Every animal has some kind of defense mechanism if they are threatened by a predator. Some animals have the ability to fight back if attacked, with things like teeth and claws. But some animals do not have the ability to fight back and so have to use other means to defend themselves. So for example, birds have the ability to fly away to get away from a potential predator, so they have a quick means of escape. The same for rabbits; they have a lot of speed. Squirrels are able to quickly run up into trees and then jump from tree to tree to get away. Plus, perhaps you have noticed when driving, seeing a squirrel in the road ahead of you, instead of just running to one side of the road and getting away, they have this strange habit of darting back and forth, almost as though they are confused and don’t know which way to go. I’m told this is actually a defense mechanism; they are trying to confuse an approaching predator. That doesn’t always work out very well for them, unfortunately, when a car is approaching at 50 miles an hour.
Sheep don’t have much of a defense mechanism: they have short legs that can’t move that fast; they don’t have sharp teeth or claws to fight back with; they can’t climb up into a tree if threatened. Instead, their defense mechanism is sticking with their herd – safety in numbers. A sheep that has wandered off and is alone can easily be picked off by a hungry wolf. So in order to protect themselves, they have to stick together.
The problem with sheep however is that they don’t always pay close attention when they’re eating, which seems to be most of their waking hours. When they’re grazing on grass, they just kind of wander around, always looking for more. That’s why a shepherd is necessary: to lead them to greener pastures, and to make sure they stick together for their own safety. The shepherd also watches over his flock by keeping an eye out for wolves. And at night, the shepherd leads them into a safe, enclosed space. Naturally the only way in is by following their shepherd through the gate; they can’t get in any other way.
All of which is a very apt analogy for our journey through this life, which is why Jesus uses this in his preaching. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and so we hear in our Gospel one of Jesus’ references to himself as the shepherd to all of us, his flock. We need a shepherd to guide us through this life to greener pastures, because we don’t always know where those greener pastures are. Or we think we do, and we wander off, away from Him, away from the flock – that is, the Church. And when we wander off, we put ourselves in spiritual danger. We don’t see the wolf lurking on the other side of the hill.
Sin is what separates us from our Good Shepherd; it also separates us from the rest of the Church. If we follow Christ, we stay close to him; we stay close to the church, and we stay out of spiritual danger.
Just like the sheep who wanders away from the flock because he’s so focused on the grass he’s eating, we too can wander away from the Lord when we let ourselves be distracted by the things of this world. The grass the sheep is focusing so much on is of course a good thing – it’s his food. But focusing too much on that and not on the shepherd puts the sheep in danger of getting lost.
So it is with us: sometimes the things we focus so much on are important, even necessary things. We do have to work, earn money, make a living; we have families to take care of, and so on. Doing these things is good and noble. But danger can come in if we focus on these things to the detriment of our relationship with the Lord. For example, we can get so caught up in our job that we start to neglect our prayer life. We can tell ourselves that we’re working so hard because we need to provide for our families, which is a good thing, but the reality is that we still are putting ourselves in spiritual danger if we start to ignore our relationship with Christ. When we get busy, our daily prayer is often the first thing to get cut.
Or we see the wolf, but he’s in disguise – the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing – we approach him because he doesn’t appear to be a threat. When we get close enough, he throws off the sheep costume and attacks! Sometimes we perceive certain things to be good for us when they are actually the opposite. After all, it’s actually very unusual for human beings to pursue something in order to feel unhappy. We might give all kinds of reasons for why something that is so obviously harmful to us is really good for us. We can create all kinds of rationales and are very good at self-deception. Even though something might be so obviously harmful to us, when we pursue it, we’re not seeking it out to make ourselves miserable; rather, we do so because we convince ourselves that it will make us happy in some way. That’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing: we convince ourselves that it’s not a threat, until it’s too late.
So let us instead stay close to Jesus, our Good Shepherd. We do so especially through daily prayer and the sacraments. Jesus also guides us through Scripture, when we read and pray with the Word of God. And likewise he has given us the Church with her teaching authority to serve as a guide for us in this life. Let us recognize our Good Shepherd, staying close to Him and His Church.