Foundations of Faith|
As members of Christ's flock we're called to do more than graze
The Lamb gave himself for the sheep. So must we.
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
Are you a sheep or a goat?
Sheep are a frequent theme in the Gospels, as well as the Old Testament. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had many flocks, and young David was a shepherd. God, too, is referred to as a shepherd (see Ez 34 and Ps
95). And Jesus calls himself both the Good Shepherd and the sheep gate (Jn 10). Then there's the parable about the lost sheep (Lk 15), which reminds us of God's merciful, loving concern for each of us.
So when Jesus spoke about sheep, it was a familiar image to his audience. Even today, sheep are a common sight around the towns like Bethlehem and Jericho.
People of Jesus' day knew about sheep -- that they stayed together in groups, were fairly docile, and that they could learn to follow and trust their shepherd.
So -- even though sheep are not glamorous creatures like lions or smart like dogs -- the image of being sheep was not at all a bad comparison for the disciples who were told to "Follow me" (Mt. 16:24) by Jesus.
This new season of Renew 2000 focuses on reconciliation -- of binding up what it broken, of reuniting and
bringing together all that has been separated from God. This was Jesus' mission: to proclaim the Good
News and bring glad tidings to the poor, sight to the blind, liberty to captives (Lk 6:18).
Gathering together, finding the lost, binding up injuries. It's what a shepherd does for his sheep. As noted
in the Days of the Lord reflections on the feast of Christ the King, the shepherd's "almost motherly
solicitude toward the lambs and their sick or tired mothers is the more touching (image). He thinks of
himself only after the flock has entered the sheepfold or is settled in the pasture. Such is our God in whom
we can have trust."
This was the image of God which Jesus showed us. "Jesus himself reveals who this God is, the One whom
he addresses by the intimate term 'Abba,' Father. God, as revealed above all in the parables is sensitive to
the needs and sufferings of every human being: he is a Father filled with love and compassion, who grants
forgiveness and freely bestows the favors asked of him. ... The kingdom of God is meant for all humankind,
and all people are called to become members of it" (Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II, no. 13-14).
Jesus wants us to follow him into the Kingdom, just as sheep follow a shepherd. But there is more to it
than just knowing about Jesus, than just saying you're one of the sheep. As Jesus himself said, not
everyone who says "'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of God, but only the one who does the will of my
Father in heaven" (Mt. 7:20).
This is where we start to see that being one of Jesus' sheep also means more than just placidly grazing. As
the Fathers of Vatican II noted in discussing this passage from Matthew, there's work involved. Those who
want to enter the kingdom of heaven will be those "who manfully put their hands to the work" (Gaudium et
Spes, no. 93).
This is what it means to be a true follower, to answer the call of discipleship. Fr. Richard McBrien
describes this as "a call to the imitation of Christ. The disciple was to act as Jesus himself; with
compassion, humility, generosity, and suffering service of others. The disciple was always to be marked by
love, in particular love for one another."
Jesus showed this love be his total self-giving. We see this in the Good Shepherd discourse: "for these
sheep I will give my life... The Father loves me for this: that I lay down my life" (Jn. 16-17).
So Jesus, even though he was the Shepherd, also identified himself with the sheep. And, like the sacrificial
lamb he was, he gave his very life for the other sheep. So we followers have to be more like him -- we
have to take up our crosses and follow the mission that calls on us to give our lives in proclaiming the
kingdom, as Jesus did. But exactly do we know we're doing this?
The Gospels give us the directions. Toward the end of Matthew's Gospel, just before the passion narrative,
we have a passage about the last judgment. Interestingly, it's yet another image of sheep: the separation of
the sheep from the goats, with the sheep placed on the king's right hand. "Then king will say to those on
his right: 'Come. You have my Father's blessing! ... For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty
and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and
you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me'" (Mt. 2524-26).
Here is the road map for the Lord's flock. These two verses from Matthew present what are called the
corporal works of mercy. Dominican Father Benedict Viviano calls this passage "a practical religion of
deeds of loving-kindness, love of neighbor .. .and discipleship is understood is a very bold way as identical
with care of the needy."
Throughout his life, Jesus identified himself with the needy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us
that "Jesus shares the life of the poor, from the cradle to the cross; he experiences hunger, thirst, and privation, Jesus identifies himself with the poor of every kind and make active love toward them the condition for entering his kingdom" (no 544).
In this Gospel, we hear how the goats have not followed, how they went their own way: "I assure you, as often as you neglected to do it to one of these least one, you neglected to do it to me" (Mt 25:45). Again we see Jesus identifying himself with the sheep.
Vatican II refers to this passage as outlining our "inescapable duty to make ourselves the neighbor of every man, not matter who he is, and if we meet him, to come to his aid in a positive way, whether it is an aged person abandoned by all, a foreign worker despised without reason, a refugee, an illegitimate child wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a starving human being" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 27).
In other words, the sheep and Shepherd are one -- whatever affects one affects the whole flock. We have to follow the path laid out by the shepherd and side by side with the other sheep.
As I said earlier, sheep aren't particularly bright; they're not cunning like foxes nor shrewd like predators, they just listen to the one who cares for them -- they just follow the shepherd.
(Sources: Days of Our Lord, the Liturgical Year; Catholicism; Catechism of the Catholic Church; documents of Vatican II; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; the Harper Collins Encyclopedia of
Catholicism; and Redemptoris Missio.)