The Voice of the Good Shepherd

Today’s Psalm, Psalm 23, is a familiar one for many Christians.  The refrain, The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want, is one of the Scripture verses I have committed to memory. Perhaps, in its familiarity, I often skim it, or tune it out. But as I reflected on it more carefully,  I wondered for a moment what it might be like to not want for anything, to be completely satisfied. I thought of my students and their earnest desires. So many of us, if asked what we want, would perhaps say happiness, a good life, success. But if we go below the surface and look at it from a different angle, to ‘not want’ means to be freed from our deepest fears: from the need to be understood, the fear of being lonely, the need to be accepted, the fear of being unlovable; freed from greed, from the lie that our identity is tied to our (or our children’s) success or title or career or college acceptances or how much money we make. To not want means we no longer fear surrendering our entire life to God, nor does an unknown future frighten us. 

Despite knowing in the depth of my soul that the Lord is my shepherd, I’d be lying if I said that on any given day I did not struggle with at least one of the things listed above. So what does this mean? Is the Psalmist offering a false promise? Is my faith too weak? If we read on, we read about the Psalmist facing the difficulties of life, still the Lord remains faithful, ever at his side. Finally, at the end of the Psalm, we read Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come. In reading this, I realize that eventually, if we follow the Shepherd’s voice, we will come to dwell in his house – heaven – and then, we shall no longer want for anything. All of our deepest desires will be fulfilled. 

The image of God as a shepherd has existed for thousands of years. First in the Old Testament (as seen in Psalm 23); but in the New Testament as well, as seen in today’s Gospel, in which Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. Though shepherding is no longer a common profession, this image is one that has prevailed and passed the test of time. Even young children, most of whom have never seen a shepherd (neither have I for that matter), find the metaphor relatable and comforting. 

Through the stunning parable of the Good Shepherd, Jesus reveals to his people – to you and to me – qualities of who he is unlike any that have been revealed before. He is the gatekeeper, through him we are offered not only life, but eternal life. He is the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep. Through his suffering and death Jesus lays down his life for each one of us – in spite of our brokenness, the parts of our lives we’re ashamed of, our doubts, our fears. Jesus chose to freely sacrifice himself so that we might not perish, but have eternal life. But that is not all. Jesus goes on,  I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me. He knows us, he knows the deepest desires of our hearts, and he loves us. Moreover, we know him, when we hear his voice we cannot help but follow. Conversely, the more we come to know him, the more we come to know ourselves. 

To be a Christian is to follow Christ, and not just follow him, but to imitate him. St. Clare of Assisi wrote that “We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others.” In our own, unique, unrepeatable way (for there is only one of you), we are each called to be a good shepherd. We are called to live lives of joy, zeal, grace, mercy, courage, and love. We are called to be an image, a voice, that leads people back to green pastures, guiding them along right paths. We are commissioned to be gatekeepers, protecting the poor and vulnerable from danger. But we can only answer this task by listening to the voice of the one, true Good Shepherd.

Fittingly, Good Shepherd Sunday also coincides with Vocations Sunday. The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, to call. Every person has a vocation – a calling, a mission given to them by God. We can either choose to respond to this calling or reject it. The primary vocations are married life, consecrated single life, religious life, or priestly life. There are secondary vocations as well – for example, some discover they have a specific calling to be a teacher, doctor, nurse, musician, etc. But in order to discover what our vocation is, to live out our vocation most fully, and to nurture others in discovering their vocation, we must work to hear and respond to the voice of God. Vocations begin in the Domestic Church – in our very homes. Families are the first schools. It is there that Christian values are taught and lived, so that an ultimate choice of a commitment to marriage, single or consecrated life can be made. Parents have a unique responsibility, one they committed to when their child was baptized, to best prepare their children to cooperate with God’s grace, to choose the vocation He has ready for them, and to carry out that vocation to the full. 

Here are some important tips for you to make use of, whether you are a parent, or are in the position to pass these along to parents to help promote vocations:

  • Begin praying as a family. You can do this by saying grace before meals, before bed, or in the morning. You could commit to reading from Scripture daily, or praying the Rosary together.
  • Make worshiping God a priority. Make the Sacraments a regular celebration – take the whole family to Confession and Mass! Though this is a unique time in the Church, commit to either watching Mass on TV or doing the Sunday readings together as a family. It might also be helpful to begin having conversations about how/when/where you will go to church once that option is available again.
  • Encourage your children to pray daily on their own, to listen for God’s call, and if heard, to respond.

 I leave you with these words of St. John Paul II:

Let yourselves be summoned by the love of Christ; recognize his voice which rings in the temple of your heart. Receive his luminous and penetrating glance which opens the paths of your life upon the horizons of the mission of the Church, today more than ever committed to teaching man his true being, his end, his destiny and to revealing to faithful souls the unspeakable riches of the love of Christ. Have no fear of the fact that the response he requires is radical, because Jesus, who has first loved you, is ready to give what he asks of you. If he asks much it is because he knows that you can give much.

Message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, September 8, 1993

This piece of writing was originally written for Bishop Guertin High School’s “Sunday Reflections.”

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