The Good & Shepherd
GUIDING LIGHT - Rev. Fr. Benjamin Sim sj (The Freeman) - May 12, 2019 - 12:00am

Today, the Gospel presents us with one of the most familiar unfamiliar images in the Scripture. It is familiar in the sense that the Scripture from the Old Testament to the New is full of images of sheep and shepherds. 

It is unfamiliar in the sense that most of us have not seen any sheep, much less a shepherd in our lives except in movies and Christmas cards. But to the pastoral people who were listening to Jesus, sheep and shepherds bring up immediately familiar sights and experiences, and therefore bring clarity to his message.

So, for today, let us ask three questions. What is it that has kept the shepherd image alive through the Christian ages? Why doesn’t this age-old image turn us on? How might this image make contemporary Christian sense, speak to people who have never seen a shepherd, who see sheep only on Christmas cards?

First, what is it that has kept the shepherd image alive through the Christian ages? More than anything else, the role it plays in God’s own Book. In the Old Testament, Yahweh is Israel’s shepherd, leading His people “like a flock.”

We are familiar with Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” The shepherd image is also embedded in Hebrew history, a history of pastoral people. A dying Jacob spoke of “the God who has shepherded me all my life long to this day.”

When the people were enslaved in Egypt, the Lord “led” them from exile like a shepherd, “guiding them in the wilderness. (Ps. 78:52). When Jerusalem was laid waste and thousands of Jews were deported to Babylon, the Lord promised through the mouth of Ezekiel, the prophet: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them with justice.”

And this He did. The straying He turned back for with compassion, “as a shepherd his flock.” In the New Testament, it is Jesus who is pre-eminently shepherd. He sees himself “sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel!”

In the final chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus missioned Peter to “take care of my lambs” and “Tend my sheep.”

No doubt about it, shepherd and sheep filled the pages of the Scripture. This brings us to the second question: Why doesn’t this inspired image inspire us?

One answer is – our city life. We don’t see any shepherd in the cities. But most of all, sheep is not a popular symbol. They are mute creatures. Sheep do what they’re told to do; they don’t lead, they follow. If they don’t have enough sense to follow, a sheep dog will keep them in line.

The dictionary calls you a sheep if you are “meek and submissive.” As a result, sheep is not our favorite image for modern Christians. We are not dumb animals, we are creatures of reason and freedom and speech. We do not mind following, but we don’t like to be led by the nose. We have a healthy respect for authority, but we don’t want to be just dictated upon without question.

So, what is my point? I am not surprised if shepherds and sheep fail to get you excited. Symbols do not exist in a vacuum; they symbolize or not, they strike you or turn you off, in real life.

The symbol of shepherd and sheep is enshrined for ever in our Scriptures, but it rarely moves us the way it moved the men and women of Israel, the way it moved our early Christian ancestors.

And so, our third question: How might this inspired image make contemporary Christian sense, speak to people who have never seen a shepherd, who see sheep only on Christmas cards? First, don’t throw away the symbols of Scriptures too easily. God has revealed Himself to us, shows to us who He is and what we are to be, not primarily through clear catechetical propositions, but most often through symbols.

Symbols, are signs that we can see, or hear, or touch, taste, or smell. Signs work mysteriously on our consciousness, suggest more than they can clearly define or describe. Signs are filled with a depth of meaning that is evoked rather than explicitly stated. For example, it may be the cross, or water. It may be a person or an event like Moses leading the Israelites, or Jesus hanging on the cross.

So it is in today’s symbol – shepherd and sheep. Don’t brush them aside because there are no sheep on EDSA or Ortigas Avenue… How can you make sense out of it?

I suggest you first look at the life of the shepherds in Palestine during the time of Jesus. We will learn that the relationship between the shepherds and his sheep is a personal and intimate one, unlike our age of mass production, when the mad cow disease struck, thousands and thousands of sheep and cattle could be exterminated in a few hours.

We know only numbers. But the Palestinian shepherd knows his sheep. And the sheep respond to his voice, and to no other. As Jesus puts it, “He knows each one by name.” He may even have pet names for his favorite ones like “Long-ears,” “White-nose,” “Spotted,” or “Curly,” “Sungit,” and “Pangit,” “Hyper” and “Tamad.” The shepherd would defend the sheep against wolves and rustlers with his very life.

And so for me, the model shepherd is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who became man and still wears our human nature before his Father. And why is shepherd so fitting for Jesus? In a word, because he cares. And how he cares!

The only Son of the living God could have left us to our hell-bent sinfulness. But no. He came to be one of us. He went through growing pains, sweated in labor, faced Satan, suffered and died in an act of love.

And all this not only for respectable folks like you and me! He found supreme joy when he left the 99 docile sheep in search for the single sheep that got lost. And what does he do when he finds it? Curse it, beat it with the shepherd’s staff?

No, “he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing.” And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.” ‘My sheep’.

More than that, this Shepherd, who cares, loves all his flock, not in a shapeless mass, not like Linus of the Peanuts cartoon, who says, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”

Jesus cares for you as a unique person, no carbon copy, shaped forever in his image and likeness, destined to live his life, to live with him, not simply today, but through days without end.

Jesus knows you more intimately than you know yourself. He knows what makes you tick, what turns you on or off. Most astonishing of all, this Shepherd, who cares for you, died for you, not only for Adam and Eve, for Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala, but for you as if no one else existed on Calvary except you.

This brings us from the shepherd to the sheep. To follow Jesus is not mute slavery, or dumb submission. To follow him is the most human, the most sensible thing you can do; for to follow him is to return his love – that love, which is actually Jesus’ only hold on you, the only bond with which he draws you.

But to follow Jesus is not for the delicate, the timid, the self-centered. To return his love is to love as he loved: intelligently and passionately, freely, and with every fiber of your being.

To love as he loved is to care as he cared: not for a mass called humanity, or the poor in general – but for every sister and brother, who crosses your path; not simply those you like, but also those you dislike on sight, those who have no socially redeeming qualities, the “sungit” and the “pangit,” those who live and think and even sin differently from you.

Most of all to love as he loved is to care for the sheep that limp; those who hunger for bread or justice, or love; those who have no pillow for their head, no shoulder to lean on for their troubled heart; those who are imprisoned behind bars or within their tortured selves.

My brothers and sisters, you can refuse to be called sheep. What you dare not refuse is to follow your Shepherd. To be Christian, you must dare to care, let go of yourself – love, open your arms wide to a whole little world that is desperate for your compassion.

Do that, and when the Good Shepherd finally calls you by name, you will follow him with joy to eternal life in the home of the Father.

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