16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus looked out at the crowds and his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. Who are we? Well there is only one answer to this – how does God see us. The gospel observation – ‘his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.’ This is not one more opinion. This is what the Eternal Son of the Father who walked among us in the flesh saw. This is how God sees us.
The truth is that we are sheep. We are not jaguars, we are not leopards. They are beautiful animals, powerful, dangerous animals. They have one more thing in common – they are both solitaries, they live alone, they hunt alone. But Jesus saw sheep. Sheep stink. There is nothing beautiful or powerful or dangerous about sheep. They are very dependent, they are skittish. They frighten very easily. Right through the Gospels – Jesus will say Fear not. Why would He say this if we were really powerful, strong and independent animals? What does He see that we are missing? For all our pretensions to power and glory, Jesus, the Eternal Son sees two powerful darknesses that do not just dog our footsteps but are tightly wrapped up in us, but invisible to our eyes– sin and death. We possess no weapons against them ourselves. In the face of this overwhelming and powerful darkness, we are helpless sheep, with the stink of sin, living for death and most often we do not even know it.
Jesus sees us as sheep in need of a Shepherd. The implication is that we cannot be shepherds to ourselves. We need a Shepherd to protect us from an eternal death. This is where it gets difficult. We do not mind needing help but what we rebel against is being permanently dependent on God. This is the primordial pride that says with the devil I will not serve. But we need a Shepherd badly. If you have powerful enemies you know nothing about, you would be silly to think you could go it alone. You would not even know where to start. How can you deal with sin and death when you have not the slightest idea about the extent of their hold on you? For instance – we do not think often about the only sure thing in our life – that we can die anytime. Not in 50 years or 60 years but at any time.
To be born, as the German philosopher Heidegger said, is to be old enough to die. It’s that stark. Or in the case of sin – The Desert Fathers said that the sins of a man lie behind his back. What they mean is that you never ever can see the extent of sin’s hold on you. We need the Shepherd someone to take us through this torturous labyrinth. Without the Shepherd we are flailing around. But when we meet Him our shoulders relax, we can stop carrying the whole world on them. Pope Benedict XVI said ‘“if [man] does not hide from his own self,” his encounter with the Truth in Person—that is, his hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd gives rise to an insight that is at once certain and mysterious: he realizes that “this is the goal toward which my whole being tends–this is where I want to go.
There is one more important point that is implied when we are called sheep. Sheep are not solitary, they are found in a flock. We are all joined at the hip through the Good Shepherd, Christ. Our second reading tells us that the enmity we have towards one another is done away with. We are one body. He broke down the dividing wall of enmity. We have access in one Spirit to the Father. That is why He is ‘Our Father’ not ‘my Father’. If you want to meet Christ, then be ready for the neighbor who is anyone and everyone. You cannot meet Christ without Him coming along with the other members of His Body. We do not go it alone. We cannot do without others. You hear people saying they like spirituality but have no time for religion. What they are saying is that they can go it alone – they do not need to go to church where they will be with others. This is not the Christian way. A new thing has happened – we are one in Christ in a way that surpasses the bonds of family, blood, nation. We can only be ourselves in Christ and in the Church. No jaguars, no leopards – just smelly sheep.
Finally – his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.’ these are reassuring words. God is not a policeman or impartial judge, or an irate father. How does He really see us – as sheep without a Shepherd – with compassion, with a burning desire to take away our confusion, our lostness, our pain. We do not have to do much except say yes to His simple, uncomplicated offer to be our Shepherd.