There is a story of a famous actor who was invited to a town hall to do his favorite readings, a custom quite common in the days before radio and television. For a community of people would invite professional orators and actors to read well-known selections from literature and poetry, usually in the town hall, sometimes accompanied by music.
Now, when this actor, who was invited by a community to the town hall, had read a few of his own choosing, to everyone’s delight, he opened it up to personal requests from the audience. If you had a favorite poem or a favorite episode from the classics, he would read it for you.
An old man, a little bit shy, struggled to his feet and asked the actor could he read a poem from one of the psalms. He picked Psalm 23. Everyone knows Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
The old man said this had always been his favorite. Some people then recognized the old fellow as a retired priest from a small church on the edge of town.
The actor thought he’d have a bit of fun with him, and, in good humor, he also would provide some amusement for the audience. He said he would be happy to read the psalm on one condition. He would read it if the old man would agree to read it after him.
Well, the frail old priest looked somewhat reluctant and confused and a bit embarrassed, but, finally, being a good and decent man, he agreed.
The actor began, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. In green pastures he gives me repose; besides restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul.” And he continued in this way to the very end. “Only goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.”
The audience responded with great applause, for the actor read the passage very, very well.
And now it was the old man’s turn.
The old priest began. His voice was frail, and a bit halting, and a bit stumbling.
And the people held back their judgment, for as he continued, in his simple humble way, they knew he was no longer reading letters from a book, but speaking the words as coming from his own heart.
When he reached the end, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come,” his voice was but a whisper, and yet everyone in the town hall heard it clearly.
The audience was silent, but there was only a respectful silence and not a few tears.
The actor smiled at the old man. Turning to the audience, he said, “The difference, my people, between the two readings, is this: I know the psalm, but he loves the Shepherd.”
Today, the Good Shepherd calls us to know him and to love him, to share in his mission of healing and salvation for all the peoples of the world.
Today, the faithful in the Catholic Church are united as one throughout the world to pray for religious vocations. Today’s Sunday is called Good Shepherd Sunday. Today we ask Our Lord Jesus to shine on His Church his blessing with an abundance of religious vocations.
This special day harmonizes with the holy readings that we have just heard in our liturgy of the word. As Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us who are His sheep, those who are called to the religious life in service to the Lord wholeheartedly and continuously embrace a life of self-denial for the spiritual well- being of the Church and its followers.
It’s difficult for us to get the sense of what Jesus was telling us when He identified Himself as the Good Shepherd because we have no experience of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. The closest analogy would be, I suppose, our relationship with our pets, particularly with our pet dogs. We know of the bonding that exists there. Think of our times spent with them, how they recognize our voices and how they have come to know that we love them. They are like family to us. They know us.
Back in the time of Jesus there was a deep relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. Days and nights were spent together in remote and solitary places. Predatory animals sought to kill and devour sheep and so the shepherds closely watched and protected their sheep. When thr sheep heard the voice of their shepherd they knew they were safe and they stayed close to him and followed him.
Have you ever wondered why Judas betrayed Jesus? Like the other Eleven he was chosen by the Lord; he heard the same instruction, saw the miracles, and experienced all the love that the others Apostles did. It was not even his betrayal that made him different, because Peter sinned too, and in much the same way as Judas. Both men came to recognize their sin and admitted it. Judas plainly declared: I have sinned … I have betrayed innocent blood (Mt 27:4).
So, both faced by their misdeeds, why did Peter weep and Judas hang himself?
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us twice that he is the Good Shepherd. He lays down his life for his sheep and he knows his own (sheep). Then he adds: and my own know me.
The more you reflect on this little phrase the more puzzling it becomes. What does it mean to know Jesus? Do you know Jesus? Do I know Jesus? Does it mean that we have met him, seen him, and heard him? How can we, who have been practicing Catholics for many years, know for certain that we know Jesus? How others can tell we know Jesus?
It seems to me that if we can answer this question to ourselves not only will we grow in our own understanding of the Faith but we might also get deeper insight into Judas’ despairing response to that painful, final encounter with his own guilt.
Remember last Sunday’s second reading? St John tells us: We can be sure that we know God only by keeping his commandments. This is the answer to our question, ‘How can we know for certain that we know Jesus?’We can be sure that we know God only by keeping his commandments. And in case you missed the point St John puts it again in another way: Anyone who says, ‘I know him’, and does not keep his commandments is a liar, refusing to admit the truth. Strong words! I wondered why St John found it necessary to speak so strongly and I am guessing that even in his day, only a few decades after the death of Jesus, there was already in vogue the nonsense, spoken by foolish people, that we still hear everywhere today.
I know Jesus but I refuse confession.
I know Jesus but I don’t pray, and don’t go to Mass weekly.
I know Jesus but I live with my girlfriend or my boyfriend.
I know Jesus but I live in a gay relationship.
I know Jesus but I use contraception. I know Jesus but abortion is ok.
These sins are all habitual. This means they are not the sins we commit and want to confess with shame and contrition and a purpose of amendment. They are ongoing and deliberate, springing out of attitudes directly opposed to the commandments. People who live like this cannot say they know God.
Judas was a habitual thief and a liar; he lied to himself as much as to others. His dishonesty is apparent in his pretense at the Last Supper when Jesus, the Truth and the Life, told the Apostles that one of them was about to betray him. Judas, well aware of his intentions and with chilling hypocrisy, simulated innocence: Not I, Rabbi, surely? Sadly, for all his years spent in the Lord’s company, Judas did not know Jesus.
He had habitually failed to keep his commandments. When the moment of raw insight arrived and he saw his crime for what it was, he despaired. Mercy and forgiveness from his loving Master was not an option for him; he just did not know Jesus.
Without a doubt, what St. John says in his Gospel (Jn 17:3) is true: And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Do I now Jesus? Do I love Him? Do I keep His commandments? Do I follow His voice?