The True Shepherd
The Gospel this week tells us that as Christ, exhausted and longing for rest, looks at the massive crowd, which chases after Him even when they knowing He is hiding in order to rest, He sees them as “sheep without a shepherd.” His heart is moved with pity, and how goes down with His equally tired and weary Apostles to hear the needs and complaints of the people, and to teach them. Why is it, though, that these sheep had no shepherd?
In the first place, we know that the crowd did have those who were considered shepherds. They had leaders in their synagogues, the Pharisees and early Rabbis, the teachers of the law, the Temple priests, and others among the leadership of the Jewish people. These would teach the people, provide them with interpretation of the Scriptures, accompany them through their lives, and celebrated the Jewish rituals for their sake. We know too that not all of these leaders were wicked or self-absorbed: some of them, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, followed Jesus and later became saints. If Jesus sees that the people were without a shepherd, it is because they and their leaders lacked something that He Himself possessed.
So what does Christ have and do that the scribes, Pharisees, and priests of the Temple do not? Our responses might be that Christ has credibility, the power to drive out demons and heal, or the ability to teach what others cannot. These are all true, but the shepherds before Christ could in fact provide each of these things in some measure, so there may be a better answer. What is it that Christ alone can provide?
What Christ alone, as the Good Shepherd, can give, which no prophet, judge, teacher, or ruler before Him could ever have given as shepherd, is the way through the gates of heaven into God’s own pasture. This is what makes Jesus unique. Other shepherds could have given, and did give, practical advice about how to live well. Other shepherds could have driven out demons and healed illnesses, and did sometimes, as the Gospel tells us. Other shepherds could have, and did some-times, accompany the people through the difficulties of their lives. There will always be people, good and bad, who can fulfill those earthly needs we mistake for spiritual needs, and people will always follow them for a time. But only Christ can unite a soul with God, and bring it into heaven. The people were like sheep without a shepherd because they had no one to take them into pastures that would really satisfy, and that would not come to an end.
Because the same Christ stands at the heart of our Christian faith today, alive in our Church through her Sacraments, we know that this is where He wants to lead us as well. Christ did not call us into the Church just to give us practical advice for living moral lives. He did not come simply to heal our physical troubles so we could live comfortably here. He did not come to drive out evil, simply so we could live at peace with ourselves. He does all of these things out of love for us, but above all, He wants to raise our eyes above the day-to-day concerns of this life, and prepare us to live with Him in eternal union with God forever. This is also the mission of His Church: not merely to form pleasant social groups and communities, not simply to teach people how to live well, not simply to give strength for meeting and enduring our daily challenges, not to drag God down out of heaven and make Him live at our earthly level, but rather to bring people into union with Christ here below, so that they can follow Him above, into the glory of the Father.