Back in Jesus’ time everyone knew about shepherds, their sheep, and how they interacted with each other. The dynamics between them were well known. Not so today. Few of us have watched shepherds tending their sheep. So to understand the full impact of the image that Jesus used we need to take a look at a few points.
During nights back then shepherds kept their sheep in sheepfolds that were large circles of stones that both penned in the sheep while at the same time protecting them from predatory animals such as wolves. There was a narrow opening to let the sheep in and out. At night the shepherd would spread his bedroll across the base of those openings and would sleep there. A predatory animal could enter the sheepfold only by crossing over the body of the shepherd and so of course they would not.
Additionally there were times when the sheep belonging to different shepherds would get mixed in with each other. But that didn’t pose much of a problem because the sheep of each shepherd recognized their own shepherd’s voice and would follow only him. No need for painting colored dyes on the sheep — voice recognition was enough.
Shepherds knew of verdant grazing fields and so they would walk ahead of their sheep and lead them to pastures where the sheep would find good food. In the movement, however, sometimes a sheep or two would go off on their own and become lost. Being out on their own they would be easy kills for wolves and other predatory animals. So long as they stayed in the flock, however, they were safe. So the shepherd would leave the flock for a while and go in search of the sheep that strayed and was lost.
Now let me repeat the teaching Jesus was giving to His disciples.
Jesus said: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them. So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
We should ask ourselves: “Whose voice am I following?” Some of us listen to only our own inner voice. Nobody, we tell ourselves, can tell me what to do or what to believe. Others of us listen to the seductive whispers of the world. Still others pay little attention to any call other than their urges, drives, or desires. We all know that many voices call us and we need to be aware of them, where they are coming from, and where they will lead us.
Today I want to give some attention to how we can discern and listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd. How does God speak to us?
First of all, you need to expect that God can reach you. Many don’t. But how can God communicate with you if you don’t think He can? Nevertheless He is trying to!
Think of the good things that have come to you, the good things that you have experienced. Aren’t they from God? On the opposite side, if you have experienced remorse, have you ever considered that it may be God whose voice is reaching you in your remorse? Conscience, after all, literally means, “to know with.” Remorse is knowing that you have done something that displeases God and that He is telling you that you can do better. Cannot the voice of penance and regret deep within us be inspired by God?
Prayer is essential. Prayer places your soul at the disposal of God. Prayer can bring us to be reflective, to contemplate, to see and hear the actions and whispering of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When we are reflective we gain insights – we see things and we see people, as God wants us to see them. Is that not God calling us, God speaking to us?
The Holy Spirit is quite capable of inspiring our imaginations and inner thoughts. If we don’t accept the Holy Spirit’s power and ability to inspire our inner thoughts and dispositions then we are saying that God cannot or will not reach us. In our silent attentiveness the gentle whispering of the Holy Spirit can be heard deep within us.
God also speaks to us in the beauty and majesty of creation. Moments when we are filled with awe and wonder over nature’s beauty are moments when God is speaking to us. We ought not to be deaf to what God is sharing with us.
Then there is the example of good people along with their words, their attitudes, and their dispositions. These, too, are ways in which God speaks to us.
Much depends upon your basic disposition toward God. Do you really believe that God is angry with you, that He wants to inflict punishing pain and suffering upon you, or do you believe that God loves you, knows you can do better, and wants to free you from guilt and lead you to do better, even wonderful, things? Your basic dispositions control what you hear and what you do not hear. Is God really silent or are you deaf to His voice?
To be sure, each one of us has been like a wandering and lost sheep. If we’re fixated on that and feel totally lost then we will not see our Good Shepherd coming after us to carry us on His shoulders back into the fold from which we have wandered.
Do you think God cares for you? Do you think that God can reach you? If so, then you will understand what today’s Gospel is telling you.
But understanding is only the beginning. What is necessary is for you to let God find you, tell you of His love for you, and then let Him carry you back to where you belong.