Shepherds in different parts of the world face unique problems and challenges, based on the climate and the terrain, and over the centuries they’ve developed their own techniques and solutions. For instance, in the Scottish Highlands unwary sheep might wander among the rocks and get themselves into places they’re unable to get out of. Sometimes very beautiful and tasty green grass is to be found on a small mountain ledge, and a sheep might jump down ten or twelve feet to graze on it—but then find itself unable to climb back out. Before long the shepherd will hear the sheep’s terrified bleating—but the custom in Scotland is to do nothing about it for several days. Someone asked a shepherd why this was, and the man—speaking from years of experience—said, “A sheep is so foolish and impetuous that, if someone tried to rescue it, it might jump off the precipice and kill itself out of sheer excitement. No, I wait until it’s too weak to move; only then do I go down, pick it up gently and carefully, and rescue it” (Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 15, #248).
Sometimes we human beings put ourselves in dangerous situations by straying from God. When this happens, He doesn’t abandon us or punish us, but He does allow us to experience our weakness and our utter dependency on Him—for in this way the suffering we ourselves may have caused can be to our lasting benefit.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is unofficially known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” for in the Gospel, Jesus uses this image to describe His relationship with His followers. He is the One Who cares for us in all our needs—though sometimes we may be tempted to forget this truth. For example, we might ask, “Why doesn’t God immediately solve all our problems? After all, He could do it with one simple word of command.” However, this would not be to our ultimate benefit or advantage. We grow as persons through our own attempts to solve or cope with our difficulties; through life’s struggles, we can become more aware of our need for the Lord, and learn to rely more fully on His grace. When we sin, God doesn’t punish us out of anger or outrage, but He does allow us to experience the consequences of our sins—for this helps us arrive at sincere repentance. In the 1st Reading, Peter and the apostles informed the people of Jerusalem that they had crucified their Messiah. Those who heard this powerful and undeniable message were terribly shaken and felt tremendous guilt. God allowed them to feel this way not as a punishment for their sin, but as a stimulus to conversion—and this is what happened. The truth was painful, but liberating. The 2nd Reading tells us that Jesus did no wrong, and had no deceit in Him. This remains true today, and affects each of us personally; Christ desires us to come to the truth—even if our own stubbornness might make this a agonizing process. We were once like straying sheep, but through God’s grace, we have returned to Christ the Shepherd, the guardian of our souls.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus warns us of strangers who seek to harm the flock, so we must look at our lives to see if we’ve followed any false or misleading values or beliefs. If so, the emptiness or alienation we feel, and the uneasiness or problems we experience, should prompt us to turn back to God. Have we wandered into any dangerous places or any spiritual dead-ends? Are our problems God’s way of calling us back to Him? For example, if we tend to be very critical or judgmental of others, chances are that sooner or later we’ll end up lonely and unpopular—for people quite naturally don’t want to spend time with someone who’s always finding fault. If we recognize this situation in our lives, it’s probably also a message from God regarding our need to repent and change. Perhaps we tend to be very selfish—but such an attitude can only lead to unhappiness; when we want everything our own way, we ultimately find that nothing satisfies us, and the people around us finally stop trying to please us. This a strong and probably unpleasant reminder that we must surrender ourselves to God’s will, and start thinking of the well-being of others, instead of only our own. Maybe pride is a major sin in our lives. If we’ve not been making an honest effort to overcome it, God may help us along—by allowing us to experience a series of humiliating failures. This is never pleasant—but it might be essential for our spiritual well-being. If we’re giving ourselves over to materialism, God will allow us to discover that our possessions cannot bring us true happiness; the emptiness we’ll inevitably feel can be truly filled only by God’s grace. If we tend to have a stubborn or rebellious streak, God will make sure that we do get our way—and we’ll make such a mess of things that we finally realize His way is best.
Sometimes we can be like stubborn sheep who insist on going off in our own direction—and in so doing, we can easily get ourselves into great spiritual difficulties. Jesus is our wise and compassionate Shepherd—but because some of the flock will only learn the hard way, He allows us to experience the consequences of our decisions. Then, when we’ve come to our senses and are finally ready to trust in Him, He rescues us. If things are going wrong, it’s certainly not always our fault. Other people may be treating us unjustly; also, sometimes God is already pleased with us, and allows us to suffer simply as a way of deepening our faith and coming even closer to Him, or of preparing us for future challenges. Many times, however, our difficulties are due to our own misguided choices and values, and our problems are God’s way of inviting us to return to Him. At times we may wander off, but Jesus never abandons us. He is the Shepherd Who lays down His life for the sheep—and everything we do should be part of our grateful response. [4th Sunday of Easter- A]