When we think of sheep, we tend to think of cute, fluffy four-legged creatures. But sheep are very difficult to take care of. First of all, they are very dumb. They walk around with no idea where they are. It is not uncommon for a sheep to walk right off a cliff because it is not paying attention to where it is going. Also, sheep are slow. The shepherd has to be very patient because the sheep are in no rush to move for him. And, because they are so slow, the shepherd has to keep a sharp eye out. If a wolf were to show up, the sheep would be unable to run away. And, sheep have no fangs or claws to protect themselves. Without the shepherd, the sheep are completely helpless.
Sheep may be dumb, but they are not so dumb that they don't recognize the voice of their shepherd. They know right away when an impostor has taken his place. They get anxious and jittery. They start to scatter when someone other than their trusted shepherd has hopped over the fence to take advantage of them.
Jesus loved the image of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep to describe His relationship with the people He came to redeem. That's because there are three things a shepherd does that Jesus also does for His people. Those three things are leading the sheep, protecting the sheep and feeding the sheep.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads His sheep. As Jesus says in the gospel, the Good Shepherd goes ahead of His sheep. The Good Shepherd charts the way forward for them. Just so, Jesus has shown us the path we must walk. We often talk about how Jesus reveals God to us. But Jesus, being fully human, also teaches us what it means to be truly human. No one, no matter what he or she may have accomplished, has ever lived a life more fully human than Jesus has. So, in Jesus we come to understand that living a meaningful life and living a fully human life means following our Good Shepherd.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, also protects His sheep. He knows how helpless we are without Him. He knows how easily we fall to temptation and how easily we can lose hope. He also knows how many people out there are looking to take advantage of His weak, helpless sheep. Jesus looks with love on us in our helplessness and, if we decide to follow Him, pledges to protect us from everything and everyone who can imperil our souls.
Finally, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, feeds His sheep. He brings them to lush pasture land where they can feast and fill their bellies in peace. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows many rich pastures. He feeds us with the banquet of His Word which emboldens our hearts and calms our fears. And He feeds us with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, giving His very life to us and a taste of the deep intimacy He wishes to share with us. Once we have enjoyed the rich pastures of our shepherd, why would we ever want to return to the barren wastelands of selfishness?
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads us, protects us and feeds us. We are familiar with another gospel in which Jesus separates sheep from goats. He says to the sheep, "Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you." When they ask, "When did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you thirsty, and give you drink?, Jesus replies, "Whenever you did it for the least among you, you did it for me." Today, as we reflect on Jesus' word, we might ask: "When did we see you leading us? When did we see you protecting us? When did we see you feeding us?" Jesus, two thousand years after His resurrection, leads us, protects us and feeds us through His Church. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to shepherd His people, the Church. The gift of the Holy Spirit leads us to the Truth we need for our salvation. The Holy Spirit guarantees that the Church will lead us faithfully in the knowledge of God. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus also protects His people. Through the Church, we receive all the graces we need to keep us safe from sin and its corrosive effect in our souls and in our community. Finally, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to feed the Church with His Word and with the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Whenever we talk about the Church, we are not just talking about bishops, priests, deacons and nuns. The Church is much bigger than that. When we say "Church", we mean all the people who have been baptized and believe in Jesus. We are talking about students, parents, single persons, young people, old people and babies. Jesus works through each one of us to lead, protect and feed each other. None of us can follow Jesus by ourselves, anymore than a sheep can protect itself or find food on its own. Whether we are aware of it or not, Jesus works through us whenever we reach out to help another person. And it is Jesus we are serving whenever we reach out to those in need. The gift of the Holy Spirit is working in each of us to make Jesus real and active in the world.
In a world so confused about what life is about and how to live, we hear the voice of our shepherd, Jesus, leading us, protecting us and feeding us. We do not scatter or stray because we have found peace and meaning in the fold of the Church. Soon we will leave this place where we have been fed to help Jesus seek out and save those who are lost and to lead them back to the Shepherd of their souls - Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep so that we can have life and have it in fullness.