Today’s first reading and the accompanying gospel, present us with the image of the shepherd. Israel’s prophets and kings were often portrayed as shepherds and then some of them were berated, even cursed, ‘Doom for the shepherds who allow the flock of my pasture to be destroyed and scattered’. But in today’s gospel, when Jesus steps ashore and sees ‘a large crowd… like sheep without a shepherd’ we are told ‘he set himself to teach them at some length’. He is presented as the good shepherd. And his disciples, who have clearly just been engaged in similar work, are also good – to the extent that they are faithful co-workers with him.
This is meant to speak to us today so that we follow the good shepherd but also become shepherds in our time by spreading the Good News. Let us remember that the people to whom Jesus was preaching beside the lake were Jewish. But we, here, today, are of gentile stock, occupying the place similar to that of the Ephesians whose letter from Paul we heard quoted. Paul told them, as he could have us, ‘ do not forget, I say, you were separate from Christ, excluded from membership in Israel; aliens, with no part in the covenants of the Promise; limited to the world; without hope and without God.’ Such was the mission territory of Paul and it applies to us, here and now, where the Good News continues to need to be preached and witness given by disciples.
In ancient times and to this day, in various parts of the world, the shepherd’s primary function was to see that his sheep had plenty to eat and drink. ‘In fresh green pastures he gives me repose, near restful waters he leads me, to revive my drooping spirit.’ That, metaphorically, is precisely what Jesus was doing in Galilee by his teaching and healing. Coming humbly, as a servant, not for power or possessions, not for him fanfare and the financial gains of the false prophets of his time. Christ was that longed for saviour, sent by the Father to respond to the needs of wayward humanity, peoples stumbling in the dark, not knowing what direction to take or having the strength to pursue paths of peace. With Christ that waywardness, running after shadows, could be overcome.
And Christ makes of us his disciples to continue his work which is one of witnessing, at a minimum. The church is full of examples of this: the married couple is a powerful witness to love because nothing less than unconditional love is required of married partners. A temporary contract, until one of them finds something better, will not do for a Christian marriage.
Secondly, it is a Christian service, a holy service to mankind, to recall core Christian values that make fraternal community relations possible: speaking the truth in the public arena, seeking the common good beyond personal profit, justice and reverence towards all as we face common challenges. Never before has the need been so great, in these climate changing times.
Thirdly, to distinguish right from wrong, endow society with a moral compass, is a Christian testimony for all to share. Morality reminds us that an action is not right simply because it is legal. Nor is everything good although it may be technically possible.
And as for the challenges at the end of life, death is not made dignified by personal scheduling or choosing when we have crossed a subjective threshold of being a burden on society. Death can only be dignified, if at all, by entrusting oneself to the love of the Father, after the manner of Jesus. For the believer death opens onto eternal life by God’s gift. Our testimony is to teach that hope.
However it was not only by teaching the Way and the Truth that Jesus was the good shepherd but also by giving his life for us. The mystery of the cross was at the heart of Jesus’ mission as the Good Shepherd. It was the great service he rendered us. He gave himself. And it was not just once in a distant past. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the union with God that it brings and the life that it transmits to us, is made present for us daily. It is for us every Sunday on the altar, in the eucharist.
To conclude: in ancient times the sculpure of a shepherd bearing a lost sheep on its shoulders evoked an ideal and gentle world. For Christians it naturally became an image of Christ who had set out in search of fallen humanity. It became the image of Him who seeks us, in our meanderings through the sparse deserts and darker valleys, only to put us on his own shoulders and return us to the true pasture. He continues to be our shepherd and invites us in turn to show the Way, the Truth and the Life, to others in these difficult times – to find those ‘green pastures which give true repose.’