“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” These words, and the rest of the 23rd Psalm, are probably among the best-known passages from the Bible, and with good cause. They use beautiful and appealing imagery to convey the truth of God’s loving care for us. They reassure us that no matter how dark the valley we may be in, no matter how winding and difficult the path we trod, we are under the care of Him Who is the Light of the World, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
This is in sharp contrast to the beginning of the first reading, in which God, through the prophet Jeremiah, chastises the shepherds who have misled God’s people. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, we hear how time and time again the people of Israel were led astray. The fault often lay with their political and religious leaders, men and women driven by pride, ambition, and sensuality, or sometimes by fear and distrust. This led them to turn away from the true God and disobey His commands. Their wayward behavior usually ended in disaster, often for the whole nation. So, God promises that He will “appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble”, and He will send a descendent of King David who will “reign and govern wisely” and “do what is just and right”.
This prophecy comes to it’s fulfillment in Christ, who describes Himself as the “Good Shepherd” who lays down His life for His sheep. Throughout His public life, He sacrifices His time, His energy and His privacy to bring healing, forgiveness, and hope to the people, culminating with His death on the Cross for our redemption. In the Gospel passage today, we see one instance of His loving self-oblation. Despite the fact that He plans to spend some time resting with His disciples, the people are hungry for His message, and they follow Him to what He thought would be a peaceful and deserted place. Instead of getting angry or leaving, He is moved with pity, leaves aside His own comfort, and teaches the people, for He sees them as “sheep without a shepherd.”
The reading from St. Paul introduces an important truth into our considerations: all of us are joined in Christ. We are one Body in Him; He is our head, and we are members of His body. Hence, we all are called to participate in His role as shepherd, by shepherding each other. As Christ taught, we are are not only our brother’s keeper, but even our enemies’ keeper. We are called to love and help everyone as best we can on the path to heaven, giving to those in need and edifying each other through word and example, even as we recognize our own sinfulness and neediness. There are many practical ways we can help supply the material and spiritual needs of others, whether it be by donating to the St. Vincent de Paul society (which attends to the needs of the poor) or other causes dedicated to evangelization or social justice, or by giving our own time to help others more directly. A perusal of the book of parish groups and ministries can give us some ideas, but there is always room for personal creativity.
This burden falls in a special way on the shoulders of those who have dedicated their lives full-time to the Gospel, as religious sisters or brothers, deacons, priests or bishops. It is a constant challenge, as we are both shepherds and sheep, and we face the same pressures and temptations as everyone else. Sadly, just like the Old Testament leaders of Israel, sometimes the shepherds themselves have led the flock astray by inappropriate behavior or by teachings that stray from the truths of the faith taught and defended by the Church, and rooted in Scripture and Tradition.
So today, I invite all of us to do two things. First of all, let us pray for those whom God has called in a special way to be shepherds of His flock, that all bishops, priests, deacons, and consecrated men and women may be faithful to their vocation to seek holiness and to guide the people of God in the full truth of the faith. Secondly, let us each ask ourselves if and how we are carrying out our own responsibility to participate in Christ’s role as the Good Shepherd, watching out for each other and sacrificing ourselves for each other as Jesus the Good Shepherd does for His flock.