(This is Archbishop Wilton Gregory's column for the May 14 edition of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.)
In these closing weeks of the Easter season, the Word of God is filled to overflowing with many references about sheep and shepherds. As a city kid who later became a priest and a bishop, I remember seeing sheep during my years in the Diocese of Belleville, but not as many as the hogs that were a prime source of the agricultural industry in that largely rural community.
Sheep are cited in Scripture much more frequently than pigs – but pigs do have some station in the Bible as well. Sheep, however, get top billing. They certainly outrank the goats and are clearly superior to the unclean swine whose food the recalcitrant and hungry prodigal son longed to eat. Sheep have shepherds, and they are a symbol of prosperity and should be viewed as the treasure of the shepherds.
On the very evening of Jesus’ birth, there were shepherds nearby watching over their flocks at night. And we have read about how a diligent shepherd would choose to leave those 99 sheep to search for the one that was lost. Sheep are valued in Scripture more so than almost all other animals. We are the sheep of the Lord’s flock and we are so treasured. During this time of the Easter season, our Scripture lessons also return to the theme of the importance and the mission of the Shepherd who carefully guards the flock that the Father has entrusted to him.
Even those of us who now live in urban and suburban environments are the sheep who belong to the Lord’s flock. Some of us, on occasion, do wander off and the Lord is always in search of us. We are called to listen attentively to the voice of the Shepherd and know that when He calls, we are always safe if we follow Him.
Occasionally the images that we find in the Bible do not quite seem to fit the world in which we live. It might appear to some folks that sheep and shepherds are such out of character images. In our world that so prizes independence and self-control, being called “sheep” might be distasteful or even offensive to some people.
Yet, in truth, we all need a protector. We all get lost on occasion. We all can fall victim to predators – animal, social, or viral. One of the frightening experiences of the current pandemic is that we all seem so vulnerable. We can all be subject to a predator that we cannot, at this time, restrain. In faith we pray for a healer, an answer, a protector, a solution. We all want to feel safe once again, like that lost sheep who had strayed and was found by the attentive shepherd.
Maybe we might be able to find better more contemporary images than the sheep and shepherd to describe our condition at this moment in time. But when we listen to God’s Word telling us about the Good and Faithful Shepherd, we might nod and admit that’s who we need at this moment.
We might think, “But I’m no sheep! I’m a rational person, a self-directed individual with many talents and skills.” However, it would be so wonderful to have someone who would watch over us and make us feel safe and secure once again. We might even then be willing to call Him a Good Shepherd.
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