This past Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday because of that beautiful passage in the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel which is proclaimed on this Sunday each year where Jesus gives us the image of Himself as a loving shepherd who cares for us, His sheep.
It is one of the most beautiful scriptural images of God’s relationship to us, His people, is that of a shepherd to his sheep. In Genesis, Jacob blessed the children of his son, Joseph, whom he never expected to see again, tenderly recalling God, “who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day.”
The Lord Leads the Way
We cannot help but be deeply affected by the image of the Lord as our shepherd in the 23rd Psalm from which the Collect of the Mass of Good Shepherd Sunday is taken:
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” (Psalm 23)
And as mentioned, in the 10th Chapter of John’s Gospel, we are presented by Christ, Himself, with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Whose sheep know His voice.
From my earliest childhood, I still recall my own father reciting to me these words from the 23rd Psalm and John’s Gospel. And when I entered the turbulent teen years, he would remind me that I should listen for the voice of my shepherd… that I should stay close to him, hear him, follow him.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is Jesus who walks by and invites us to come and see… he says to us, “Come… follow me.” It is really that simple, no matter how difficult we try to make it, all we need concern ourselves with is following after Him.
“No Man Ever Spoke Like This Man”
John’s Gospel begins with that beautiful prologue announcing the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ as the Light shining in a world covered in the darkness of sin and separation from God. All men and women who seek goodness and truth are drawn to Christ Who is God With Us, come to rescue us and take us home. Even those guards sent to arrest him as more and more people were drawn to Him return empty-handed proclaiming that no man ever spoke like this man. Can you not hear Him, even now, calling your name?
One of the reasons the image of shepherd is so appropriate is the very fact of how a shepherd leads his sheep. I remember when I was fresh out of college and working for a national accounting firm. I was sent to a cattle ranch in Mississippi to take inventory… that is to count the head of cattle – I was the new kid on the block! In order to accomplish this, the cattle had to be driven past me through gates from one pasture to the next. This was not easy and there was really no relationship between cow and ranch hand. The men would drive or push the cattle ahead of them by force and intimidation.
But this is not the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. Sheep know the voice of the shepherd who watches over them. He walks ahead of the sheep talking or singing and those sheep that recognize his voice follow behind. A good shepherd takes good care of his flock, protecting them from wolves, and we might say that the sheep somehow understand this and so remain close to him.
This is the image the Lord gives us of His relationship with us. He says to us, so to speak, “Come follow me,” and those who know Him follow.
A World Filled With Noise
So how is it that so many of us today fail to heed the voice of the Good Shepherd? We too often allow the many discordant and negative sounds of this world to intrude into our thoughts and hearts. I would suggest that this is true for people of all ages, but especially so for our youth. Movies, television, music, computers, social networking through technology, immoral advertising, violence, drugs and immorality of all sorts conspire to drown out the voice of the Good Shepherd. Whose voice do we hear and listen to? Whose voice do we teach our children to listen for?
Like the sheep and the shepherd, when we fall behind the Lord and do not stay close to him, we expose ourselves to the dangers of the world just like a lamb that falls behind the shepherd is exposed to the danger of attack by wolves.
The Answer to Our Prayer
So how do we stay close to the Lord and avoid this danger? The answer, I believe has to do with our failure to accept the gift of prayer from our God. We need to teach our children how to pray. And if we are not yet advanced in prayer, we need to begin to pray in earnest ourselves.
Paragraph 2725 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:
CCC 2725 – “Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The spiritual battle of the Christian’s new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer.”
And paragraph 2562 answers the question, “Where does prayer come from?”
CCC 2562 – “Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays. But in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.”
Do you want to stay close to Jesus… do you want to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd? You must know Him through prayer. If you are not advancing in the prayer life, it is time to get started. You must both want and will your heart to remain near to Him. Practice this; teach this to your children by word and example. If you do, Jesus will make it so. He will lift you up and carry you on His shoulders and at the end of your days, you will experience the everlasting joy of God.