Today's Gospel for Good Shepherd Sunday is not gushingly sweet and consoling. Jesus is angry at the Pharisees who, in the previous chapter have kicked a man out of the Synagogue who was born blind and whom Jesus has just cured of his blindness. In curing the man, Jesus has violated the Sabbath in the eyes of the ironically blind guides who are the Pharisees. Jesus has words for these so-called spiritual leaders - thief, robber. The harsh words of Jesus are there to challenge us Christians when we fall into the same spiritual traps that some of the Pharisees fell into. It is the tough love of the Holy Spirit at work in the deep recesses of our hearts and consciences when we feel these harsh words addressed to us. As shepherds, the Pharisees in the incident of the man born blind have utterly failed in their role as spiritual leaders. Instead of welcoming the blind man to the fullness of worship and life in the Jewish community, they reject him from the synagogue for his gratitude and fidelity to Jesus.
We can see how a text similar to this one “cut to the heart” of so great a shepherd as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. He says about himself in the 30th Sermon on the Song of Songs, “I scarcely ever read these words without finding fault with myself for having undertaken the care of souls, I who am not fit to take care of my own soul...Those people who made me keeper of the vineyards should have taken into account how I had kept my own... Faith was there but it was dead..., without good works. On my conversion to the Lord, I began to improve, though very little... But then, what man is fit to do this? 'Unless the Lord keeps watch over a city, in vain the watchman stands vigil.' How many and how precious the clusters of good works were either blighted by anger, or snatched away by boasting, or defiled by vainglory! What temptations did I not endure from gluttony, from mental slothfulness, from pusillanimity of spirit and the storm of passion! What amazes me is the audacity of those who seem to harvest only brambles and thistles from their own vineyards, and yet are not afraid to intrude themselves on the vineyards of the Lord. These are...thieves and robbers.”
Inasmuch as all consecrated religious men and women are in a very real sense shepherds and guides to the Christian faithful, none of us can feel exempt from the implications of today's gospel text or the words of Saint Bernard. Are we climbing into the sheepfold by some trick of going over the wall on our own power the way thieves and robbers do, or are we going by way of the Gate? Jesus has told us that he is the Gate. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
In this same passage in which Bernard reveals his difficulties, he also implies his one solution: namely the Lord Jesus Christ, the ultimate Watchman who watches over the city of God: Jesus Christ, the Shepherd who watches over and leads the flock that is the monastery, the flock that is the Church, the flock who so often go astray like sheep - astray from themselves, from one another and from God. He, as Gate, protects us in the darkness of our nights. He, as Shepherd, calls each of us by name and leads us out to life-giving food and drink. He says to us, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
When we were kids, Dad would drive us out to our little dairy farm every chance we had, and we would be weekend farm kids. It was like paradise. The most poignant moment each day was sundown when we would gather at our ramshackle cow barn which was set on a little hillock overlooking the pastures with our 19 cows there chomping on the grass. My father would call out, “Cows! Cows! Cows!” Upon hearing my father's voice, their heads would raise up immediately, and they would run to the barn. They would only be getting a treat of fresh hay and grain which we had put in the mangers. They all seemed to be full of bovine joy. (Better still) Jesus calls lovingly to each one of us by name. Let us run to him joyfully who was once born and laid in a manger, a humble feeding trough.
Image by Frances Hook. Excerpts from today’s homily by Father Luke.