By Fr Tim McFarland, C.PP.S.
A couple of years ago when I was in ministry in Mercer County, Ohio, I had prepared my homily for this Good Shepherd Sunday and noted how perhaps it was (is) difficult for us to identify with this Gospel as we don’t see sheep much – even in the agricultural area of Mercer County. And wouldn’t you know it, as I was driving to have Mass at Rockford, Ohio, what did I see: a herd of sheep!
One of the oldest images of Jesus is of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The image resonated with many during the early years of Christianity. It portrayed Christ as the Good Shepherd carrying a sheep over his shoulders, an image that provided comfort to the persecuted followers of Christ. The image still resonates with many even today as it appeals to our sense of belonging and of being comforted in complex and sometimes hostile times.
The Gospel speaks about the sheep and the shepherds and though many of us don’t often see sheep, we can identify with elements of the Gospel. At its core, this Gospel is about relationships and that is something we all have. Jesus speaks of the relationship the shepherd has with his sheep – he knows them and they know him.
History tells us that all the sheep were kept together in a big sheepfold where the various shepherds had brought their small herds. Without brands, without markings of any kind, you might ask how each shepherd gets back the sheep that belongs to him or to his boss?
The shepherd calls each of his flock by name. He has been with them on the hillside, so he knows the one with the nick in its ear, the one with the pretty face, the one that limps. There is a name for each one because they are not just a herd; each has a personality that is special, just like human beings.
The bond of love uniting us is based on the love that unites the Father and Jesus. Our new existence is founded on God’s unbreakable love and faithfulness. We have to attune our minds to the sound of his voice.
In this analogy, we hear Jesus describe the depth of love he has for his flock – us. He lays down his life for them and for us. By shedding his Precious Blood, Jesus has given us new life. Now we are challenged to do the same. It is rare that we literally lay down our lives, but there are small ways we lay down our lives, for example, giving time to listen or be with others in their need, etc.
Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd, He is also the Gate into the fold. To be a sheep that is Christ’s, a person has to open to the love of the Lord. He or she has to go within Jesus, through Jesus, who is the Gate and the Way, as well as being the leader along the way. There are many voices that vie for our attention these days we have to be open to and listen for the voice of our shepherd. It is the call of love and challenges us to speak the same to others.
Here is the good news, then. Whether a person is faithful or astray, he will be surrounded by the love of the Good Shepherd. St Patrick’s prayer says it well: Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ with me.
Fr. Tim McFarland, C.PP.S., is the director of ministry and mission and serves on the faculty at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting, Ind.