Of this and that, thoughts on the Sunday readings from various sources

One of God’s favorite ways to describe himself is by saying he is like a good shepherd.
Jesus did so more than once, as he does in today’s Gospel.

In the Old Testament, the comparison is everywhere:
• God chose shepherds to be the Patriarchs;
• he chose shepherds to be Israel’s first kings;
• the prophets ceaselessly speak of Israel as a flock and God as their shepherd;
• the image returns again and again in the Book of Psalms, as in the beautiful expression from today’s Psalm: “Know that the Lord is God; he made us, his we are; his people, the flock he tends.”

We are used to this image, but even so, the Church likes to remind us of it, frequently.
Why? What is it about this image that God likes so much?

It is interesting to note that among world religions, this image is unique to Judaism and Christianity.
• Even though most primitive religions are polytheistic, they usually express some inkling that behind all the powers of the universe there is one supreme god.
• Usually this god is associated with the sky, or the sea, or the mountain – with some natural phenomenon that the culture depends on.
• In none of these instances, however, is god seen as a divine shepherd of humankind.

Comparing God to a good shepherd can only happen in a religion that recognizes a special connection between the human person and God – for instance, that man is created in the image of God.

Only then does the comparison make sense, because a God who is a good shepherd is a God who walks with his people and cares about their every joy and sorrow.

That, Jesus tells us, is what our God is like.

We are all familiar with cowboys and cattle ranchers.
• You need a bunch of cowboys to drive a herd of cattle.
• You have to push them from behind, forcing them to move, and you need other cowboys on the sides to keep them all together.

Shepherding sheep is different.
• A shepherd walks in front of his flock, whistling or speaking or singing.
• The sheep follow along behind.
• As long as they can hear the shepherd’s voice, they keep following; they have to stay close enough to hear his voice.
• As long as the shepherd is close by, the wolves will not attack the sheep.
• Only when a sheep falls behind, out of reach of the shepherd’s voice, is there danger of getting lost and being attacked.

When Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” this is the image he has in mind.

He wants to stay close to us, and he wants us to stay close to him, close enough so we can always hear his voice.

That way we can be sure to arrive safely to the rich pastures and refreshing streams of a meaningful, joyful life.

He is not a distant God, and he doesn’t want to save us from far away.

This is the image God has of himself: our good shepherd, leading us through the dark and dangerous valleys of this world by walking right beside us, by staying always within hearing – in the sacrament of confession, in the Eucharist, in the Pope, in the Bible…
He is not a cowboy driving us on from behind and keeping his distance; he is our shepherd, and he wants us to hear his voice.

Unfortunately, life in today’s world is noisy, and it is not always easy for us to hear the voice of our good shepherd.

We are bombarded with so many other voices, so many images, so many ideas.

Christ knows this, yet he still tells us, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
What gives Christ so much confidence in our ability to stay close to him and avoid the
traps set by poachers and wolves?

It is prayer, one of God’s greatest gifts to us, and one that we often take for granted.
• Christ is always paying attention to us, just as a good shepherd pays attention to his sheep.
• He is always speaking to us, just as a good shepherd walks ahead of his flock talking and singing, so they can hear him and follow along.
• No matter how noisy, dark, or stormy it gets, he knows how to make his voice heard in our hearts.

We can always tune into it – that’s the gift of prayer.
• The server never goes down, the reception never goes bad: as soon as we turn the attention of our hearts to our good shepherd, he makes his voice heard.
• God is always online, waiting for us to turn our attention to him, so he can guide us to the meaningful life we long for.

The sheep who wanders away and gets stuck in a ravine or attacked by wolves cannot blame the shepherd.

Just so, when our lives don’t fill us with the meaning we long for, before blaming Jesus we should take an honest look at our prayer lives: do we pray? Do we strive to pray better?
Today, as Jesus renews his commitment as our good shepherd, let’s renew our commitment to be his good sheep, to give daily prayer the place it ought to have in our lives.

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