Our Shepherd of the Field
by Rev. Robert Wagner
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while." People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
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.