Today's readings highlight just a few of the many times in the Scriptures God refers to mankind as sheep. Take the first reading for example, from Jeremiah 23:1-6. The Lord is chastising those who were supposed to be seeing to the well being of the Israelites. "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture... You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble..."
The Scriptures refer to us as sheep more often than our fragile egos might care to admit. As anyone who has been around sheep can tell you, this is not a complement. Cute and cuddly as they are, sheep are stupid, fearful, and easily led. You may object to being cast in this light. You may feel that you are a critical minded, intelligent, free thinking individual -- not just a sheep following the herd. But as Agent K famously said in Men In Black, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." Look around you at the general human condition. Look and see how easily we follow the latest fashion trends, the current fads, and how desperately the majority of us want to fit in. We say we want to be unique and "do our own thing" but inside most of us want desperately to be anything but different.
How else do you explain things like the "flock of seagulls" hair styles of the 80's, the baggy pants of the '90s, or the habit of certain young men wearing their pants half falling off, that seems to not want to go away? Or looking back in time, the wide ruffled collars of the late sixteenth century? Modern man is not unique in our ability to follow the herd.
And we do the same thing in the moral world, don't we? How many of us, after hearing a report of some public opinion poll, start to question our own convictions? If we are told that "the majority of Americans" favor something which we oppose, we start to wonder if perhaps we are in the wrong, as if moral truths are something democratically voted on. We also take our moral cues from famous people that we look up to. If we like a film that an actor has starred in, or really like a singer's music, we are also tempted to follow their lead in other matters, as well. This is why we have the strange phenomenon of Hollywood celebrities and rock stars being given public platforms to talk about politics, social justice, and ethics.
There are so many voices out there begging for us to follow them. The many Scripture references to people as sheep speak to one important truth -- we are creatures that desire to be led. We need it, it is within our very nature. This is not a bad thing. We are hard wired to seek out an authority. Our Creator made us this way, because He is the ultimate Authority -- the Author Himself. The key to our happiness lies in recognizing and following His voice.
But if we do not listen to the voice of our true shepherd, we will seek out the voice of others. And so we get led off in all sorts of ridiculous directions.
The people in today's Gospel reading are just like us today -- just like people of every age -- desperate for the voice of a good shepherd to lead them. They heard about Jesus and His Apostles. And when they did, they "hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them." Jesus, when he "saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd."
Jesus is called the Good Shepherd because of His divinity. He is God, come to earth, our maker in the flesh. Only He can lead us to true happiness. He is the fulfillment of God's promise in Jeremiah, the shepherd appointed to us to that we may no longer fear and tremble. Our choice is simple -- we either listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, or we follow the voice of another. But follow someone, we will.
And where can we hear our Good Shepherd's voice spoken today? The Catechism of the Catholic Church, when it speaks about the pastoral office of the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, quotes from St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius wrote around the year 100 AD. He was the second bishop of Antioch -- St. Peter was the first, ordaining Ignatius bishop of that city before he left for Rome. It is said that Ignatius was taught the Christian faith by the Apostle John.
This Father of the Church, who learned his faith at the feet of the Apostles, tells us this: "Let all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows His Father, and the college of presbyters (priests) as the apostles; respect the deacons as you do God's law."
It is within the Catholic Church that the Shepherd's voice is heard most clearly. The Church, after all, is the mystical Body of Christ. So if Christ is our Shepherd, it should not be surprising that some within that Body are called to share in his pastoral office. How amazing it is that God has deigned to share His authority with us mere men!
While some few are called to be shepherds, the majority (myself included) are called to be obedient sheep. This does not make us any less of the Body of Christ, for Christ Himself was obedient to the Father. Remember that Christ, in addition to being the Good Shepherd, is also the Lamb of God. Christ is both shepherd and sheep, and so His mystical body is both shepherd and sheep, as well. This is why the best shepherds among us, the holiest priests and bishops, realize that they are also sheep who follow Jesus Christ. There is, after all, only one True Shepherd. Our human shepherds within the Church only share in Christ's pastoral office, just as they share in His priesthood.
If you are a young man who may be hearing the call to be a shepherd, please mark your calendars for Aug. 8. On that day, at St. Ann's parish in Charlotte, men of high school and college age of our diocese are gathering for a Vocations Awareness day, designed to assist young men in exploring and discovering God's will in their lives. Our bishop, Peter Jugis, will be there, as will many priests and seminarians from our diocese. For more information, contact Vocations Director Fr. Christopher Gober at 704-370-3327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
God bless, from one sheep to another!