The Eternal Shepherd Cherishes his Flock

Father John A. Kiley

Travelers through Eastern Europe have often observed primitive huts constructed from corn stalks or sunflower shoots large enough to shelter a farm laborer overnight. Harvesters know that the time between a crop’s ripeness and the arrival of harsher weather is limited and produce has to be gathered in as quickly as possible. The sensible planter and his farm hands will remain each night of the harvest season in these simple shelters ensuring that no time is wasted and that a worthy harvest will be assured. The closeness of the farmer to his field is the key to success.
A bit more dramatic but conveying the same significance is a scene from “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck in which the rice farmer’s wife, quite near to the full term of her pregnancy and aware that poor weather is looming, delivers her infant on the edge of the rice field and immediately returns to the critical work of harvesting the family’s livelihood. Again, the nearness of the grower to his (or her) crops is impressive.
From a Biblical perspective, the same conclusion may be drawn concerning the nearness of shepherds to their sheep. As St. Luke’s Christmas Gospel informs the reader, “Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.” (Lk.2:8) So shepherds didn’t go home at night either. Like the harvesters in their fields and the reapers in their paddies, shepherds were to be found in their pastures day and night. Indeed, no rest for the weary.
And there was certainly good reason for shepherds to be extra vigilant toward their sheep. Unlike many other animals, sheep do not have a herding instinct. They do not instinctively gather into herds like cows or packs like wolves. They simply tend to wander, nose to the ground, munching grass, oblivious to the approaching wolf or nearby cliff or distance from the flock. Sheep are fiercely solitary and are loyal neither to their fellow sheep nor to their eager shepherd. Travelers in Ireland especially will notice that a spot on a sheep’s wool has been dyed with a vibrant color allowing various shepherds to discern which sheep belong to which flock. Sheep have no sense of community; they desperately need a shepherd.
Jesus wisely chose the image of the devoted shepherd to convey his own dedication toward the sheep who would become the Christian community as well as his wider concern about sheep who would only later come to recognize his voice. St. John records in this Sunday’s Gospel account: “Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Jn 10:11-15)
Jesus boldly compares his closeness with his sheep to the intense and enduring relationship Christ enjoys with his heavenly Father: “…just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Could there be a more intimate relationship than the two Divine Persons united through one Divine Nature? Jesus, the good shepherd, wants his flock likewise to know him personally and directly in the depth of each believer’s soul. Jesus intends here not just intellectual appreciation as one might share with a great teacher or moral support as one might draw from a righteous counselor. No, Jesus was not satisfied to be a guru. Jesus anticipates an individual affinity with each and eventually every believer chiefly through prayerful communication: “…they will hear my voice…” Jesus is no hireling; he insists on a personal intimacy with his sheep.
St. Francis deSales would emphasize the power of serious prayer when he wrote, “Eyes speak to eyes, and heart to heart, and none understand what passes save the sacred lovers who speak.” St. John Cardinal Newman seized on this same notion when he adopted it as his episcopal motto: “Cor ad cor loquetur,” that is, “Heart speaks to heart.” These phrases describe a personal relationship without pretense between God and the human soul, which may be experienced happily and powerfully in the celebration of the sacraments, in reflecting on Sacred Scripture and in personal prayer. In Christ, every believer can discover the perennial farmer who remains with his harvest and the eternal shepherd who cherishes his flock by opening his or her heart to the many powerful, prayerful experiences offered within the Christian life.