22 July 2018
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
“They were like sheep without a shepherd.” The people were huddled in a large crowd, for safety in numbers; there was no shepherd around to protect them. They were restless, not quiet, not lying down; there was no shepherd to keep them at ease. And they were too weighed down; there was no shepherd to get them back on their feet. “They were like sheep without a shepherd:” fearful, vulnerable, uneasy, and troubled. And Jesus saw that and took pity on them.
The image of the shepherd and the flock is so familiar that it’s easy to skip over it. Psalm 23 is so familiar, too, that’s it easy to just gloss over it. But that image of the sheep and the shepherd is key to who Jesus is and who we are. Even the deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church are—in Jesus’ eyes—part of the flock. He has to tell them to “come away...and rest a while.” We’re shepherds of the flock, but I wonder if we aren’t more like the sheep dogs of the flock. We, too, need a shepherd. So this whole image of shepherd and sheep is one that we can’t overlook.
Obviously, we aren’t sheep. But you can see why Jesus says his people are “like sheep.” When danger is near, we run, we get together for protection; we find safety in numbers. We like to play follow the leader; even if we don’t realize it, we let others lead us (for good or for bad). We’re social creatures; it puts us at ease to know we belong, that we’re not alone. We have strong appetites; we crave life, and sometimes we’ll keep eating and indulging in this or that activity to the point that we lose our way. And sometimes life turns us upside-down, and we need help getting right again. Those are all things we do; they’re also things that sheep do. Jesus is right: we humans are “like sheep.”
And so, Psalm 23 is meaningful to us. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” We trust the Lord, and we trust that he knows what’s good for us. He gives us what we need—his grace, his assurances, neighbors and true friends, family, love, wisdom, the community of believers, and so on. When “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
“In verdant pastures he gives me repose.” When life gets a little hectic, when we’re indulging a little too much in the goodness of the earth, he makes us lie down and rest. He’s like a parent who has to say, “No, you don’t need another hot dog, you’ve already had four.” It’s maybe a reason why Sunday Mass is an obligation. Even if we don’t want to, Sunday Mass makes us stop, sit down, and take a rest; it makes us remember the verdant, green pastures of God’s grace that is given to us.
“Beside restful waters he leads me.” God’s love is like a deep river. There are strong currents swirling within it, but the surface is calm and inviting. So we’re not afraid to come and drink of his deep love and grace. Jesus doesn’t lead us to a place of anxiety or fear, but to a place where we’re at peace because we know we belong there. With God and with his flock, we always belong. Hopefully, our experience of Mass is like that. Here as we offer our prayers and thanks to God, and as we listen to Scripture and receive the Eucharist, hopefully we can say, “Jesus has called me here; I belong here; and he refreshes my soul.”
“He guides me in right paths for his name's sake.” Our God has several names: Yahweh, Emmanuel, Jesus. And those names mean that the God “who is” is “with us,” and he is among us to “save us.” In other words, the Lord our Shepherd lives up to his name by guiding us along right paths. And I suppose that can sound very idyllic and beautiful, but I imagine from God’s perspective, trying to get his flock on the “right paths” is probably like trying to herd a bunch of cats. He may want to take us down the paths of patience, forgiveness, putting others first, and so on, but we don’t always go. But, still, the Lord nonetheless lives up to his name; “he guides me in right paths.”
“Even though I walk in the dark valley....” A couple of weeks ago we talked about the assumptions we have about God. And one assumption is that by following the Shepherd there won’t be any dark valleys in life; that with Jesus by our side (or us by his side) life should be nothing but sunny days. But Scripture and experience shows us otherwise. Even if our faith in strong, there are times when the mountains of troubles will keep the sun from shining in; there will be dark valleys.
But, “even though I walk in the dark valley...I fear no evil.” When we’re tempted to despair, when we’re tempted to worry, the Lord is at our side, whispering those all-important words: “Be not afraid. Have faith in God; have faith also in me.” But, as we know, those words aren’t always easy to pick up on. Sometimes the storm of fear speaks louder than God. But that’s also our choice whether or not we let that happen. And that’s where the Shepherd’s “rod and staff” come in.
The rod is something like a club the shepherd would use to go after predators and robbers. And the staff is what we usually think of as a shepherd’s staff, used to hold the sheep and for correcting them. Jesus uses his rod and staff—with the help of the angels who especially fight for us. But we also can use the rod and staff, the rod especially. When fear and anxiety speak louder than God, we use the rod of our conviction to say, “Go away! Get away from me, fear; stop bothering me!” And it does—with practice. “Your rod and your staff...give me courage.”
So the image of the shepherd and the sheep is important to us. It helps to keep clear who Jesus is, and who we are.
At Christmastime, I imagine most of us put up a nativity scene. There’s Mary and Joseph, Jesus asleep in the manger, and all the animals gathered around, wondering to themselves: “What is this baby doing in our feeding trough?” Well, that nativity scene comes alive every time we hear the call of the Shepherd and come to Mass. We come together with Mary and Joseph and all the angels, singing their hymns of praise. And we gather around the manger, the place where the sheep are looking to be fed: the altar.
And what do we find there but Jesus. Not a symbol of Jesus, not a reminder of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the living God. With him beside us as our Shepherd, and within us as our food, what else can we say but: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want....”