Have you ever thought about how shepherds handle their sheep? In many places even today they follow their shepherd, who walks in front of them. They’re not goaded like cattle. Cowboys herd cattle from behind, pushing them forward. Not so with sheep.
Muse a bit about Jesus as the Good Shepherd – Jesus walking ahead of us along the way. He shows us the way. He’s been there ahead of us. In Mark 10:32, we are told that the disciples were going up to Jerusalem “and Jesus was leading the way.” And of course, along the way, he was teaching and forming them. And that’s how it can be with you and me!
Apparently, it is the voice of the shepherd that controls the sheep. “My sheep hear my voice,”says Jesus. The sheep pick out the voice of their one only shepherd from that of others. They only follow the one whose voice they recognize.
In another place in the text, Jesus distinguishes between true and false shepherds. The false ones are hired hands that won’t go out of their way to help the sheep. The good shepherd is the one dedicated to his sheep and his care.
The concept of the Messiah as the Good Shepherd appeared frequently in the Old Testament, notably in the prophet Ezekiel. All of Chapter 34 is dedicated to the good shepherd. Ezekiel warns of the peril of following false shepherds who lead their flocks astray. He admonishes to seek the good shepherd: “The Lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal. . . . Thus shall they know that I the Lord, am their God, and they are my people.”
And, of course David was the Shepherd King of Israel, having written our beloved Psalm 23 ~ “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
The words of Ezekiel were as familiar to the Jews in the time of Jesus as they can be to us in our own difficult times: the lost, the injured, the sick, the war-torn and those who are struggling to care for them. The Jews, too, recognized the difference between a good shepherd and a hireling, who was more interested in his pay than the welfare of the flock. (And isn’t that the same in our time, with politicians who don’t seem to care.)
While we love the image of the Good Shepherd, most of us lack firsthand acquaintance with either a shepherd or with sheep. But picture this as shown to us by Professor Barclay . . .
The life of a shepherd in Palestine was very hard. He was never off duty. The sheep were bound to wander, and had to be constantly watched. On the narrow plateau the ground dipped sharply down to the craggy deserts below and the sheep were liable to stray away and get lost. The shepherd’s task was not only constant but dangerous, for he not only had to guard the flock but to protect them from wild animals and thieves and robbers. He was out there with them in all kinds of weather, day and night.
As Barclay writes, quoting Sir George Adam Smith, who travelled in Palestine, “On some high moor, at night hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, leaning on his staff, and looking over his scattered sheep, everyone of them on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judaea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why the Jews gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of Providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice.” Constant vigilance, fearless, courage, patient love for his flock, were the necessary characteristics of the shepherd.
And so listen for the Voice of your Shepherd. What greater blessing could there be than this: The shepherd knows your voice and you know his. You will have instantaneous, constant communication as you seek to become one with this Good Shepherd. The closer, the more intimate that relationship, the better you will comprehend the words of our Shepherd: “No one can take them out of my hand.”
In another place, Jesus says he is not only the shepherd, but he is the sheep-gate. The sheep go in and out of the pasture and are safe.
When the sheep came into the enclosure, the shepherd would lie down at the entrance, thus, literally becoming the Gate, or the Door!
Jesus is the Gate to the spiritual world. Because he claims us as his own, we are safe.
There’s another meaning here, too, I think. A lot of people experiment with other matters in the spiritual world that are not so safe. Like hallucinogenic drugs or seances and tarot cards or fortune-telling, or calling on the spirits. These are not protected and can be dangerous. Only through Jesus are we truly safe.
William Barclay has this to add about this passage . . . .
~ Jesus promised eternal life. If someone became a member of his flock, all the bitterness of life would be gone and they would know the splendor and magnificence of the life with God.
~ He promised a life that would know no end. Death would not be the end but the beginning; they would know the glory of the indestructible life.
~ He promised a life that was secure. Nothing could snatch them from his hand. Not that it would save them from sorrow or suffering. Even in a world crashing to disaster they would know the serenity of God.
Jesus says it was the Father who gave the sheep to him. And thus Jesus received his confidence from the Father. He was secure, not in his own power, but in God’s. And the Gospel passage ends with the words,“The Father and I are one,” which calls to mind his intense prayer at the end of the Last Supper, according to John, “Holy Father, keep them in your name which you have given me that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11)
But let’s look at another side of this. The Good Shepherd seems to be doing all the giving, all the caring, all the protecting. The sheep just receive.
Now isn’t that the relationship we strive for with our God? We have received everything from God; should we not give all in return? Our love, too, should be unconditional, our loyalty without compromise, our thoughts, words and deeds in accord with the will of God.
And so ask yourself this question: Am I not, in turn, a good shepherd?
If you have children or others under your care, ask yourself: Do I shepherd well those who are under my care? Do I shepherd by leading? Or by goading? How can I adapt my leadership style to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Then, and only then, will we be able to say, “I know my Shepherd, and my Shepherd knows me.”
Christ is Risen!
Now, before you go, here’s a version of our beloved Psalm 23, “Shepherd Me, O God,” that has the flavor of Jesuit spirituality as well. Click here.
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to take a walk with Jesus down a country road? Think about it.
That’s what I want you to do with me right now in your imagination. Let’s go back as the two disciples walk with Jesus and walk along with them.
I will reflect on the story, the fruit of my own imagination; but you need to engage your own.
(Please note: When I use the actual words from Scripture, they appear in red type; the narrative appears in regular type and when I offer comments about the story, these appear in italics.)
“That very day, the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus.”
They were sad and downcast, as they were discussing the events in Jerusalem over the previous three days.
Think about how all of Jesus’ disciples must have felt during the interim between Good Friday afternoon and when they were able to fully grasp that Jesus had risen. They were terrified the Jewish authorities would hunt them down next. As we face this coronavirus crisis, most of us are distraught and fearful too. Or reflect on a time in your past when you were sad or despondent.
Then Jesus invited himself along and they began to converse with him as they walked.
They do not recognize him, and began telling Jesus about Jesus.“. . . a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him.”
(Why don’t they recognize him? Are they just ruminating over depressing events?) What do you think?
They told him, “We were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
(Feel the depth of their disappointment and anguish ~ and fear; they must have been heartsick. What kept them from a sense of hope?)
“They knew that women in their company had gone to the tomb early that morning and found the tomb empty, but had seen a “vision of angels who announced that he was alive.” But they didn’t get it, did they?
Then Jesus interjected, “Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.”
( What change was taking place in them?) Was it that they felt the warmth of his love?
When they reached their village, they pressed him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.”
(How do you think the disciples were feeling at this point? Had a change or transformation occurred in them?) ( I remember a conversation I had with someone on a train when I was a seminarian and he invited me to his home and I felt his love. I never saw him again; but I still pray for him.)
“So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was at table. . .”
. . .Now they could see him directly, not alongside of them, but across from them. . .
“. . .He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and THEY RECOGNIZED HIM, but he vanished from their sight.
A veil had covered their eyes, but now their eyes were opened and they recognized him—in the breaking of bread.”
And then they returned to the Eleven in the Upper Room and “recounted what had taken place along the way and how [Jesus] was made known to them in the breaking of bread.”
There was victory in their hearts! The point here is that they had to share their experience! They had to “evangelize!”
Now for a couple of observations ~ especially for those of you who are Catholics or who appreciate the Holy Eucharist . . . .
Love of the holy Eucharist: Down through the centuries the church has recognized the Lord—has recognized itself—in the breaking of bread. This prompts a deep and abiding love for participating in the holy Eucharist.
(What kinds of varied feelings do you have when you celebrate the Eucharist? What could deepen your love of the gathering, listening, sharing, singing that is the holy Eucharist?
(Eucharist is a verb and a noun!) What kind of thoughts and feelings do you have during these past weeks when you’ve been deprived of receiving of the Holy Eucharist because of the coronavirus?
And then this: The disciples realized “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”
The two disciples came very, very close to Jesus in their conversation on the way.It was an intimate moment they would always remember.
I can remember a good number of holy (that is, open and honest) conversations with friends that changed my life and have given me the nourishment to grow and move on.
(Who are the people in your life who nourish and encourage you in conversation?)
Whom do you so nourish?
And here’s a bit of a commentary . . . .
What a joy and a privilege it would be to share an evening meal with Jesus as the two disciples did after the memorable walk to Emmaus! How blessed it would be to listen and learn as Jesus began with Moses and all the prophets to interpret every passage of scripture that referred to him. What a gift to watch him take the bread, bless it, break it, share it. What a joy to feel our hearts burning within and our eyes open wide to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
As we look back over the gospels, particularly that of the Lucan evangelist, we are reminded that Jesus afforded his contemporaries many such nourishing, enlightening and transforming experiences within the context of shared meals. Indeed, throughout the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, meal sharing was a profoundly important event, one that sealed friendships, affirmed marital and family relationships, solidified political alliances and confirmed and celebrated one’s faith and worship (as in the Passover meal.)
Israel’s wisdom literature is lavish in its banquet imagery. Recall Wisdom’s invitation as recorded in Proverbs: “Wisdom has built herself a house…she has prepared her table…Come eat of my bread, drink of the wine I have prepared for you.”
Gradually the Israelite community who came before us in the faith began to envision the experience of salvation in terms of a great banquet prepared by God for all of humankind.
Also realized and clearly in evidence at those meals of old was the universal and welcoming love of God for all, especially sinners.
Jesus’ contemporaries would have shunned sitting down at someone’s dining room table with sinners; these they regarded as off the playing field of salvation. Jesus deliberately associated with outcasts, however, welcoming them and agreeing to be welcomed by them. Indeed, he made it quite clear that some of these outcasts would come into the kingdom before the established religious leaders. Recall Jesus’ willingness to be a guest in the homes of Levi and Zacchaeus, both of whom were hated tax collectors. These would never have been welcomed into a respectable Jewish home. Yet it was to these very people to whom Jesus extended the privilege and blessings of table fellowship. It would be like Jesus going to the home of a homosexual or Muslim couple today and eating and drinking with their friends..
Then recall that when Jesus hosted the multitudes and fed the 5000 in the deserted place, he did not first determine who was worthy of his food or his presence. He fed them all, first with the nourishment of his teaching and then with bread and fish. Given the enormity of the number who ate to their satisfaction, surely there were some in the crowd who fell short of the law’s standard, who sinned against their neighbors, who were remiss in some aspect of their lives. Nevertheless, without hesitation or discrimination, Jesus welcomed and fed them all.
Now we come to this wonderful story of the breaking of the bread, this my favorite and beloved resurrection appearance of Jesus. As in most of the resurrection appearances, the risen Jesus was not immediately recognized by his own. Recognition came gradually and only with the insights afforded by faith. Though Jesus had been transformed by his resurrection and was not initially recognized, he was, nevertheless, the same Jesus who had walked with them, talked with them, and shared their lives while he was among them before he was crucified. He was the same Jesus who took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to feed the multitudes.
He was the same Jesus who allowed himself to be taken and broken on the cross and who gave his life so that sinners may be blessed with forgiveness, freedom from sin, salvation.
I am a priest 51 years now. I never grow tired of the holy Eucharist. I always come back to celebrate after a couple of days if I am absent from it.
In fact, I am certain that I could not live happily without the Eucharist. Maybe I couldn’t live at all without the Eucharist – at least sanely.
Appreciate this great and wonderful experience, dear friends, that Jesus shares with us in his person even now, two thousand years after the Last (or the First) Supper.
One last question for you: when you finally get to walk into church again and walk up to the communion table and receive the Holy Eucharist again, how do you think you will feel?
What a beautiful experience it is to share in the breaking of the bread – whether there is a glorious celebration with trumpets and gorgeous music or with just one other person present.
Yes appreciate this great and wonderful gift.
May we never take it for granted.
We praise you and thank you for sharing with us
in every place and for all time
the gift of your sacred body and blood.
May we always cherish such a wonderful gift
and never take it for granted.
To You be all glory and honor
with the Father and the Spirit,
now and forever. Amen. Alleluia!
And now to complete your experience for today, here’s the song “You raise me up.” Click here. Be sure to enter full screen and turn up your speakers.