The imagery of sheep and shepherd is very touching and significant in a biblical setting. But, in our own time, it has become less appealing, less applicable. We certainly recognize that we need the love and guidance of Jesus. We realize that He died for us, that He knows us personally, and that He is always with us and concerned for our safety and well being.
But, God's people no longer see themselves as sheep. Nowadays, our people are generally much better educated, and better equipped to make their own conscience decisions. They are not content to be passive; they are often not submissive. They have come to a new understanding of their dignity and their role as baptized Christians, and they realize that they share the call to ministry, to evangelization, and to service - that they too are called to be "shepherds."
I think we tend to forget that when Jesus talks about the "Good Shepherd" His intent is to focus more on the role of shepherd and less on the attitude of the sheep. His view was much broader than simply the powerlessness and helplessness of the flock - rather He was modeling a life-style to which He was inviting all of his followers to share: one of concern and compassion, of service and dedication, one of relentless and abounding love.
It is important for us to rediscover and reinterpret the message of the Good Shepherd in a clear and decisive language that speaks volumes to the world about how we see ourselves as His disciples. But how do we see ourselves? And how do others see us?
The shepherds of our Church still need very much to radiate the personal love and compassion of Jesus. But so also do the people of God. Sheherds need to lead, to guide; but the people of God need to be invited, not threatened; they need ministers who are in touch with the real circumstances of life, not aloof, ivory towered idealists. They need models of faith and hope, models who can lead them along the paths of prayer and spirituality, models who can inspire trust and courage in the face of suffering and trial.
They need most of all, fellow travelers on the faith journey who can not only offer healing, comfort and support in the name and spirit of Jesus, but also recognize their own failures and weaknesses and humbly seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
For whatever historical reasons, that I certainly am not qualified to delineate, in general we seem to show a preference for a pyramidal, hierarchical church, in which the normative modus operandi is still vertical: God, pope, hierarchy, clergy, religious, laity, in descending order. Commands and teachings from above, compliance and assent from below.
However, we don't get theological technicalities and complexities from Jesus; he speaks plainly, commonly, most often in simple stories with ordinary images. From that consistent style of his, we can be sure that he had no obscure theology or fixed ecclesiology in mind when he told his disciples to tend and feed his sheep.
"I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep."
It's obvious from these words that our role as disciples of the Gospel is, first and foremost, that of reconciling, healing and uniting our people. We are to do that, not by using the power of the Gospel to instill fear and trembling; not to denigrate people who have differing points of view or belief-systems. Nor is it to exclude others, just because their expression of faith doesn't live up to what we believe to be the norm.
But it also continues to be painfully obvious that we all have a long way to go… When sheep lose trust and confidence in their shepherds, when they sense a lack of attention and care, they tend to scatter. And without a flock to tend, shepherds are no longer shepherds... just little people with big sticks.
When the hierarchy is not written off as irrelevant and when the members are not denied their legitimate collaboration, the church is functioning at its best, and we can be certain that the work of the Spirit is being optimally facilitated. But when they are out of sync, when there is distrust and contention between them, the church is crippled and unable to function as it should.
In short, we are all shepherds; we need one another.
And the Gospel is blunt and absolutely clear in reminding us that our shepherding should be marked by compassion and justice, gentleness and reconciliation - by our own willingness to lay down our lives. Maybe it is time for all of us to re-examine just how willing we are to do just that.
But that's not the end of the story. We are to take what we hear, what we learn and what we know to be the Truth of the Gospel and proclaim it from the mountaintops to one another. We are to live the Word, and become the living Bread of Life for those who are "like sheep without a shepherd."
We need new models for faith development - new methods to reach the minds and hearts of people. We can no longer simply rely on fate, or tradition, or the threat of eternal damnation. We must touch the most fundamental needs of people's humanity, and help them to see how uniquely the gift of Jesus and His Gospel fulfill those needs.
Jesus says: "My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish." If we really believe this, if we really belong to Jesus, if it shows in our words and actions and choices - then we are guaranteed what Jesus has promised: life that never ends, life without tears, hunger or thirst.
Together we must find new ways to assure that all of God's people will never be without good shepherds.