August 24, 2017, 4:52 pm
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Shepherds with the smell of their sheep

JESUS said: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy, I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

***

There are many passages in the Old Testament that repeatedly speaks of God as the shepherd of his people. Psalm 23, from where our Responsorial Psalm is taken, is just one of those passages and perhaps the one we are most familiar with. Similarly, many perfidious and deceitful leaders of Israel are presented, particularly in the prophetic tradition, as corrupt and depraved shepherds of the people entrusted to their care. When Jesus, therefore, speaks about the “shepherd theme,” he is not venturing into an unfamiliar field. In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus uses two images that are related to the “shepherd theme.” First, he describes a shepherd as someone who knows and accompanies his sheep. He is contrasted with the stranger whom the sheep will not follow but instead run away from because they do not recognize his voice. Second, Jesus portrays himself as the gate of the sheepfold in whom the sheep will find salvation, protection, and pasture. He is contrasted with the thieves and robbers who come “only to steal and slaughter and destroy.”

The Good Shepherd—the Lord knows and accompanies us.

Sheep may provide food to eat, milk to drink, and wool for clothing. They may also be used as medium of exchange for trade and as animals for sacrifice. But they can hardly be considered among the smartest among the animals. They do not have the speed of a gazelle, the menacing appearance of a bear, the aggressiveness of a crocodile, or the ferocity of a lion. Sheep have good peripheral vision but poor depth perception. Because of this, depressions or dips on the ground may cause a sheep to hesitate and pull back, appearing to be lost and not knowing how to move forward. Thus, to be sheepish means to look or to act shamefaced, embarrassed, docile, meek, and lacking in confidence. Indeed, sheep need a shepherd who, as described in our Gospel reading, knows and calls them by name, and who leads them out of the sheepfold and walks ahead of them. A good shepherd is able to do these functions because he accompanies and stays with the sheep all the time. He is their constant companion and, as such, it becomes inevitable that he smells like them. That is precisely what Pope Francis exhorted his priests to be. In his first Chrism Mass as Supreme Pontiff, he remarked: “This I ask you: be shepherds with the smell of sheep.”

When you find yourself in a big crowd of strangers, you feel so anonymous. You feel like a sheep who is lost in the midst of this vast multitude of humanity. When you pray and feel that what you asked for has not been answered, doubts may arise and you begin to question whether God knows and listens to what you are praying for, whether he really has time for you, whether he cares for you. The Gospel reading reassures us that nobody is anonymous before the Lord. No one is lost in a crowd. Jesus himself points out that “the shepherd calls his own sheep by name.” Yes, he knows each of us. He knows us by name. But he not only knows us, he cares for us. The good shepherd truly cares for the sheep, their welfare, their well-being, what is good for them.

The Door—the Lord is the way to eternal life.

Twice in the second part of the Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the gate of the sheepfold that functions as shelter and a safe haven for the sheep, particularly at night. On a hillside or hinterland sheepfold, the enclosure would not have any gate and the shepherd would usually lie down and sleep across the entrance. Literally, the shepherd becomes the gate of the sheepfold so that no sheep could get in or out of the enclosure without passing through him. At sundown, the sheep come in through the gate for protection and security and, at daybreak, they go out in order to find green pasture for their nourishment. The image of Jesus as the gate highlights the role of Jesus as the savior (“Whoever enters through me will be saved”) and evokes the twin notions of security and providence (“come in and go out”).

It is not infrequent today for people to pin their hopes on a particular person or leader, or to think that their sustenance depends solely on what they have accumulated and saved, or to assume that their security is to be attained in their influence and power. The Gospel reading is a timely reminder that it is Jesus who alone is our true Savior, and our veritable security and sufficiency. In him, we find our life’s refuge and satisfaction. St. Augustine said it well when he wrote: ”You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

***

– Fr. Victor S. Nicdao
– (May 7, 2017)
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