Anyone who loves dogs may well have watched with fascination and admiration the amazing skill and effectiveness of well-trained Sheep Dogs as they expertly herd and guide sheep at the direction of their master. But as fascinating and entertaining as this display of skill is, it is surely a very different image of the shepherd and shepherding that Jesus is appealing to in today’s gospel. So what is Jesus wishing to convey with this very pastoral image taken from a cultural milieu very different from our own—bearing in mind that the Good Shepherd who sets out in search of the lost sheep is one of the primary associations we have with this pastoral image.
Consequently, for some the Good Shepherd has greater meaning in a retrospective glance back on some graced moment or time of conversion when they experienced first-hand the truth and personal relevance of this parable.However, for so-called “Cradle-Catholics” who look back on a life-long commitment to Christ and fidelity to the practice of their Christian faith, the image of the Good Shepherd may seem to be of greater relevance to those who have strayed and need to be sought out and brought back by Christ. If this is a valid observation, how can the image of a shepherd still be helpful to the ninety-nine left on the hillside as the Good Shepherd goes in search of the lost?
Well, to begin, it is worth noting that the shepherd’s role—as presented by Jesus—is not only to go out in search of the one sheep (or even the many) that have strayed and bring them back to the safety of the flock and the sheepfold. Ideally, the really good shepherd is also one who doesn’t allow his sheep to stray in the first place, but watches over them continually and prevents their getting lost or separated from the flock. Of course in the time of Jesus there were no fences and enclosed pastures ensuring that sheep did not stray. And thus even a good shepherd always ran the risk of some sheep going astray and getting lost. And it is this aspect of shepherding that helps make the image of a shepherd relevant to each of us.
Commitment to Christ and membership in his church are not the spiritual equivalent of being brought into some fenced-in pasture that is constricting, confining, and entrapping. Unlike some modern day cults that have psychologically and, at times, even physically entrapped their members, membership in Christ’s flock is always voluntary and arises in a loving response to the loving call of the Good Shepherd. For the shepherd that Jesus has in mind is one who does not drive his sheep ahead of him, but walks in front of his sheep; and they, recognizing his voice, lovingly and trustingly follow him.
And there is something of a mutual trust in this action, because in walking ahead the shepherd is not constantly looking back at his sheep but trusts that they will continue freely following him. However—and this is crucial—when a sheep turns a deaf ear to the voice of the shepherd and stops following him and strays off, Christ the Good Shepherd is not indifferent or uncaring. Instead, he leaves the ninety-nine on the hillside and goes in search of the stray. But this action is one of pure love and is not the spiritual equivalent of recapturing some escaped prisoner. Instead, through the complex workings of grace Christ’s search for the stray sheep is a response to and in accordance with what he knows to be the deepest desire in the heart of the one who strays, and that this sheep has strayed in either ignorance or weakness.
Now whereas we might think of this seeking and saving action as involving only those sheep who stray significantly, it is worth bearing in mind that as we grow closer to God and become ever more sensitive to his love and presence we begin to experience and realize that even seemingly insignificant sins and failures mark a regrettable straying from the Lord and a weakening of our union with him. And in these instances Christ is quick to come in search of us. Typically, we detect the loving presence of the Good Shepherd seeking us out in the initially painful sting of conscience and the associated unhappiness and disquiet that marks any inattention to the sound of his voice or deviation from following closely in his footsteps. And the more sensitive we become to the stirrings of conscience and in touch with the onset of inner disquiet and unhappiness, the more quickly will we detect the numerous moments throughout the day when we are not listening for the voice of the shepherd and veer off the path he treads before us.
And in this sense the image of the Good Shepherd has relevance for all Christians at every stage of their spiritual journey. Christ doesn’t only go in search of the great sinner, but is constantly and lovingly attuned to the minor straying of those who still imperfectly strive to hear his voice, and seeks to draw them back with the reins of love. And in this spirit let us rejoice that we have such a Shepherd whose efforts to save us are limited only by our desire to be found and saved—whether this be from the depths of great sin or the distracted inattention of the passing moment.