This originally appeared in the Wednesday Morning Connection
During my graduate studies, I spent a summer in a town south of Lisbon studying Portuguese. Finding myself with some free time after breakfast one morning, I decided to go for a walk and find a place to pray. As I walked along I happened upon a shepherd watching over about ten sheep in an open pasture. "What better place to pray!" I thought. I settled myself on a patch of dry ground with my back against an olive tree and took in the idyllic scene. All of a sudden the shepherd, cursing at the top of his lungs, threw his staff at one of the little lambs scattering the jittery creatures in all directions and ruining my time of quiet prayer. It served as a stark reminder that, despite our idealized image of them, not all shepherds are good.
This Sunday's gospel is situated directly after the excommunication from the synagogue of the blind man Jesus healed (see the Fourth Sunday of Lent). Jesus no doubt uses the image of the shepherd and the sheep gate as an indictment of the spiritual blindness of the religious authorities of his day. Unfortunately, in our day, the abuses of those in authority both in religious and secular circles are frequent headlines in the media. There are no lack of reminders that shepherds are not always good.
Nonetheless, Jesus' words are as much an invitation as they are a recrimination. If those in authority are to be truly good - whether they be pastor, politician or parent - they must follow the example of Jesus who lays down his life for his sheep, and lays it down willingly. The recent commemoration of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination reminds us that, thankfully, there continues to be those willing to risk their lives to lead the sheep in ways of justice and right. Most of us, however, will be called upon to "lay down our lives" in less heroic fashion through service to others.
Whatever "laying down our lives" will mean in our particular circumstances, it will always require placing our authority at the service of others and learning to recognize the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Even the best of shepherds know that sheep are only good for their wool, milk and meat. Their destiny is the slaughterhouse. But, those who would shepherd souls must know that the destiny of their flock is an everlasting inheritance. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, none of us has ever met a mere mortal. And, the shepherd who aspires to be good must know that they themselves follow a shepherd who is goodness itself. Ultimately, they lead the sheep to where they themselves have been led. They follow the same voice their sheep hear. And, they share their destiny of everlasting life.
Help us who would lead your sheep
to first be followers of your Son.
To those of us with authority to speak,
grant the heart of an attentive listener.
May we lay down our lives in both heroic
and mundane ways in service to your sheep
that we may share their heavenly destiny.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.