In our first reading today, God tells us, “I myself will look after and tend my sheep… I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark” (Ezekiel 34:11-12). God is not an absentee lord but a hands-on shepherd who cares for each and every one of us in a personal way. Who would not want him to be our shepherd?
In our responsorial psalm, the God-shepherd continues to draw his sheep towards him: He will make sure that there is nothing that we will lack. In verdant pastures, he will give us repose. Beside restful waters, he will lead us (Psalm 23:1-2). Again, who would not want God to be our shepherd?
But the sheep may start bleating in complaint starting with the next verse: “He refreshes my soul” (Psalm 23:3). What can be objectionable about this? If we go back to the Hebrew, we will see that the word translated as “refresh” is yeshobeb, the root of which is shub – to turn. Another translation of verse 3 can therefore be “He turns my soul” or “He converts my soul.” Then the next line follows more logically: “He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake.” If we accept God as our shepherd, then we cannot just stay on the wrong path we may have been following. If we accept God as our shepherd, we will have to change our ways. We cannot just stay the same.
What does this mean concretely? We can glimpse an example in our responsorial psalm today, in the verse that comes right after: “You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes.” When God sets up a bountiful table for us in front of our enemies, is it so that we can make those who have fought with us envious of our blessings? Does God mean for us to eat and drink and be merry while those who have made life difficult for us can only watch and salivate? It is not enough that we let scraps fall from our table to feed those we may consider dogs. I think that when God spreads a table before us in the sight of our foes, God wants us to invite them and dine with them. God, the shepherd who always seeks out the lost and those who have strayed, wants us to feast with those who have hurt us. If our souls have really been turned and converted, we must make an effort to forgive. Do you still want God to be your shepherd?
The bleating of the sheep may become louder still – we may even run away – when we hear about what is asked of those who accept God as their shepherd: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord.” This is scary for sheep because the house of the Lord in the context of the Jewish psalmist is the temple in Jerusalem – the place where sheep are slaughtered or sacrificed to be served during the Passover feast. Go back to the verse about the table God spreads. Guess who will be the main dish on it. Do you still want God to be your shepherd?
But this God who is shepherd is not a harsh master who harvests where he does not plant – as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel. This God who is shepherd also lays down his life as a Lamb, invites us to his table – we who many times act like his foes – and gives us his very self to eat in every Mass. The Shepherd may ask great sacrifices from us, but this Shepherd leads by example and does what he asks.
If we accept God as our shepherd, then we cannot just rest in the graces of his friendship without answering the demands of our relationship with him. We cannot just enjoy his blessings without changing for the better. And when we do try to change, I think we will discover that the change can be our greatest blessing of all.
This was exactly the experience of a childhood friend of mine. He came from a rich family and went into business right after college. He had the Midas touch; everything he ventured into became profitable. Some would say he was really blessed. But he was never really happy or at peace… until he started thinking, “What are these blessings for? They cannot just be for me.” He then shared with me his greatest blessing: It was the realization that our blessings really become blessings when we give them away.
The happiest people I have met in my life are not the ones who keep their blessings buried in the ground, safe and secure for their own use later, but those who scatter their blessings and spread them around. If we are brought to verdant pastures and restful waters, it is not so that we can just stay there forever. It is so that we can bring others to these verdant pastures and restful waters, too.
I used to ask, “Looking at the world and seeing how we rejected Christ, wouldn’t it have been simpler for God if he just stayed on his throne in heaven?” But now I see that God would not have been happy with that. He would have been safe, but he would not have been true to himself. That is not the kind of king he is. This is a king who empties himself for us. This is the shepherd who asks us to follow him. Do we want this God to be our shepherd?