, as he holds you in his own hands. It is the Father who has given you to Jesus. Who could revoke that gift?
I have a hunch that you do recognize Jesus’ voice when you hear it. Your feelings move when you hear trustingly a certain gospel, for instance. Or when you receive the bread of everlasting life and the cup of unending salvation—not as a stranger might, but as a member of the well-fed and greatly cared for flock.
What about trying, this Sunday, to notice whether your spirit inclines to Jesus? Maybe you settle into his lap for care.
Your soul seeks him always.
And he finds you.
John Foley, SJ
Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
**From Saint Louis University