An American tourist in the Middle East observed three different shepherds bringing their flocks to a watering hole; all the sheep mingled together in their efforts to drink. After a short while, the first shepherd called out “Men-ah, men-ah” (the Arabic word for “follow me”), and, without bothering to count his sheep, began to walk away. (Incidentally, that approach works with sheep, but not with people. Having been on a number of tours and pilgrimages, I can tell you that no tour guide would simply call out “Everyone, let’s go,” and set out without counting to make sure everyone in the group was following.) The second shepherd did the same thing: he called out “Men-ah, menah,” then set off, confident his sheep were following him. The American was intrigued by all this, so he spoke to the third shepherd, and arranged to borrow his cloak and shepherd’s staff for a little experiment. Pretending to be the shepherd, the American called out, “Men-ah, men-ah,” and started walking away—but not a single sheep moved. The common belief was true: the sheep did know the voice of their shepherd.
The American then asked, “Will your flock never follow another voice but yours?” “Oh, yes,” the shepherd responded; “sometimes a sheep gets sick—and then it will follow anyone” (Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 15, #253). There are many people in the world today who are sick in this sense—people who ignore the call of Christ and follow “false shepherds” and who commit themselves to mistaken values. As Christians, however, we believe that Jesus alone is the true Shepherd Who brings us safely home.
Ancient peoples sometimes referred to their political and religious leaders as shepherds; it was the responsibility of these kings and priests to keep the flock together for safety. The prophet Jeremiah announced the Lord’s dissatisfaction with the shepherds of Israel, for they failed to do this. Many times the kings pursued their own political ends or agendas, instead of obeying God’s will; some of the religious leaders sought their own personal gain, rather than serving God’s people. Jeremiah announced that the Lord would intervene to punish the evildoers and make sure His flock was properly tended. The city of Jerusalem would soon fall to foreign invaders, and the people would be taken away into exile—but God Himself would reunite the remnant and bring forth a true shepherd, a just king—the Messiah for whom the people waited.
In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul presents Jesus as fulfilling this prophecy. Christ gathered together those who once were far off; He brought men and women from every people and nation into the one family of God. The Gospel portrays Jesus as the Shepherd Who truly cares about His flock. Jesus, as a sign of His love, sends the apostles out to announce the Good News of salvation. Upon their return, Jesus shows His concern for the apostles by inviting them to rest. He was also concerned for the common people, who were like “sheep without a shepherd.” Christ offered Himself as the One Who could meet their deepest needs.
Though Jesus graciously and lovingly invites everyone to follow Him, many people reject Him, and either foolishly try to go their own way—a course which can only end in disaster—or give their allegiance to leaders and ideas which may very well end up betraying them, and will certainly end up disappointing them. As the Middle Eastern shepherd remarked to the American tourist, sick sheep follow anyone. We see so many signs of this today. American culture, in spite of its many noble traits and admirable achievements, has become seriously degraded and even perverse, with widespread instances of greed, materialism, violence, immorality, incivility, narcissism, and celebrity worship. For example, without passing judgment on our current president, there’s no doubt that many of his supporters have suspended all critical judgment and have placed unrealistic and impossible expectations upon him; the editor of Newsweek magazine was recently quoted in an interview as saying that “in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above the world, he’s sort of God” (Evan Thomas, quoted in Whistleblower, July 2009). No human being deserves that sort of respect—but in our society, any politician, athlete, or celebrity who’s popular enough, and politically correct, can aspire to it, including leaders of religious cults and other renegade spiritual and religious figures.
In addition to the possibility of being led astray by individuals, many Americans are seduced by our society’s glittering but often misguided values and opportunities. Material prosperity, entertainment, leisure, sports, and the internet and other forms of technology, can all be useful and legitimate things in themselves—but if we give them too much time and importance, especially at the expense of our relationships with God and other people, they will certainly end up harming us and leading us astray. There are also wandering sheep who, instead of following societal trends or false shepherds, follow no one at all; such persons show excessive individualism, a lack of concern for others, and an unwillingness to be an active part of a faith community. Those who go off on their own are led astray just as surely as those who follow false shepherds.
We know that only Jesus can give us true peace, freedom, and happiness. We must respond to a world of false shepherds and wandering sheep by doing three things. First, we need to examine ourselves to see if Christ is indeed central in our lives—for if He is, all will be well, but if not, we’ll discover the hard way that nothing this world offers can replace Him. Secondly, we must be aware of the example we give to others. Our witness should help make Jesus more present in the world; our lives must show that knowing Him and belonging to His Church does make a difference. Thirdly, we need to pray for the many people who are being led astray, that they will come to know Jesus and accept Him as their Shepherd. This is what Jesus wants, and so this should be one of our priorities, too. The Gospels shows how deeply Our Lord cares for others. We must remember that Jesus loves us, and we must do our best to share this love with others.