In our gospel today, our Lord gives us a pastoral image of the relationship between Himself and His disciples. Our Lord is the Good Shepherd whose objective is to give abundant life to His flock. But He also reminds us that there are charlatans abroad – they are not there to give life, but to steal and kill and destroy. There is then this basic option: life or death. The way of abundant life is to follow the Good Shepherd, for He will lead His flock to fresh pastures, and even though they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, they will not fear, for they know their Shepherd and Guardian is with them.
One of the features of this pastoral image is of the closeness between the shepherd and his flock. They know His voice, they trust only His voice, and He knows them personally/individually. He speaks and walks out of the sheepfold and they follow. They don’t need to be driven, they follow.
Our Saviour Jesus Christ is the eternal Shepherd and Guardian of our souls. We are the sheep of His flock by being members of His Church. If you like Holy Baptism made us into His sheep!
But I think the questions we must ask ourselves are whether we do recognise His voice, whether we do indeed trust Him, and whether we do indeed follow Him. Now this might sound like a strange thing, for we are the baptised, but we need to remember that baptism does not mean we are thereafter controlled by God. We still have free will, and we can still choose to ignore, to disobey, to listen to other voices, and to follow other shepherds. Remember the shepherds of Jesus’ time did not drive their sheep, they led them and they chose whether to follow or not.
This gospel, pastoral image reminds us today of a number of things but basically that the way to “abundant life” as Jesus puts it, or we could say the “life of grace”, or indeed “salvation”, is not automatic. Just as the sheep is not protected by the shepherd if the sheep chooses to not listen, to not trust, and to not follow when he calls, so it is for us. Salvation is not automatic.
It is the closeness between the shepherd and each sheep that perhaps we need to dwell upon today. Our shepherd does indeed speak to us through His most Holy Word and by the action of the Holy Spirit within us, but we must ask ourselves are we listening? How much time are we willing to spend in listening to our Lord’s voice? The world in which we live today, and especially because of all the media we have at our disposal, means that there are voices all around us. Are we listening to them more than we are listening to the Word of God? It is the voices we listen to most of the time that we end up following. That’s the way it works. The more we listen, the more inclined we are to trust and to follow.
So we should all ask ourselves a basic question – how much time each week am I listening to God’s Word, and how much time am I listening to the various voices of the world? St Paul says in Romans, in a verse that means a great deal to me personally, but I also think is very important for our present time, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind...” Now we will be conformed to the world if that is what we listen to most of time – if we prefer the voices of the world to the Word of God, then our lives will more and more conform to the world – which means in terms of the pastoral image, that we are following other shepherds. It is very simple and straightforward. The other shepherds are not shepherds in fact, they are (as our Lord tells us) charlatans, they might promise us all sorts of good things but in fact want to kill, to steal and to destroy. So we have that basic choice. The voices that we choose to listen to through each day shape our soul.
You see it is tempting to think that these other voices are not really doing us any harm. But it is because we prefer them to God’s Word speaking to us, and we prefer those voices to building up our relationship in prayer, and we prefer those voices to spending time before our Lord in the blessed Sacrament, that in fact they are doing us a great deal of harm.
Today is also known as vocations Sunday, and Holy Mother Church challenges us all to ask whether we are answering the call of God – she challenges us to pray that all the baptised will hear the Shepherd’s voice and answer His call to follow Him. Within God’s Holy People our Lord calls us to take our part in the building up of the His Body, His Church. For some He calls them to live the Religious Life – to live the Kingdom of God now, in community life as religious brothers or sisters, as friars, or monks or nuns. For some of the men He calls them to share directly in His pastoral ministry as priests of the Church – He calls them to a life that shares His Shepherding of the sheep. The priest at ordination is configured to Christ in a way that enables Him to pastor Christ’s flock. And for many the Lord is calling them as members of the laity to transform the world in which we live, to conform the world to the gospel, and thus they must proclaim the gospel in the lives they live and in the words they speak. Not least is the vocation to Married life, when a life of particular intimacy and love results in family life.
There are a whole host of ways in which our Lord, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls, is calling us. But the fundamental question is: are we listening – do we even recognise His voice? Do we prefer to listen to other voices that are perhaps easier on our ears and less demanding?
Today the Church needs more priests, more Religious and more faithful families. Our Lord calls, He wants to lead us to a place of abundant life, but are we listening?
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Rom 12:2