Last week I was on retreat. The area that I was in was farming and sheep country. It enabled me to see at first hand what the Gospel is about today, sheep and shepherd. There are many similarities and dissimilarities between what the Gospel says and how it is in modern times.
Unlike the image that we have from the Gospel the modern shepherd doesn’t walk about with crook in hand. The modern shepherd is on a quad bike, travelling at high speed through the field. He seems to not to call the sheep but to toot his horn, the sheep seem to know what to do, take their cue from the horn, rather than his voice. They seem to know the sound of his horn rather than sound of his voice.
And, rather than knowing all the sheep and lambs, I notice that the modern shepherd has a colour code for the sheep, painted on their coats. Red for this field, green for another, yellow for still another. The lambs they have numbers spray painted on their back, no need to know the sheep if you just simply have to number and count them.
The sheep are very timorous and skittish. Although we think them a bit silly, they have things in their favour. They can run and run fast. They have bulk, if they banged into you, you would know all about it. They have got a super sense of smell and a super sense of hearing, they smell you down wind, they hear you from a fast distance. All these things are on their side for survival. They are cautious, suspicious, timid, watchful; these help them rather than hinder them. They are voracious eaters and spend most of the day eating or digesting what they have eaten, all to the good. They grow these coats, which the coldest wind doesn’t seem to be able to penetrate.
No they are far from silly, they are far from needing our pity, they actually have a very developed system of survival. And really they allow themselves to be shepherded and to be further protected by the man on his quad with those troublesome dogs!
No matter what age you stand in, many people go back to the image of shepherd and sheep. The bible is no exception, it often uses it to describe the relation between Israel and God. Jesus also uses this familiar image to his listeners: the lost sheep; the Good Shepherd; the hired man; the gate of the sheepfold; the dangers to the fold and so on.
The Church returns to this image on this Sunday in which it prays for more vocations. It gives to those who have a vocation, the title, Shepherd. But it is not meant to be something on its own or like a crown put on someone’s head It is a kind of shared role, Jesus because he chooses the one share his role with them. As Jesus washed the feet of his disciples so they are to do the same (he shares it with them); as he was a shepherd so are they shepherds too; as he cured so are they to cure; as he preaches and teaches so are they. It is a thing he shares with them.
The title, Shepherd, is given not because the person has deserved it, won it, earned it, merited it. It is not given to him/her because he is the best of the bunch, it is given by a mysterious gift of providence (who ultimately knows why it is given). The apostles had no earthly honours, no glittering a career, no special gifts which marked them out, but it was the mysterious gift of providence that marked them out. These were the ones who would do the work, these were the words who would carry the message into the world, these would be the ones who would be the shepherds, who would heal and cure, preach and teach. Why, who knows? It was a mysterious gift of providence.
You know, as everyone knows, this is not a plentiful time for shepherds. It has not always been so, we imagine also that it will not always be so. You could say that there were many reasons for it. But ultimately it comes down to 2 things: the call and the response. The person who hears the call or feels the stirring in their heart and the person who has the courage to respond. These are the 2 essential and irreplaceable elements. Call and response. It is as old as the sheep and the shepherd in the field. Abraham, Moses, Noah, the prophets got the call, down through the ages people have got the call and responded.
God hasn’t stopped calling. God hasn’t fallen silent. God still calls people, each of us wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t true. But is there enough courage, strength, boldness to give it all away and respond? That’s the rub.
The sheep are on the hillside and in the fields. The sheep are grazing and taking water. The sheep are waiting to be led. The sheep are waiting for the shepherd to appear. They have no need of a hired man who runs away at the first sign of danger. They are waiting.