Back in the days when we still had our flock of sheep, Father Robert, who was the shepherd, asked me if I would go down to the barn and feed the sheep in the morning because he had an early appointment. I said sure. I had seen him do it many times so I knew what to do. The next morning as I made my way over the barn I could hear the sheep bleating. When I opened the door and walked in the sheep froze, the bleating stopped and they all stared at me, as if I was an alien from another planet. I think I felt more uncomfortable than the sheep did. I went and got a bale of hay, cut the ropes and started to put the hay in their feeding troughs. Nothing happened. I tried to coax them to come and get the hay but they just stood there. There was some grain there that Fr. Robert used to give them for a treat so I poured some of it over the hay. Nothing happened. They just stood there and looked at me. I figured they are not going to eat while I’m there so I left. The next day I went down with Fr. Robert to see how he did it. When we got close to the barn he started call to them with a loud sing-song voice. They knew his voice. When we entered the barn all the sheep came running to the fence to be near him, sounding very happy. Then he did his roll call and called out their names – Margaret, Sally, Betty, and as they heard their name each one made a sound as if to acknowledge that they heard their name. Then Robert opened the gates to take them out to the pasture. He walked in front of them and they all followed. They won’t follow anyone else. It was then that the gospel story of the Good Shepherd became real for me.
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most often used and beloved images of Christ in Christian art. Some of the earliest depictions of Jesus are found in the Catacombs. He is shown as a young shepherd with a sheep around his shoulders. This image of the shepherd is woven into the very language of the Bible. In Matthew and Luke Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will risk his life to save the one straying sheep. In Mark, Jesus is deeply moved with compassion for the crowds that come to him and calls them, “sheep without a shepherd.” In both the Old and New Testament, the religious leaders of the people are referred to as ‘shepherds’ and the people are the ‘flock’.
The shepherd of the biblical Middle East had an intimate relationship with his flock. He would lead them out to pasture every day and remain with them. In the evening he would lead them back to the barn where they would be safe from predators. He knew each one individually and would notice immediately if one of them was missing. Jesus’ parable of the ‘lost sheep’ would have resonated perfectly with his hearers.
Excerpts from Father Emmanuel's Sunday Homily.