24th Sunday A Bishop in a rural diocese was explaining to the confirmation class how he was the shepherd of the flock. Given that many of the children came from large sheep ranches he decided to draw on today’s Gospel as an analogy for his pastoral leadership. "I care for all of you like the Good Shepherd," he said. The students seemed consoled. Warming up, the Bishop continued, "For instance, what would your fathers do if he lost one of his sheep?" The class was silent. The Bishop asked again. The students were confused. The Bishop got personal, "Michael what would your Dad do if he lost one of his sheep?" "Seeing we’ve 42,000 of them My Lord, he’d let that stupid bugger go!" Sometimes the power of the Gospel needs a little help to become inculturated! If the Bishop had done his homework, and understood the economic unit a sheep represented in first century Palestine, he would have asked Michael about 420 missing sheep and got the answer he was after! The Exodus reading and the Gospel from Luke could not provide a greater contrast in the images of God they present. Thank goodness we are children of the new covenant, intimates of the Good Shepherd. The Lord in Exodus, by contrast, is vengeful; his destructive anger only changes because of Moses’ intercession. The idea that God "gets us" through disasters, illness, misfortune and hardship is, tragically, still potent in Christian faith. At its worst it drives people away from the Good Shepherd who, by contrast, knows each of us by name, who will go to ridiculous lengths and risk everything to go after us and welcome us home. And just when we think we have left a vengeful God behind, it raises its ugly head. A few weeks ago I met a devout Catholic couple in another city whose gay son has contracted HIV. His parents told me that they believed God sent this disease to their son as a result of his lifestyle. I wanted to weep at such terrible theology, not only because it cannot be reconciled with today’s Gospel, but, also, when we follow this appalling line through, God’s vengeance through HIV seems to have moved on from the gay community to heterosexual women and their children in sub-Saharan Africa. What did they ever do to be visited by such revenge? There is a huge difference between God permitting evil in the world and God perpetrating such acts. For the record let’s reaffirm that, although we can be become better people for living through suffering and supporting those in need, God cannot send evil and terrible things upon us, because in God there is no darkness. Our God is like a Good Shepherd who searches day and night for the one who needs him most, and rejoices when he finds us. None of us is coerced into Jesus’ flock, we’re not victims of the Good Shepherd, we choose to belong, or we go along another path. But throughout our life and through a myriad of people and ways Jesus seeks us out, so that we may find the way, the truth and the life. May the Eucharist, then, enable us to let go of any residual belief that God is out to get us. May it sharpen our hearing to his call and help us to delight in his embrace. And may it embolden us, the Church, to act as the Good Shepherd acts, to risk everything to be foolishly loving and compassionate as we actively seek out those who most need to experience God’s saving love in Jesus Christ the Lord. Richard Leonard, S.J.
Foolishly Loving and Compassionate