Sheep have been appearing regularly in the Mass readings the past month. A few weeks ago, we heard the warning to the shepherds in Jeremiah 23. The following week, we saw Jesus moved with pity for the people, who seemed like sheep without a shepherd, and sang Psalm 23, recognizing the Lord as the shepherd. It’s a month for sheep analogies, so let’s talk sheep.
With no fangs, claws, or sharp horns, sheep are naturally defenseless against predators. Over eons, the sheep that have survived to pass on their genes are those who stayed together in flocks.
A lone sheep without its flock or shepherd.
An apex predator can still pick off stragglers, but the flock will survive by staying bunched together. This flocking instinct is so strong that sheep will walk over the edge of a cliff, one after another because their instinct is simply to follow the animal in front of them.
Therefore a strayed sheep becomes a threat to the whole flock because there is always the possibility that the flock will follow the stray to who-knows-where, putting the whole flock in danger. That puts a different spin on the parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to go looking for the one lost sheep. By saving the one, he saves all one hundred.
Sheep meander like drunkards because they weave to see both in front and behind them. Being naturally defenseless, they have to be observant of dangers all around. Without a shepherd to guide them to pasture and water, they will loop around endlessly, like the Israelites in the desert.
Lacking pasture, the ewes weaken and are unable to feed their offspring. The lambs die. Without the care of a shepherd, the sheep’s wool becomes matted and shelters parasites that infect the flock. Hooves become overgrown until they also become infected, and the sheep can no longer walk. Then the flock dies.
Livestock professionals say categorically: sheep cannot survive without a shepherd. It’s their nature.
What happens when the shepherd cares more for himself than for the sheep? Or is corrupt, addicted, or lacking a moral center? Shepherding is not a particularly sophisticated job, but if the shepherd preys on the sheep, he might be able to leverage his position into something much grander.
Jesus, living in an agrarian culture, certainly knew this. When he saw the people milling about like sheep without a shepherd, he knew he was looking at a sick flock. His heart was moved with pity at their helplessness.
That’s why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees and Sadducees; they had appointed themselves shepherds but were not caring for the flock. He excoriates them for putting burdens on the sheep greater than they could carry and letting wolves enter the sheepfold and pick off the sheep.
There is a heavy responsibility on shepherds, for Satan prowls about the world, seeking easy prey.
How will the flock of the Lord survive when 70% of them don’t even know that the Eucharist is their survival food; when the sheep are scattered far from the Mass due to exaggerated fears of disease; when the chief shepherd restricts the ancient form of the Mass that saved the souls of our ancestors; and when, every week, new scandals about the shepherds are bleated by the media?
Just when the flock is weak, and we so badly need good shepherds, they are few and hard to find. Some people go so far as to move their families into a diocese with a good shepherd. I expect this will happen more and more often as the need for good shepherds grows more desperate. I met two families just last week who had moved to Tyler for one reason only: the strength of the Church under the direction of a good bishop.
Picking up and moving a household is a luxury few can afford. We have the shepherds we have by the permissive will of God. Hear the word of the Lord through the prophet Ezekiel:
You shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the sheep!
The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness, you have ruled them.
So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.
…and then there is the good news!
I myself will search for my sheep, and I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered; on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.
Over and over, God uses the image of sheep to describe us. It’s not the most complimentary analogy, but it means something to be so common in the Scriptures. Even those who prefer to see ourselves as critical thinkers, outside the box, utterly rational, are not exempted from the analogy. Jesus doesn’t say, “I send you out as sheep among wolves, except for those with advanced degrees, who are smart enough to defend themselves from the predators.” No, we are all sheep among wolves. We are flesh and blood; the wolves are demons, against which we have little defense of our own.
We, who Jesus has identified as sheep, must have a shepherd. In parabolic terms, we will die without one. It’s that critical, but if our shepherds fail us, we must sustain each other until our Good Shepherd comes.
We don’t know when that will be, but we must not let each other stray until then. We have to hold the flock together with the right teaching, good example, and attentive love.
St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body is a teaching to be used broadly in these times because it speaks precisely to the wounds of the world right now. If we are a sick flock, TOB is sheep dip.
So much of the disease that afflicts this world originates in a wrong understanding of the human person. All you need to understand TOB is a body. You don’t have to have higher education; you don’t even have to be religious. Anyone with a body (and an open mind) can realize certain truths: the body has innate wisdom; the body has a certain design that inspires reverence; the body is good and is a gift.
To be sheep without a shepherd is a tragedy, a horror. Contemplating the Church in Her present state is enough to make you weep for days, but we have to acknowledge where we are to see a way forward.
Those who understand and live TOB can help keep the flock healthy until the Shepherd comes because TOB is the truth about human beings. It brings us face to face with our nature and helps us pursue the things that God has given for our joy, like purity, marriage, children, families, communities, and self-donation.
When the world disparages those very things, I think it is because people believe they’re not attainable. It’s our task to show, with our lives, that they are.
By continuing to go deeper into the Theology of the Body and teaching our children to understand the body correctly, we become signs of hope. We will await the Good Shepherd together, watching out for one another.
Sheryl Collmer, M.T.S., writes for TOBET from Tyler, Texas.