A few years ago I had the privilege of going to the Holy Land. It was an extraordinary experience to suddenly be standing in the very places that we so often read about in the Scriptures and to see what they look like. Two things I saw struck me, especially in relation to what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. One day we were celebrating mass in the place that is celebrated as ‘The Shepherd’s Field’ where the shepherds are said to have seen the angels in the sky when Jesus was born. As we were getting ready to celebrate this mass the heads of two sheep popped up over a hill that was at one end of the field and looked at us. Then they came towards us and right into the middle of us, sniffing us, poking around in our bags and curious as to what we were about. They weren’t afraid of us at all. It struck me that they were a very different kind of animal to the sheep we have here in Ireland, which are very nervous of people. They even looked quite different. Later in the trip as we drove along in our bus I noticed on one of the dusty hills that we passed, a shepherd walking along with a line of sheep behind him, one after the other. This is not something you see here either. Here the sheep have to be herded and driven, but it made much more sense of several things that we hear about Jesus ‘leading’ his sheep and the words in today’s Gospel, “I know my sheep and mine know me.” In this case they were obviously following the shepherd because they knew him and trusted him. They had some kind of relationship with him. I understand that the shepherds who look after those kind of sheep also have individual sounds to call each sheep.
This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and also vocation’s Sunday. The two are very much linked together. We usually think of a vocation in terms of a religious vocation, but in fact only a very small percentage of people are called to priesthood or religious life. However, all of us have a vocation, or ‘calling’ (which is what the word vocation means), and that calling is to live the life of faith.
One of the things that is quite striking about the Christian and Jewish faith is the fact that it is first God who seeks us out and calls us to enter into a relationship with him. God is the one who comes looking for us. In the book of Genesis when Adam and Eve have suddenly become aware that they are naked and they are afraid, it says that God came to the garden and called to them. “Adam, (which means ‘human being’) where are you?” But after the first sin (the ‘original sin’) the first humans are now afraid and suspicious of God. Adam replies, “I heard the sound of you in the garden. I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid” (Gen 3:10).
One of the consequences of the first sin (whatever exactly that was we don’t know, except that it was some kind of a rejection of God’s authority) was that we became afraid and suspicious of God and of each other. We still suffer with this fear/suspicion of God. After a natural disaster, or even a tragic accident, how often do we hear it said, “Why would God do this?” We are not always convinced that God is good and that God has our best interests at heart and yet this is what God continually tells us through the Scriptures: “My plans for you are for peace and not disaster.” “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” In spite of our mistrust and confusion, God continues to seek us out, to help us know him. And in the Gospel today Jesus gives the beautiful words, “I am the good shepherd...the one who lays down his life for his sheep.” The Lord gives everything for us, including his life.
Our primary vocation or calling is simply to respond to God and to enter into relationship with him. How we respond to that call is through our life of faith. It is never forced on us; God simply invites us to follow him. The wonderful thing is that it can be lived in any way of life and in any circumstance; also that there are as many ways of living it as there are people. The tragedy is that often we get so caught up with the worries of this life that we lose sight of what our life is about. Sometimes it is only when a tragedy happens, or we become sick, that we are jolted awake and we begin to realise that we are forgetting what we are here for; that is, to come to know God, to learn to love and serve and to choose God who is our fulfilment.
Our first calling is to be in relationship with God.