Jesus presents himself to us today as someone who wants to help us put our “lives back together” and to show us that there is a simple way to live a “more abundant life.” The secret is not in things, or work, but in love and being a personal resource to help each other to achieve what God really wants us to achieve: How can we do that for each other and for those with whom we live?
Put yourself into the life of a sheep who listened and smelled. Such a simple gift to have. The gifts made all the difference in its world — a sense of safety and protection.
And then to imagine that it lived and was protected in a roofless, stone walled, a kind of corral home where it was protected at night. There was a gate to get in and out.
It is still that way in country, rural settings to this very day. And there is always a shepherd whom they know by sight, by voice and by smell.
The sheep provides wool for clothing, perhaps food by being slaughtered, and milk as well.
Why did Jesus use the image and the role of a shepherd to talk about God and himself? Perhaps because we are no different than sheep. We need to listen to a voice and really, more than a voice, someone who really cares for us and wants to protect us from all the dangers of life, that’s a big order. Today, we remember the famous and most popular prayer in all the Bible, and our Psalm for today: Psalm 23: “The Lord is our Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
But that is not as true with us human beings as it is with sheep. The life of a sheep is very simple and has not changed in thousands of years. But all human life has evolved, often from a simple agrarian society where everything centered on farming, livestock and hunting to the modern technological societies that we have today…
We want many more things and experiences, and, and, and… We are more driven to excel, to find careers and professions that provide money and the possibility to have more and more, to experience so many insights and opportunities that even people 50 years ago did not have.
As developed as we have become as human beings, the danger (from the point of view of spirituality) is that we can lose our connection with God and let our love for working hard, for trying to control our life, and its outcome, which puts an awful lot of stress on each of us, and separates us in many practical kinds of ways from God. We don’t need God to shepherd us, “Thank you anyway, God, I’m doing just fine!” But are we?
And so we see a lot of brokenness in one another today, a lot of effort with people trying to make something out of themselves that they are not–a lot of depression, a lot of addiction, and a lot of trying to find some kind of meaning or recognition or love that doesn’t come just from doing or making money.
God never intended that we disconnect from Him, or live our lives without any conscious sense of His presence. How can we disconnect from life and love and meaning Itself?
This pandemic caught us all by surprise. How could such a thing happen in our modern world, where we are in charge. Science tells us that this is a viral, respiratory disease. Is it part of the air that we are breathing that is becoming more polluted? Is this a reaction to chemicals and other bad living habits that we may not be able to see– an invisible enemy that our society is creating and the air is transporting?
Many news commentators observe that air quality is much better now, that there are less cars driving and polluting factories are closed.
But there is the same old human nature that wants to get back to what was normal, but those who study human behavior tell us the old normal will never be normal again.
So how are you changing? What are you feeling, thinking or rethinking? How do we interpret all that is happening around us? Our insight that should touch us deeply is that the answer or the antidote to the pandemic is more than power or getting angry or waving flags and guns. Pushing our way through life pushes us out of life, in the sense of true living.
So, Jesus shares two thoughtful insights that push back on the “I can do what I want” way of thinking.
Jesus had difficulty trying to help people understand his way of thinking and God’s way of thinking 2000 years ago, and even before that.
“I am the gate for the sheep,” he proposes. On one side of the gate is the safe zone where we are protected from the dangers and pitfalls of life — like the Church, like our family — Jesus becomes a shepherd and he would like to lead us where we can eat, enjoy the companionship of each other, like the sheep do.
The shepherd is always there, close by, watching for predators, keeping us from straying, keeping us from rushing ahead without thinking, soothing our hearts, our souls, our anxieties, our stress, our heartaches. The gate opens so that we can explore the larger world and opens for us to live together as individuals and small groups connected to explore the meaning of life.
At the very end of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus tells us that He is not just like any other of our leaders or shepherds or perhaps like anyone of us who may be more driven to control all the circumstances of our own individual lives. He says: “I came so that they may have life and have it more abundantly.”
The abundant life does not mean more things, more money, more success, more prestige or power.
The abundant life is a quality of the spirit, a quality of soul. Something that happens to us when we trust God more.
St. Peter in today’s second reading asks us if we see “suffering for doing what is good a grace before God”– a sign of God’s blessing. St. Peter encourages us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus… he did not return insults, St. Peter wrote. He did not threaten people. He trusted God, knowing that life was not perfect, yet to try to do what was good and just and right because God will be there to help us weather everything.
Many times, we do not follow Jesus’ attitude in our work life and relationships. St. Peter calls Jesus “the shepherd and guardian of our souls.” We need a guardian, at work, in our families, in our lives, in our larger lives, so we do not distract ourselves where there is no abundance of life.
Also, Jesus wants each one of us to be a good shepherd, a model, at work, at home, at school, in quarantine or in flocking to closed beaches… — if we would just take the time to just stop moving and doing and achieving and just listen for The One — capital O-N-E who has the answers to all the questions we are asking.
Jesus did not come to create a religion. He came to show us by his own example how to live and how to love — not to compete, overrun others, not to take God’s place, or to use others.
We are here to share an abundant life with each other, and to help each other create an abundant life. The word “abundant” does not mean “more as having more and more”; rather, it points to an overflowing spirit of life, and love, and purpose for our lives. The life and meaning of abundance is “overflowing.”
Let Jesus open this gate for you and begin to enjoy what he can provide. Stop what you are doing; wait and listen. Let us not be a Pharisee-type person who does not realize what Jesus is trying to tell us.
One of the things that Peter said in his first sermon in the Acts of the Apostles today was: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” What does St. Peter mean when he calls us corrupt? He is using the word in its first meaning in Latin: “broken in pieces.” Jesus the Good Shepherd invites us to live a life that is not broken in pieces.