“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.”
I have always been a big fan of westerns, whether in the form of books, movies or TV shows. And I’d say that once you’ve gone through about 20 or so of these stories — if it even takes that many — you start to see several patterns emerge:
• The good guys dress in white and the bad guys dress in black, at least in older westerns.
• Lots of references to the reputations of the main characters, so that you know what big deals they are before they fight each other. Often, the hero will brush off this kind of praise, but it’s there, in any event.
• Of course, the climactic gun battle, often on the town’s main street.
• Finally (at least for this perfunctory list), when a character dies, those who bury him often “read over him,” meaning they read some passage from the Bible. This is a very common scene in western movies, even when one is burying an enemy. [In the 1948 film Red River, John Wayne’s character even “reads over” men he’s just shot himself!] And the passage that’s most often used for these impromptu funerals is Psalm 23, which is one of the most familiar and comforting texts in all of Scripture (“The Lord is my shepherd…”).
In fact, in one western I saw a few years ago, the cowboy responsible for “reading over” a recently deceased member of his company doesn’t have a Bible with him, and can only remember that there was “somethin’ about them green pastures” in Psalm 23. In fact, that cowboy was hitting on one of the essential elements we must keep in mind when thinking of Jesus as our Good Shepherd.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear reference to Himself as the Good Shepherd. He says: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” So we who are the sheep of Jesus need to listen for His voice, amidst all the distractions of the world. But Jesus immediately makes clear that He leads us not to any earthly destination, but to heaven: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”
Jesus wants us to flourish in this life, but that flourishing is always defined by our growth in holiness. Every other kind of flourishing and prosperity is totally subordinate to holiness, becoming like God so that we can live God’s life forever. That’s what the “green pastures” are about.
Jesus wants us to flourish in this life, but that flourishing is always defined by our growth in holiness. Every other kind of flourishing and prosperity is totally subordinate to holiness, becoming like God so that we can live God’s life forever. That’s what the “green pastures” are about. They are green, rather than burnt yellow or brown, because they are fully alive. And because the pastures are full of life, the sheep who feed there will be full of life.
God is the Source of all life (cf. Psalm 36), and He makes us to be fully alive by His Holy Spirit. And so God’s home is the place of the greenest of the green pastures to which Jesus leads us. In his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI wrote the following about Jesus the Good Shepherd:
The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his “rod and his staff comforts me,” so that “I fear no evil” (cf. Ps 23 :4) — this was the new “hope” that arose over the life of believers. (par. 6)
So, there is nothing to be afraid of for those who believe in Christ, for those who hear His voice and follow Him. Not even death should cause us to be really afraid. We are not guaranteed an easy life, a comfortable life, or the kind of life we might choose for ourselves if we only based our choices on our feelings. We know that we can even experience great tragedies or violence in this world — a fact of which we are so often reminded as we read, watch or listen to the news.
No, Jesus does not promise us an easy life, but He does promise us eternal life, and that as long as we follow Him we can never lose what He has promised us. We hear this promise in His Word, and we taste this promise in His Body and Blood.
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.