+ This Sunday has been traditionally known as "Good Shepherd" Sunday. And immediately our thoughts turn to a familiar pastoral, country, image of Jesus, crook in hand, standing in a meadow, amidst a flock of attentive sheep. This is a useful image, it is a true image, but the full import of it has many layers and should not be taken at face-value only.
The first sub-layer is that we must keep in mind that it is both God the Father, and the Son who are the Shepherd, and not just the Son. Jesus begins now to tell us, as he will tell us repeatedly the next several weeks that he and the Father are one, they are of one substance, they are of one will, they are of one mind: one, though not identical. And so both Father and Son are shepherd of the flock of sheep, the community of believers that are formed by the sending of the Spirit (the Gift of the Father and the Son) at Pentecost– and which is increased every time someone is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the same Holy Spirit.
The second sub-layer is that the sheep, this community, is not just a small and limited number of persons – but as our first and second readings both tell us today – it extends to all peoples and nations and tongues everywhere. Salvation is not just for Jews, it is for Gentiles as well. The flock is meant to be a global communion of mind and heart centered on the vision of the Worthy Lamb that was slain for our redemption!
The third sub-layer is that God the Father and the Son still call qualified and willing ministers, both men and women, to shepherd the flock, to lead and guide the community, to ensure that sacramental graces promised will be available until the end of time. There is a preplanned, well-thought-out and viable "hierarchy of ministerial service" which basically includes everyone here today to one degree or another. God entrusts, "shepherding," not only to priests, bishops and popes, but also to deacons, Pastoral Associates, lay ministers ( Lectors, Eucharistic Ministers), Altar Servers, Choir, Ushers, Greeters, and all who volunteer and work in any parish organization or venture. Shepherding can also be an aspect of the job of parent, older brother or sister, grandparent, aunt, uncle; teacher, policeman, or other helping professional.
But one thing needs to be made very clear, and that is, all shepherds, from the policeman to the pope himself and everyone in between, are not gods or superhuman persons. They are representatives of God who are each as potentially sinful as the next person is: I would dare say that there is no one among them without "the proverbial skeleton or two crumpled deeply in the back of the closet;" and you must remember, when you are prone to judge rashly or prematurely, anyone at all, but especially your shepherds: "the skeletons you may have stashed away in your own."
There was only one truly, entirely and completely GOOD and SINLESS SHEPHERD and that was JESUS. All of us others are entirely dependent on his grace, and mercy and forgiveness to be able to do anything at all of service for him and his Church and the world. We must remember this!
We pray today for vocations for all ministries in the Church, but in particular for those of priesthood and religious life, trusting that God will be faithful to his promise to never leave the flock wandering alone. And may we take the pressure off potential candidates by encouraging them with our understanding that they need not be "inhumanly perfect" in order to be our leaders, we just need them to be as holy as they can be, loving and willing to serve. Jesus
simply wants shepherds after his own heart, the kind he can call his friends. May we pray for such shepherds to rise and be called forth from our midst – perhaps even from our own parish!
"I am the good shepherd, says the Lord; I know my sheep and they know me!"