A few years ago, my father took the whole family to Disney World in Orlando. It was a great trip. There were 22 of us who went, four generations of our family. As you can imagine trying to get around with that many people in the crowds that normally gather at theme parks was a challenge. Someone in the family came up with the idea of holding their arm up in the air so that everyone could see it, then everybody else in the group would raise their arm and follow. We ended up doing it all week and the family managed to stay together and get to where we needed to go.
The system worked because of different factors. First, the person who was leading knew how to get to the destination. Second, the person leading was trustworthy. Third, the people following could rely on the leader to get them where they wanted to go so much so that they did not give it much thought. Fourth, the people in the group actually followed.
The leader/follower dynamic repeats in so many facets of life that it is almost unnoticed. It happens at home in the family, at school, at work, in social gatherings and in community and civic affairs. In other words, it is part of living in a community of persons. In the Gospel passage for this Sunday’s liturgy Jesus speaks of this dynamic and invites us to reflect on it in our lives.
Jesus describes himself as both the shepherd and the sheep-gate in Sunday’s Gospel passage from the Gospel according to St. John. The first particularly and clearly applies to his role as leader. The shepherd cares for the flock on a daily basis. He watches over them. He leads them to food and pasture. He provides security and protection for them.
The sheep in turn follow the shepherd because they trust him. Over time they rely on him to lead them to pasture, to direct them to where they need to go, and to keep them safe from “thieves and marauders.”
When Jesus applies this image to himself, he is taking on a reference that, in the Old Testament, the Israelites applied to God. In one of the most beloved psalms, Psalm 23, we proclaim that basic understanding: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”
Jesus, later in the Gospel, will refer to himself as “the Good Shepherd.” He is the Good Shepherd as he leads his flock. As he describes his role, we get a clearer picture of how God interacts and relates to us. One particular item that is striking is when Jesus says: “The sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…. He walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.”
The shepherd knows his sheep by name. Jesus knows each one of us by our name. Our name is significant for it represents who we are as a person, it identifies us. He does not know us as a generality or as a category or as a profession or as a lifestyle or as a citizen; he knows us as who we are.
He then calls us to be with him and to follow. He speaks to us so that we might know his voice. A voice made known not through vocal chords but through the inner stirrings of the heart. We can hear that voice because it is always speaking, inviting, encouraging, calling.
The second image Jesus uses is perhaps less familiar, that of the sheep-gate. The gate is that which provides the sheep an entrance as well as protection. Going through the gate they can enter into the safety of the pen. Jesus is the gate through whom we enter into the presence of divine life. We not only follow Jesus but through him enter into the inner dwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; in whose name we have been baptized. In him, we dwell in the abode of perfect love.
At the end of the Gospel passage, Jesus says: “I have come so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Sometimes the worries and anxieties presented in living in these days of the coronavirus might seem like we are being robbed of life. Yet Jesus is still here calling us by name, leading us and drawing us into his divine life. He is always near. Following him we will be able to say, with the psalmist, “Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side. With your rod and your staff that give me courage.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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