Manny was just seven years old when his father first brought him to the rolling fields of Portugal’s Alentejo region to work with him as a shepherd. He remembered walking along the edges of the flock making sure all the sheep were accounted for and that there were no dangers lurking. He remembers the long hours in the hot summer sun and the cold, wet winter evenings. But most of all, he remembers how seriously his father took his job as a shepherd. It was important to him that the sheep be protected and be taken care of. His father loved the sheep. Though to Manny they all looked the same, his father could tell the sheep apart.
As he grew older, Manny saw the contrast between how his father took care of his sheep and how other shepherds treated theirs. Many times he saw other shepherds go out into the field after having spent hours drinking at the bar. He saw them yelling at the sheep and even beating them. Most often, though, the sheep were neglected being left alone in the field while the shepherds went off to chat with their friends at the fence.
His father, however, never yelled at the sheep. His gentle voice was enough to let them know that they had strayed off too far or that it was time to head back in. And he never left the sheep to talk to his friends. If someone from the village would call out to him, he would simply wave at him and go back to his business.
While they were out in the fields one afternoon, Manny asked his father why he took his job so seriously. After all, they were only a bunch of dumb sheep. His father told him that his love and care for the sheep was due to the great devotion he had to Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Whenever he would feel impatient with the sheep or get tired, he would remember Jesus’ words, “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” He would reflect on how much Jesus loves each of us though we so often stray from him. That would give him the strength to do his best to also nourish and protect his own flock.
Manny’s father wanted more for his son than the simple life of a country shepherd, so he made sure that he went off to the university. However, after his graduation, during his years as a businessman and then later as a husband and father, he never forgot the lessons he learned in the fields with his father. He took his inspiration from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who teaches us that to be successful no matter what our path in life may be, we have to love totally and love freely.
The lessons that Manny learned in the field with his father are also those taught to us today by Jesus in the gospel. He holds himself out to us as the model of a love that is totally and freely given.
First of all, Jesus’ love is total and without limits. It is a love that gives of itself without counting the cost. As He tells us, “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” It is a love that is willing to sacrifice and to put the good of others before ones own. It is a love that is willing to suffer so that others may be comforted and to go without so that others may have what they need.
That type of love does not come naturally to us. So many times before we give we ask ourselves, “What is in it for me?” We limit our love to those who love us back or who can do something for us. If we are to rise above our human limitations and embrace a love that extends even to those who hate us, we need to first have a loving relationship with Jesus, our Good Shepherd. By reflecting on how He loves us even when we disappoint Him and push Him away, we will be given the grace to love others in the same way.
Secondly, Jesus’ love is freely given. In today’s gospel, He says, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely.” Jesus did not grudgingly suffer and die for our sins. He chose to die. At any time, He could have come down from the cross, but He freely hung there so that we could have salvation and eternal life. It was a total act of unselfish love done not out of coercion but out of a free gift of self that He made for the world.
If our love is to be like Jesus’, we must give it freely, without looking for thanks or appreciation. It happens many times in families that one adult child ends up having to take care of the parents. The other children may have already left the home and started families of their own and there is no one else who is able to take care of the aging father or mother. He or she may do it out of a sense of duty to the parent or may worry about what others would say if they did not take care of them. Over the years, resentment can build up. It is a very natural and human response to having to sacrifice one’s life to care for another.
However, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, teaches us another way. Instead of feeling backed into a corner, they can make a choice every day to show the same love to their parents that was shown to them when they were growing up. They can choose to unite their sacrifice to that of Jesus on the cross and receive the grace to give of themselves. By doing so, by giving of themselves freely rather than feeling that they have no other choice, they can begin to feel freedom from the guilt and resentment that so often comes with taking care of aging parents.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, shows us the way to success by making our lives a total and freely given offering of love to others. By reflecting on the great love He showed us, we can begin to imitate it in our own lives. Then we will know true freedom, abundant joy and the blessings of peace.
(image by Marisol Sousa)