Good Shepherd, Bad Shepherd – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Mark 6:30-34, 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Very often, our desires lead us like shepherds lead sheep. Whether we’re immediately aware of it or not, in many, many ways, we are shepherded by what we think fulfills our desires. We who go to Church will readily say,“My shepherd is Jesus Christ.” And we’re not being facetious whenever we say that. However, if we make a mental inventory of our actions, we will realize that there are shepherds we instinctively follow more readily than we do Jesus Christ. These shepherds often lead us to what we want.

That shepherd can be a person. I have friends, for example, who admit with embarrassment that they never hear Sunday mass in their own parishes. Instead, they “shop around” for priests who deliver good homilies, they say. I don’t know why some of them are embarrassed about doing that. It’s your right to choose the mass that you feel nourishes and shepherds you spiritually. The shepherd can be an author, too, like a guru whose books you read for enlightenment. I’m turning 50 next year and I’ve noticed that books on mid-life spirituality jump off the shelves whenever I browse through a bookstore or a library. A shepherd can also be a principle. I’ve come across people who are very pious and still believe that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. So their knee-jerk response to issues is always defensive of Catholic laws and morals. Interestingly, a shepherd can also be a fear, a trauma. We’ve seen this clearly in many government leaders who were of very poor and vulnerable beginnings. Many now luxuriate in bad money and abusive power, because what seems to shepherd them is a string of “never’s”:“I will never be poor again. I will never be powerless and be bullied again. I will never have to wait for anything or anyone again.” It’s really fear that shepherds them. Let me hasten to say, though, that a fear or trauma can be a good shepherd—especially if an innocent person has been raped or abused or tortured. However, if someone doesn’t grow out of a “negative” shepherd—like a string of “I shall never’s”, then life fills up with pathologies more than freedoms. But that is matter for another homily. My first point is that we are often shepherded by our desires—by what we think fulfills them, by what we think give us what we want.

My second point is this: we often forget, however, that the really good shepherds try to also lead to us to what we need—even if it’s not what we happen to want. Mabuti sana kung mangyari, na ang gusto natin, ‘yun din ang kailangannatin. But that doesn’t always happen. As a matter of fact, from what I’ve seen in myself and in others, when we come down to what really matters in life—like vocation, or raising children, or being married, or forgiving a past so we can move on, or having healthy relationships—the really good shepherds leadus to what we need more than what we want.

The history of Israel is riddled with bad shepherds, mostly in the persons of their kings and elders. Today, Jeremiah puts a curse on kings and elders who have divided Israel. And if you read Jeremiah, the division Yahweh hates the most, Jeremiah says, is between the rich and the poor. How did kings and elders get up there? They ingratiated themselves with, and led each other to, what they wanted—even if it was the last thing that the rest of Israel needed—which was justice, freedom,preferential option for the poor.

In contrast, Jesus appears as the good shepherd in the Gospel. He gathers his friends who’ve been so busy that they didn’t even have time to eat, the gospel says. From the midst of their work, Jesus calls them to come away to rest. But no sooner do they settle down than people start coming…again. The people want his friends, they want to be healed, they want to be inspired and preached to, they want to be exorcised. You can imagine some of the Lord’s friends saying, “Lord, we don’t want to rest right now. The people want us and need us.Mamaya na tayo kumain at magpahinga. We want to keep healing, and preaching, and exorcising.” And all of that is good!

But for some reason, Jesus leads his friends to what he thought they needed that moment, more than what they wanted. “Oh, I know you want to keep healing, preaching, exorcising, and God bless you,” you could almost hear Jesus say. “But right now, you need some time away…just a little time to spend with each other and with God…in prayer.” I guess, it was back in desert of prayer that his friends needed to be reminded of their own Shepherd, lest they forget that they were sheep that needed shepherding, too.

How about you, sisters and brothers? What shepherds you these days? What desire leads you out to pasture? If you run a mental inventory of lights and shadows in your life these days, what emerges as the shepherd that leads you? Does your shepherd take you to what you want? Or does your shepherd lead you to what you need, even if it doesn’t happen to be what you want?

There’s a beautiful prayer set into song by Marty Haugen, the same composer of We Remember, and it goes: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” Shepherd us, O God, beyond our wants, beyond our fears. Shepherd us from death. Shepherd us into life.

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