Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J.

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“The Lord is my Shepherd,” gives us one of the most primitive, most endearing and most enduring images of our Lord, the image of the good shepherd who cares for his sheep, calls them by name, leaves the flock in search of the strays and lays down his life for them.

Unfortunately, shepherds and sheep are not very common today so this image rarely moves us as it did the people of Israel and the early Christian community. In the Old Testament God is called the Shepherd of Israel. (Ezekiel 34:11) In the New Testament Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. (John 10) But if we want to understand the Scriptures and know our true relationship with God we must understand the image of the Good Shepherd and his relationship with his sheep.

In Biblical times sheep were very important. They provided both food and clothing. The type of pasture available imposed upon the shepherd the nomadic life. He had to travel with his flock from one pasture to another as the season changed. The sheep must be led to both pasture and water. He must defend them against inclement weather, bandits and beasts of prey. So the shepherd establishes a remarkable rapport with his flock, they have perfect confidence in him; they recognize his voice and go wherever he leads.

Jesus said that he came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and that he was the good shepherd who leaves the 99 in the flock to search out the one stray. His arrest and passion leave his disciples “scattered like sheep when the shepherd is struck.” Like the good shepherd he lays down his life for his sheep. And in the last judgment he will be the shepherd who separates the sheep and the goats after they have shared a common pasture. Jesus commissioned Simon Peter to be successor as shepherd of the flock. “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-18) The symbol of the shepherd, the shepherd’s crook, is preserved today in the crosier, which is used by the Pope and Bishops at Liturgical functions. At the parish level the priest is called pastor which is Latin for shepherd.

Unfortunately, the image of shepherd is not very relevant today and sheep are not our favorite image of ourselves. We do not like to think of ourselves as dumb, submissive animals, we are sophisticated persons of reason and free will. And we don’t like to have dogs yapping and snapping at our feet.

But perhaps we are more like sheep than we care to admit. Just like sheep we seem to be oblivious to everything except the little plot of grass that surrounds us, the here and now. We spend most of our time and attention feathering this little nest here as if it will go on forever. And we don’t seem to be conscious of the wolves that surround us in the counter-culture in which we live. To say nothing of the wolves that come to us in sheep’s clothing. And the grass on the other side always seems to be greener. So we stray from the flock, only to have the shepherd come after us, pick us up with the sacraments and carry us back to the flock.

Whether we appreciate it or not, the image of the good shepherd and his sheep is enshrined forever in the Bible and in Christianity. And in reality and truth it fits every generation, even our own. What a great blessing it is to be able to recognize the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and to follow him with great joy and confidence wherever he may lead us, for he is “the way, the truth and the life.”

© 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J. all rights reserved