Our Shepherd in the Field
by Rev. Robert Wagner
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near. When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, "Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?" He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Two hundred days' wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish'; but what good are these for so many?" Jesus said, "Have the people recline." Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, "Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted." So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat. When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, "This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world." Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus looks with pity on the crowd that follows him to a deserted place and compares them to sheep without a shepherd. Our Lord is popularly described as the Good Shepherd. He guides his flock to green pastures and leads them to the places where they will be safe. We are consoled by this image of Jesus as shepherd.
In the Old Testament, however, the people of God described as “sheep without a shepherd” is not always a peaceful metaphor. Instead, it takes on a military connotation. For instance, the prophet Micaiah received a word from God portraying “all Israel scattered upon the hills, like sheep that have no shepherd” (1 Kgs 22:17). True to the vision, when King Ahab was struck down leading the Israelite army in battle, his men scattered, each to his own city and land (1 Kgs 22:36).
An earlier example of this metaphor is found in the Book of Numbers. Moses, who is near death, prays for the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. There will be battles ahead with the tribes that already inhabit that land, so Moses asks the Lord for a leader who can lead them to victory, “lest the people of the Lord be as sheep without a shepherd” (Num 27:18).
The Lord instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as their leader. Joshua’s name means “God is with us,” and in faith we recognize that it is by God’s hand that the battle is won. He is our shepherd who protects and saves us.
For some, this image of warfare is not a comfortable one. We prefer the comfort of the Good Shepherd over the violence of a leader of armies. Yet, we might recall the words of Jesus, who tells his disciples, “I did not come to bring peace, but the sword” (Mt 10:34). The sword is the result of the world, the flesh, and the devil, all of which reject Jesus. When we embrace Our Lord, we, too, find ourselves in this battle. This is why our Catholic tradition calls us the “Church Militant”: the people of God in this world, battling against evil for our salvation and the salvation of all.
Our battle is a spiritual one, which unfortunately allows most people to overlook, neglect or ignore it. This is how the evil one works, for it allows him to prowl about the world more easily seeking the ruin of souls. For our part, we participate in this spiritual war in two ways. The first is the battle for our own sanctity. The second is to fight for the sanctity of others, by praying and sacrificing for our loved ones and those who need protection from the evil one, such as our church and secular leaders.
In this battle, our enemy knows our weaknesses and is much more powerful than each of us are. Yet we are never alone in the battle for our soul, for Jesus Christ is always with us, strengthening us against temptation and cleansing us in confession when we fall. He is the victor, and when we cling to him in faith and seek his grace, we have no need for fear or despair, no matter how difficult our struggles are.
Because Jesus is our shepherd in this great battle, we can boldly say, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me” (Ps 23:4). In this way, we can see that the comforting image of the Good Shepherd is in harmony with the military image of Our Lord.
While it may be unsettling to contemplate the reality of the spiritual battle for our souls, it is only through awareness of it that we can seek to prepare and protect ourselves, our families, and our neighbors through our faithfulness, our worship, and sacrifices.
As the Church Militant, we are part of the mystical body of Christ. We are the church that Jesus founded on the Rock of St. Peter, the church Our Lord promises will prevail against the gates of our enemy in this battle. Nothing will withstand us when we are united with our Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the victor. He is the shepherd. He is our hope.
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