I wrote this some years ago as a homily for an early morning mass. The Gospel was about the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
“So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” [Mark 6:30-34]
I got struck by the last phrase of the gospel today, “He had compassion over them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
What does this mean, to be sheep without a shepherd?
It would probably mean being lost—the shepherd gives direction; he leads the sheep to wherever there is grass or wherever it is most safe. It probably means going around in circles— not knowing where to go, just letting your hunger take you to wherever there is food to eat, grass to graze. It would also mean being in constant danger. Being vulnerable to the elements— rain, fire, wind, wild animals, wolves.
So, is this a bad thing? At first glance, yes. Who wants to be lost? Who wants to be in constant danger? Who wants to be vulnerable?
And yet, there are times when we find ourselves precisely in those situations: lost and couldn’t find the way, in constant danger, vulnerable. And not because we do not have a shepherd! Not because we are sheep without a shepherd. Sometimes, precisely because we are under the fold of this particular Shepherd, we feel lost, in constant danger, vulnerable, being chased by wolves.
In fact, as experience has taught us, feeling lost, being in constant danger, being vulnerable under this Shepherd is not such a bad idea.
Paradoxically, when we do not feel lost, or in danger or vulnerable— maybe then are we in real danger. Because then is the possibility of being sheep without a shepherd.
Because it is only when there seems to be no danger, when you’re confident of not being lost, when there seems to be no wolf around, that the sheep strays away from the fold. The danger, the possibility of being lost, the vulnerability, keeps the sheep with the other 99.
Pride, the feeling of “I can survive the elements”, I can stand on my own, I can fight off the wolves by myself, I really do not need the Shepherd, make the sheep stray from the flock.
So that a little danger, the feeling of weakness, the feeling of unworthiness, keeps us on our toes.
And in key moments in our lives—in the quiet of prayer, in the grace of a retreat, in the anguish of suffering—we ask the Shepherd to look out for us. I cannot stand on my own. I cannot fight the wolves by myself. I need You.
But our comfortable lives can start eroding this. We can feel invincible. We can get eaten up by the praise that people heap on us in generous amounts. We can get so wealthy as to feel that we are in need of nothing. And gradually, without even knowing it consciously, we start acting as if we do not need the Shepherd. We can get lulled into thinking that we have no weakness. That is when the danger becomes very real–the danger of being lost without knowing that we already are.
And the paradox of life is this: our suffering precisely grounds us. Makes us acknowledge the Shepherd. Makes us pray to Him. Makes us realize our need to be led, to be protected, to be loved.
And so as we continue the mass, we pray to the Shepherd. We re-affirm our need for Him. We cannot fight off the wolves. We cannot stand on our own. We cannot do this by ourselves. May He always be in the look-out for us during the times we stray from the fold. Amen.