The problem is not a new one among the flocks of the Lord. The prophet Jeremiah sounded a warning over 2,500 years ago, chastening those who would mislead the sheep: “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ says the Lord.” It is also a current problem, as a priest at the parish my family attended for over 10 years was recently jailed for sexual abuse of minor boys. The lack of oversight by the shepherds of the archdiocese was laid bare in the local and national media for all to see. It is a reality that drives people out of parishes, and even from the church.
Each of us is responsible before God for our behavior, but those who have been assigned to care for the people of God, the shepherds who have been asked to guide the sheep, have a heavy burden when the sheep are scattered and driven away due to the actions, or lack of action, by the shepherds. God chastises the shepherds “who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away.”
Through Jeremiah, God promised that the scattered “remnant of my flock” would be gathered up and good shepherds raised up to guide them. While the historical context of the Babylonian Exile is clear in these promises to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah, the eschatological context is also evident in God’s promise to “raise up for David a righteous branch,” who would “reign as king and deal wisely.” This promised Messiah was raised up as the Good Shepherd not just for the people of Israel, but also for all of the sheep who did not belong to that one fold (Jn 10:16).
And it was through the life of the Good Shepherd that we “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” The shepherd not only protected his sheep, but gave up his own life to bring us to life eternal. This compassion for the flock, both those who knew the voice of the shepherd and those who were not yet aware of their heritage as God’s people, enlivened all that Jesus did in his mission. His work was for the life of his flock.
Jesus also raised up shepherds to continue to guide the flock. After being sent out to evangelize, the apostles reported back to Jesus on everything “they had done and taught.” The Good Shepherd’s compassion extended to these protégés, whom Jesus knew needed rest, so he took them to a deserted place. But though they “went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves,” they could not find much time alone, for the people had already tracked them down and discerned the place they were going, waiting there when the disciples arrived.
Yet Jesus, when he “saw a great crowd,” did not turn from the flock and focus on the shepherds. Jesus’ compassion was poured out on the sheep “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus’ compassion instead was a model for the shepherds who would continue his mission. In responding to the needs of the flock, Jesus gives us the priorities of the Good Shepherd: serve the people; care for the people; build up the people. These are the priorities not just of the Good Shepherd; they must be the priorities also of the successors to the apostles, who have been called to shepherd the people.
There are no excuses for shepherds who scatter the flock and drive people away. It is not that there is not forgiveness from God for all those who repent, for sin stalks all of the sheep of the flock. But when shepherds are unable to bear the burden of caring for the sheep, protecting the sheep, and even aid in the destruction of the sheep, they will indeed be forgiven when they genuinely repent. But they must not be allowed to guard the sheep any longer. It is for this reason that Pope Francis has recently established tribunals to deliberate on negligence among bishops.
All of us stumble, but true shepherds do not repeatedly put the sheep, especially not the little ones, in harm’s way, time after time, year after year, and then claim to be doing the work of the Lord. The Good Shepherd gave himself up for the sheep; woe to those shepherds who give up the sheep to protect themselves.