Like the Israelites in today’s first reading, we often feel abandoned and miserable.
We feel lost and disheartened because of our sufferings. We feel that we are failures in life, like the Israelites when their crops were not growing and animals were dying because of drought. Like those during the time of Jesus, many of us are carrying infirmities in our bodies. We are sick because of illnesses, accidents, old age. Some of us suffer mental and spiritual illnesses. Most of all, many have no direction in life. We do not know what we are living for and why we are living. We are merely keeping ourselves alive, and pampering ourselves with some comforts and enjoyment. But we have no direction and real purposed in life. Life is merely a routine; work, eat, sleep and enjoy.
“And when he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus came as a shepherd to fulfill the prophecy of Ezekiel when God lamented that His people were without a shepherd. “So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the wild beasts.” (Ez 34:5) Jesus saw Himself as the Good Shepherd. He said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” (Jn 10:14f)
How is Jesus our Good Shepherd? Firstly, He is our teacher who comes to show us the way. “Jesus made a tour through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom.” In order for us to understand the truth of life, we need to hear the teaching of our Lord. The ministry of Jesus began with teaching. He came to offer us the kingdom of God. “He will be gracious to you when he hears your cry; when he hears he will answer. When the Lord has given you the bread of suffering and the water of distress, he who is your teacher will hide no longer, and you will see your teacher with your own eyes.” A teacher is one who leads by teaching and enlightening. Jesus came to show us how through our suffering, we will come to understand the purpose of life. Through “the bread of suffering and the water of distress”, we learn the hard way, the ways of God. Indeed, for many of us, it is through our mistakes and the price we paid for them that we learn not to repeat them again.
The question for us is whether we are ready to listen to the words of the shepherd. Jesus said, “To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (Jn 10:3-5) Although we call ourselves Catholics, we take direction from the world instead of listening to the voice of the shepherd. Many Catholics do not have a deep love and conviction of the Bible as the Word of God. They only pay lip service because they make no reference to the Word of God in their thinking and decision-making. How I wish I could say with St Paul to all Catholics, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Th 2:13) That is why we are exhorted to pay attention to the teachings of our Lord. The prophet said, “Whether you turn to right or left, your ears will hear these words behind you, ‘This is the way, follow it.’” Jesus made it clear in yesterday’s gospel that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 7:21)
Secondly, Jesus did not simply teach but He also healed and delivered the people from all kinds of bondages. Teaching without the accompaniment of signs will not be convincing enough. Jesus empowered the apostles to heal and to deliver the people from the bondages of the Evil One. “He summoned his twelve disciples, and gave them authority over unclean spirits with power to cast them out and to cure all kinds of disease and sickness. And as you go, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils.” No matter how powerful and eloquent a sermon might be, without the concrete manifestation of God’s love and mercy, they merely remain inspiring words, but it will not change lives. We need the signs of God’s power at work in us through our healing miracles and works of charity if we are to convince those whom we reach out to that God’s love is real and that He is all powerful. This explains why in the command to preach the gospel, the Lord also added, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mk 16:17f)
The reason why today many of the institutionalized churches, including the Catholic Church, are not changing lives or moving people to come to God, is because it is all talk but no action. We preach nice homilies on God’s love and mercy. We talk about them in our classes and courses. We write beautiful articles on His unconditional love. But unfortunately, we do not manifest the signs of God’s presence and love. In fact, our churches today have become so institutionalized that they operate more like a business enterprise. Many Catholics lament that the Church is no longer functioning like a welcoming mother or a forgiving Father, but that it is businesslike, bureaucratic, uncaring, and legalistic, compared to other faith communities. The priest is no longer seen as a shepherd but merely an administrator; not as a kind, loving and understanding Father but a regimental officer. If we are not careful, the Church will lose its personal touch of the compassionate and loving Good Shepherd.
Thirdly, if people feel that there is a scarcity of shepherds, it is because many of us are not generous with what the Lord has blessed us with. Jesus instructed the disciples, “You received without charge, give without charge.” Many are also finding our churches to be calculative and demanding; we appear to only receive but do not give freely and generously to the people in return. We have forgotten what the Lord has said. We must not forget that all of us have been blessed by the Lord in so many ways. If we are what we are today, then it is because of the Lord’s graciousness and kindness towards us. If we remember that we have received freely, then we want to give back freely what we have received.
This mentality of receiving without giving is something that all must change, from the Church’s hierarchy to every member of the Church. This is true not just in terms of financial contributions, but of rendering our services as well. Many look to the Church as a dispensing machine; giving to all who come to ask. Many know how to ask and demand for services, but they would not give a helping hand to the Church. Hardly 15% of our Catholics are giving back to the Church or serving in ministries. The few who are serving are helping out in a few ministries! They are overworked and hardly have time to pray, much less be formed in the faith. This explains why some come across as being un-Christian in the way they serve and are ineffective in service. Then again, when we look to employing more workers to do the job, we find that we do not have the financial resources because people only give for the maintenance of the church; not for the evangelistic and missionary dimensions of the gospel. So today, let us heed the Lord’s cry to reach out to the many who are looking for a true shepherd after the heart of Christ. He said, “The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest.” Let us pray that more generous Catholics will respond to the Lord’s call to be His messengers of peace, love and joy.