Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we celebrate “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And every year on this Sunday, I protest inwardly about how awful it is to be compared to sheep! I think a lot of priests look forward to preaching on this day, but for me the analogy just doesn’t seem to work. Maybe that’s because I didn’t grow up in the time and place Jesus was preaching. They might have been more prone to get the point than people in our modern time and suburban place. I mean, you don’t see a lot of sheep around Naperville, do you? I think the reason I protest against this whole sheep metaphor is because it is usually preached as encouraging a kind of blind acceptance of what we’re being taught. Sheep are usually thought of as animals who accept whatever they’re being told blindly, because they are not able to think for themselves. That’s what makes me kind of bristle at the whole idea of being compared to sheep. I don’t think we’re supposed to check our brains at the door when it comes to living our faith. I can’t imagine God wanting us to do that since he created our ability to think and gifted us with free will.So I’m thinking that this is not the picture we are supposed to be getting from these readings, and that the problem here is that your preacher doesn’t really know anything helpful about sheep that would explain the analogy. So I read a commentary about this reading, and I think it helps sort out the analogy that Jesus is making here. In Jesus’ day, the shepherds would gather several flocks in the same fenced-enclosure. The sheepfold might be constructed in a pasture using brush and sticks; or, it would adjoin a wall of a house and have makeshift walls for the other sides. Owners of small flocks of sheep would have combined them in the secure enclosure at night. Someone – the gatekeeper – would then guard the flocks. The "gate" would have been a simple entrance, but the gatekeeper might even stretch out across the opening and literally be the "gate." The shepherds would arrive early in the morning and be admitted by the gatekeeper. They would call out to their sheep and the members of the flock recognize the voice of their own shepherd, and that shepherd would “lead them out.” The shepherd then walks in front of the flock and they follow. (Jude Sicilliano, OP)So then, I think the point that Jesus is making is that sheep know their shepherd’s voice and they follow him. This shepherd is one who takes care of them and leads them, keeping them safe. So maybe sheep aren’t so dumb after all. Their ability to know their shepherd’s voice helps bring them to the place where they belong, and their desire to follow the shepherd keeps them safe, keeps them from stumbling off the path into who knows what kind of dangerous situations.
It pains me to say this, but you know, maybe we need to be a little more like sheep after all. I for one find that I am often distracted by the plethora of competing voices out there, so much so that it can be hard at times to hear the voice of Jesus our Good Shepherd. Some of the distracting voices that we are subjected to include:
• voices of temptation that call us to covet more than we need or embroil us in heartbreaking addictions;
• voices of intolerance that call us to accept war and terrorism as legitimate ways to deal with disputes;
• voices of self-importance that call us to turn our back on God or trick us into thinking that we don’t really need God;
• voices of isolation that divorce us from family and community
• voices of apathy that divorce us from our world, the needy, and the marginalized
• voices of discouragement that lead us to give up on ourselves or on others, or that convince us that our efforts don’t really matter
And these are just a few, aren’t they? There are so many voices out there that can distract us from our Shepherd, so many enticing things to drag us off the path to God. And we follow them all the time. All these voices diminish our life, lead us away from our families, communities, church, even God. Even if we follow them in the hopes of leading a more exciting life, we may find that the momentary thrill of turning away from the Good Shepherd only leaves us feeling diminished and alone. The only way to a more exciting, fulfilling life is to follow Jesus who “came so that [we] might have life and have it more abundantly.”
So does this mean we have to leave our brains at the door, and follow blindly? No. Of course not. Following those other competing voices out there is what requires blind acceptance. The thinking person follows the Good Shepherd, and faces the many challenges of life not with some kind of delirious, unthinking, debilitating faith, but instead with a faith that is informed by Scripture, upheld by Tradition, and nourished in the Eucharist. The most abundant life we can have is a life in Christ.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, the Church also asks us to pray for vocations. Because without people dedicated to their vocation – whatever it may be – so many people will never hear the Gospel, never hear the Shepherd’s voice. We know that every person has a vocation. Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation. Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith. Spouses bring their husbands and wives to salvation by upholding their faith and living for each other in good times and in bad. Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents. Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy. The list goes on. Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.
Six years ago on this very Sunday, I was struggling with my vocation. I knew that God was calling me to give up my comfortable life and go to seminary to study for the priesthood. But I did not want to go. I had heard the Shepherd’s voice but was in some ways choosing to ignore it. I was already doing what I wanted to do with my life and thought it was going pretty well. But on some level, I knew that life as a disciple required me to do what God wanted, and not necessarily what I wanted. There was an open house that day at the Diocesan Vocations Office. I wasn’t interested in going – at all. And that day, the celebrant, who is now one of my brother priests, preached on vocations and made the point that living as a disciple meant that at some point we have to stop asking the question, “what do I want to do with my life?” and start asking, “what does God want me to do with my life?” And I knew that God wanted me to go to that open house that day, so I did. Four months later, I was in seminary.
What about you? Are you doing what God wants you to do with your life? Maybe your answer won’t require such a radical change as mine did. Maybe it means you renew your commitment to your family, your work, your life as a disciple. But if you’re a young person out there and have only been thinking about what’s going to make you successful and bring in lots of money so you can retire at age 35, maybe God is to
day asking you to stop thinking only of yourself and put your life’s work at the service of the Gospel. Maybe you’re being called on to be a teacher, or a police officer, or a health care professional. And maybe, just maybe, God is calling you to enter the priesthood or religious life. On this day of prayer for vocations, I’m just asking you to pray that God would make his plans for your life clear to you, and that you would promise God to do what he asks of you. I can tell you first hand that nothing, absolutely nothing, will give you a more abundant life.