It was quite a sight to see roaming sheep on the side of the skinny roads in Ireland last August when I went over there for a few days for a wedding. One of the days prior to the big celebration, a few of us took a ride north in County Mayo up in the northeast section of the country with 40 shades of green. We had about a 1 to 1-1/2 hour drive to the golf course we were going to, a place on the ocean, or, as they say in Ireland, where the shore kisses the sea.
Along the way we drove on many backroads, not surprisingly, since there are not many main roads in the land of St. Patrick. In fact, some of the roads we drove on were probably there when St. Patrick was converting the pagan Irish folks in the 5th century, with the condition of the roads about the same as 1500 years earlier. On some of the back roads on the way to the golf course, we encountered more than once one of the sights that Ireland is famous for; that being sheep grazing on the side of the road, as opposed to sheep grazing in the green fields. There were countless sheep in the fields, but some also on the road. So, when you’re driving at 70 kilometers and coming up to a sharp bend in the road, one had to be extra cautious about the wooly occupants standing and grazing on very narrow roads.
I love this image for this week’s Gospel on the 4th Sunday of Easter, being the Gospel of the Good Shepherd. And how the Good Shepherd, who is raised from the tomb, has a voice that his people hear. Those who reject him, or refuse in their lives to maintain a personal relationship with him, will not recognize the voice of their own Savior.
This image of the wandering sheep in the land of shamrocks, leprechauns and pubs, sheep who are best suited to graze in the field behind stone walls for safety, and not on the roadside, when placed aside Jesus the Good Shepherd, this image can be seen in a couple different ways for our lives.
The first being that Christ our Lord is a safety net. When we find ourselves in some difficulty; some issue at work, or at home with the family, or being out of work, turning to the Shepherd of our lives who is Good is a genuine safe place. Some people today talk about creating safe spaces in their lives, while missing out on the safest place of all.
There are countless situations that can and will arise that will remove us from the safety of the pasture where we are most comfortable, toss us over the stone wall, and cause us to graze in the road where we don’t belong. We don’t belong there because you never know when 4 guys in a small rented car with golf clubs in the back, driving on the left side of the road when they’re used to driving on the right side of the road in America, are going to come flying around the corner, run you over, and have you for dinner that night. Dangers lurk – spiritual and physical dangers lurk when we are removed from our comfort zone, as well as our natural place of grazing, which is the Church. Are we more comfortable and natural grazing here, or in the middle of Grove Street?
But life gets in the way. Loved ones get sick, and enter the dying process for real. We’re all dying. We know this. But there’s a difference between being in the process of dying, which even sheep grazing in the field do, and being in the dying process, which sheep on the road are one false step away from a grave. Loved ones grow ill; others lose their employment; others deal with psychological issues; and so on. We get tossed in the road without wanting to get tossed in the road. We are in need of hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd calling up back to calmer waters, to greener fields, to blue skies, to knowing his love for us. Without the personal relationship of prayer and total trust, chances are good we’re going to stay in the dangerous road where we don’t belong, eventually getting run over by 4 Americans in a small car on their way to playing golf.
This spiritual car crash can be avoided by taking with utmost seriousness our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which begins in the Body of Christ, being the Church. That’s the formula of the Good Shepherd, where we recognize his voice in the word and Eucharist.
And a second way in which the image of the wandering sheep speaks to us are the times in our religious lives when we should be in the road, and not in the safety of the field. What does grazing on the road represent for a sheep who knows the voice of the Good Shepherd wherever they are? Grazing on the road, being away from our natural, comfortable, and safe place of grazing, is a Christian image for bringing our faith into the world. Any sheep who seeks to remain safe all the time, not pressing any buttons, having a perpetual fear of offending someone else, remaining within a confined area, this is a sheep who will never bring anyone to Christ. They will never evangelize, which should be the heart and soul of our baptismal responsibility.
Leave room in your life for Jesus picking you up and tossing you over the stone wall, beyond the safety of our little world. I think of all those people who pray outside an abortion clinic, whose sole purpose is to save life. Those are people whom Jesus has thrown over the stone wall, into the road, to do some incredibly important work. Sadly, there are some Catholics who would like to run them over.
At the heart of this second image of the sheep outside their natural place of grazing are the virtues of courage and trust. The courage to do the Lord’s bidding outside our field of comfort, and trusting that the Spirit of God will provide us all that is needed to succeed. Even to the point of being run over.
Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, and we are blessed to be his sheep. But if you see 4 Americans in a small car with golf clubs in the back coming at you, you may want to move for just a moment. After they pass by slowly, return to working for Christ, the One raised from the dead. Or, as St. Peter writes in today’s 2nd reading, “Return to the shepherd and guardian of our souls.”