Topic: The sheep follow because they know His voice
Films like Robin Hood, Batman and Superman all reflect the universal appeal of the hero figure. All these heroes have one thing in common: they live apart from the rest of us, on the margins of society, either outside the law or with a hidden, secret identity. We like our heroes to be different from us. It is part of their attraction and it's what makes them able to function as saviors, as hero figures.
The people of Israel too had a great hero: David, the shepherd boy who slew Goliath and eventually became Israel's greatest king. Shepherds, too, were outsiders. They lived apart from other people and so were often unable to fulfil all the religious demands of Judaism. They were second-class citizens. Like our own heroes, the shepherd lived on the margins of society.
Heroes are fine for children, but there comes a time when we have to leave our heroes behind to face reality and accept responsibility for our own lives. Some would argue that images like those in today's Gospel reading should be dropped as too childish and immature. Who wants to be compared to a flock of sheep? We are individuals, with freedom and responsibility, not sheep to be care for and protected. Ultimately, it is argued, we have to grow up and reject these very passive images: we need to learn to have an adult relationship with God
Whilst there may be some truth in this, it does not do justice to the imagery Jesus uses. Jesus does indeed compare himself to a shepherd caring for sheep - but the onus in what he says is very much on the sheep. It is the sheep who have to be able to recognize the shepherd's voice. It is the sheep who have to take care not to be fooled by false shepherds, and it is they who have to decide whether or not to follow the true shepherd. Jesus says:"I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full".
There are plenty of other guides out there, plenty of other ways to follow. But these do not and cannot lead to life, only to death. The choice is ours.
The "thieves" who steal and kill and destroy come in various guises. They may be the hollow promises of our materialistic society which offer happiness through more, or better, or newer things, but leave us empty, dissatisfied and poorer. They may be the false promises behind drugs, gangs or casual sex, which offer fulfilment but merely rob us of our dignity, our relationships, our self-respect. They may be the promises of the extremist ideologies of politics, nationalism, yes and of religion which more often than not crush the individual for the sake of the group.
Jesus doesn't make empty promises. He doesn't seek to cocoon us from reality, nor seek to offer a temporary fix from the harshness of life. He doesn't try to suppress the individual for the sake of security or promise riches and wealth to get our vote. He doesn't offer pie in the sky. He offers life, life lived to the full, not an escape from life. He offers meaning and purpose in life- "rich pasture"-and incentive for improving the world we live in.
The security he offers is not based on withdrawal from the world but on the freedom experienced in knowing that he is the one we follow. Not some hero who has managed to come through the world unscathed and all-conquering, but a shepherd; someone on the margins of life, who understands pain, rejection and loss. Someone who still bears the scars and wounds of humanity's cruelty, the Good Shepherd who did lay down His life for His sheep.
The image of Christ our Shepherd need not result in a childish, immature understanding of OUR relationship with God. Rather it challenges us to get to know God and to walk in His way. We need to learn to recognize his voice by spending time in prayer, in listening to his words in the scriptures or in a retreat or day of recollection. We need to recognize Him in the sacraments (now in the Eucharist) and in the people and events of our lives (even to recognize His presence in the tragedy and massacre of the Columbine School shooting and in the inhuman cruelty of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And it means learning to follow him, to identify with the outcast, the marginalized and the neglected, the victims of wars and tragedies. It will mean committing ourselves, learning to "lay down our life" for others: giving our time, energy and skills in the service of others, pursuing our call to ministry, to a religious or priestly life. It means taking part in the struggle to build a better world. If we truly follow Christ the shepherd, we can have no excuse for not getting involved.
Jesus the Good Shepherd is the only One who believes totally in our capability, the only One who knows us by name, knows our talents and encourages us to pursue them in our everyday life.
Fr. Volker Futter, O.S.B.