At our Tuesday night Catholic Studies Group, we have a lady who is in her nineties, but extremely sharp—we sometimes think that she is the only one who actually reads the assigned material, and she often catches us off guard with rather insightful questions. The other night she asked one of those classic questions: “How can God keep track of all of the souls in heaven?” Of course, we don’t know just how many souls are in heaven, so, perhaps even more to the point, her question becomes: “How can God keep track of all of the souls which He has ever created, or ever will create?” That number, we know to be staggering, yet we say that God looks after each and every one of us. Indeed, God looks after everything in the universe He created, whether it be animal, mineral, or vegetable, human, or angelic. God not only created everything, but He keeps it in existence as well.
One of the other study group members came up with an interesting answer. She likened God’s governance of the universe to her computer. Modern desk top computers do a rather good job of organizing literally billions of bytes of information. And, the same lady pointed out, that most of them come with a program to optimize the storage of all of those bytes of information, and you can actually watch as the computer examines each little sector of its memory and moves it from one place to another at enormous speed. All of these billions of pieces of information are kept on a small disk drive that you could hold easily in the palm of your hand. Her point in all of this was, of course, that if mortal men can build such machines, it really shouldn’t surprise us that the God Who created everything to His own design can do likewise on a cosmic scale.
I hadn’t realized it before, but this morning’s Gospel answers the same question about “How can God keep track of everything?” in a way that was suited for the men and women of the first century. After all, even the most primitive computers were still 1900 years in the future then, and our Lord wanted the people of His own time to understand His personal love and concern for each and every one of them in terms they could understand.
Having been a city dweller nearly all of my life, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a shepherd until I came upon a book entitled: Daily Life in the Time of Jesus. As a city dweller, I had never seen sheep except, perhaps, in a “petting zoo,” where the “flock” could not have amounted to more than twenty or thirty animals. But the book, by the Catholic historian, Henri Daniel Rops, speaks of that as the size of the heard that might be entrusted to a child for a few hours of a day. The adult shepherd, on the other hand, might be required to manage a flock numbering in the thousands or even the tens of thousands of sheep. And the shepherd was continuously on duty, for the sheep were keep in covered areas only for the few months of the winter—perhaps from mid-November to mid-March. A large flock might have a few men watching over them, and a number of dogs, but there was continuous danger from “hyenas, jackals, wolves, and even bears”—not to mention the possibility of animals just simply wandering off and getting lost or getting hurt. The shepherd also had to tend to the sick animals and those that were injured, and to the newborn. He would be responsible for separating one sheep from every ten of the newborn, in order to bring his tithe to the Temple, as each of the Jews did with their income. The point that Rops was making is that a good shepherd is a tremendously busy man. And, again, we might say that if a man is capable of looking after so many of God’s creatures, it isn’t so hard to see how God can look after and take an interest in each of us.
The metaphor goes a little further still. Our Lord tells us that the good shepherd may even go so far as to lay down his life in the protection of the sheep. Rops pointed out that the shepherds were armed about as well as men could be in those times, with each carrying a big knife and a club. And, indeed, it did happen at times that a shepherd might die while protecting his sheep against predators—either the four legged, or the two legged kind.
Of course, in our Lord’s case, He knew that He too would die in the protection of His sheep—protecting us from that supernatural predator whom we know as the Devil. “He bore our sins in His body upon the tree [of the Cross], that we, having died to sin, might live to justice … having returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls.” And just as the shepherds of our Lord’s time protected a very large number of animals, our Lord’s death on the Cross served to redeem the entirety of His human creatures—by His death we are made capable of becoming the adopted children of God, and of working out our salvation by cooperating with his grace. Jesus Christ is truly the Good Shepherd—and He is unique—there is no other like Him. There are no other good shepherds to whom we can go to see to the salvation of our souls, for Jesus Christ alone is God, the Son of God.
Finally, let me suggest to you that there is something of a missionary dimension to this parable of the Good Shepherd. It is echoed in that prayer we say after the Leonine prayers: “Other sheep I have that are not of this fold. Them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.” With these words, our Good Shepherd is urging us—you and me—to be active in spreading the Catholic Faith. Jesus Christ no longer walks the earth in human form. He depends upon you and me to be His voice so that the “lost and straying sheep” can be made part of that “one fold with one shepherd.” Some of us are a little more gregarious than others, and will positively seek out new members with whom to share our Catholic Faith. Others will help by making any newcomers welcome, so that they know right away that they are valued members of God’s sheepfold. At a minimum, every one of us must make the Catholic Faith attractive to those outside the fold—at least by our good example.
“Christ has suffered for you, leaving you an example that you may follow in His steps.”